The Story behind Madame X

The woman in the portrait Madame X was Virginie Amélie Avegno. She was born in New Orleans in January 1859. Her parents were well-to-do plantation owners; however after a series of tragedies her father falls in the Battle of Shiloh, her sister Valentine died because of fever that’s why the eight-year-old Amélie moved to Paris together with her mother.

The Avegno matriarch instantly began grooming her daughter for a good marriage. The goal was realized when Amélie was nineteen; the suitor was forty-year-old Pierre-Louis Gautreau, who is a banker and shipping tycoon. As low-key as the match appeared, Amélie understood that once she became a married woman, there would no longer need to play the virginal maiden. Right after the ink dried on the marriage certificate, Amélie set about plotting to conquer Paris.

An Image of a Free Woman

With her money, Amélie was able to purchased dresses from top designers; to attract utmost attention, she preferred chic, simple gowns that accentuated her figure, rather than the fussy frocks popular at the time. She likes to color her lips scarlet, drew in her eyebrows in mahogany, and reddened the tips of her ears. There were speculations that she ate small amounts of arsenic to maintain her ethereal pallor.

The Artists and the Painting

The artist, Sargent had already won several prizes at the Paris Salons before he met his most famous subject in 1881. Two years later, after much pleading, Amélie agreed to pose for him, and Sargent rented a studio near the Gautreau home. A black dress was decided upon almost immediately, but Sargent went through many pencil and watercolor sketches trying to settle on the best pose. Because Amélie was flighty and hated to sit still, Sargent eventually ended up staying with the Gautreaus at their summer home in Brittany, so his subject would always be close at hand. Finally, after a long period of artist’s block, Sargent set to work.

While the method of painting that would finally become Madame X was trying for both artist and sitter. The pose Amélie had to hold was uncomfortable and Sargent had a difficult time paitning her lavender skin tone, among many other problems, by March of 1884 it was ready to be sent to the annual Salon. Though she had not yet seen the finished product thought the work to be a masterpiece, and obviously it became a major talk in Paris with news of the portrait before the public had actually seen it.

The People Reaction and the Paintings Downfall

As soon as moment of truth came, both Amélie and Sargent were not ready for any negative reactions of the viewer. The portrait, critics cried, was ugly, obscene, and scandalous; the fallen strap of the dress and its body-hugging quality screamed vulgarity, while Amélie’s famously pale flesh looked corpse-like. Because of that portrait Amélie went from the darling of Paris society to a laughingstock, and cruel cartoons of her appeared in newspapers and magazines. Sargent, for his part, received a severe blow to his reputation as well; besides that, after the fiasco surrounding the painting, the Gautreaus refused to purchase it.

Later on, Sargent painted again the offending shoulder strap putting it in proper position. Eventually, despite of all the setbacks, his career then recovered and flourished and for the rest of his entire career he claimed that Madame X was the best art work he had ever did. In 1916 he then sold it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Like this article? You may also want to read the articles about abstract paintings as well as contemporary paintings. Or take a look on paintings we have in our site and see if you could find one that fits your personality, and buy abstract art that you like.

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