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Transcript, ArtCurious Episode #40: Shock Art: Sargent's Madame X

By day, I’m a contemporary art curator, which means that my focus, in my professional life, is on art of the present--of the now. I spend most of my time homing in on photographs that were created just months ago, a sculpture finished last week, a painting still in process, the oil paint still drying. I love that the work I see every day reflects so much of the time and place in which we live, and I find it exhilarating. But I’ll be the first to admit that along with this exhilaration, I sometimes feel other emotions when looking at the art of the now: disdain. Despair. Fear. I’m frequently asked by others, “Why is art today so challenging? So… shocking?”

These kinds of questions make me come back to a statement that I’ve made time and again, not only on this podcast, but in everyday life. It’s obvious when you think about it, but it’s also strangely hard to accept sometimes: all art was, once, considered contemporary. Works that we take for granted today as masterpieces, or as epitomes of the finest of fine art, could also have been considered ugly, of poor quality, or just bad when they were first made. With the passage of time comes a calm and an acceptance. But that doesn’t change the fact that there are many works peppered throughout art history that were straight-up shocking to the public when they were first presented decades, or even hundreds of years ago.

Some people think that visual art is dry, boring, lifeless. But the stories behind those paintings, sculptures, drawings and photographs are weirder, crazier, or more fun than you can imagine. Today, we are starting an all-new season of episodes dissecting single works of art that shook their contemporary worlds, beginning with John Singer Sargent’s magnificent and scandalous portrait of Amelie Gautreau, nicknamed Madame X.  Welcome to the fourth season of the ArtCurious Podcast, exploring the unexpected, the slightly odd, and the strangely wonderful in Art History. I'm Jennifer Dasal.

From the outset, it doesn’t seem like John Singer Sargent would end up becoming someone who would cause much of a fuss at all, let alone creating a portrait so scandalous that, even today, it’s still referred to by its risqué-sounding nickname, Madame X, instead of its official title, wherein the sitter is identified as one Madame Amélie Gautreau. John Singer Sargent was born to an upper-class family originally from Massachusetts, with parents who exhibited a major streak of wanderlust. After a death in the family led Sargent’s parents to escape to Europe for a respite in 1854, they quickly discovered that they really, really loved living in Europe-- I mean, who wouldn’t, right?-- and they adopted a semi-nomadic lifestyle, living in different countries depending on the season or time of year. It was during a stint in Florence, Italy, that John Singer Sargent himself was born, in January of 1856. Due to his family’s traveling lifestyle, Sargent never attended a traditional school, and instead was educated by means of experience, becoming an autodidact with a propensity for languages, picking up French, German, and Italian with ease. But it wasn’t just language that sparked an interest in young Sargent. All that traveling exposed him to a wide variety of art-- thik of all those museums and churches and sculpture gardens he must have seen. It’s no wonder that art became a fascination. And like many artists before and after him, his parents had an affinity for it, too-- his mother was an amateur artist, while his own father, a doctor, was also skilled in making detail medical drawings. So with a gentle push from his mother, John Singer Sargent began pursuing art as a hobby, and later a career. His first formal art training took place during the winter of 1873 when he enrolled at the tender age of 17 at the Academia di Belle Arts in Florence, but less than one year later, he was ready to take his studies to the next level. He was ready to move to Paris.

Once settled in Paris in the spring of 1874, John Singer Sargent sprang right to action, entering  the studio of renowned painter Charles Auguste Émile Durand, known as Carolus-Duran, a sought-after portraitist known for his vibrant and charming portraits of the highest of French society. Carolus-Duran’s teaching style was fast and loose, focusing less on the technical or historical aspects of the craft, and more on… just doing it. He encouraged his students to skip the preliminary sketching process and instead to immediately begin painting so that their composition remained fresh and lively,  and that they learn to effectively manipulate their materials simply by repetition of use alone. Sargent loved this style of working, not only because it suited his own sensibilities, but because Carolus-Duran modeled his own style of working off of that of Spanish master Diego Velazquez, one of Sargent’s personal favorites. So with the long shadow of Velazquez and with Carolus-Duran’s guiding hand, Sargent flourished, working with Carolus-Duran for nearly five years. The influence of his mentor can be seen in Sargent’s choice of portraiture as his preferred subject matter. He originally loved landscape painting best, believe it or not, but after seeing his master’s success--and no doubt also experiencing the clamoring of European society to have their portraits made-- he became a portraitist himself. His first major commission was a portrait of a friend, Fanny Watts, a work of art now on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This piece is so virtuosic in its handling of velvety brushstrokes, the glimmer of light playing upon Fanny’s golden necklace, and the almost defiant sense of insouciance in her eyes--- it’s no wonder that John Singer Sargent was accepted into the 1877 Paris Salon with this work as his acceptance piece, created at the age of 21. He outdid himself two years later with a photo-perfect portrait of Carolus-Duran, one that was, again, so lauded that, about his work, the American writer Henry James noted that Sargent had, quote, "the slightly 'uncanny' spectacle of a talent which on the very threshold of its career has nothing more to learn.” Such talent allowed Sargent’s career to skyrocket and by his mid-to-late twenties, he was already one of the most sought-after portraitists, receiving commissions from all over Europe and in the United States. He consistently showed new and highly praised works at the Paris Salon. It seemed, to most, that everything he touched was golden. John Singer Sargent could do no wrong.

But then he met Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau. Born in New Orleans to a white Creole family, Amélie, as she was known, moved with her recently widowed mother to Paris when she was eight years old, and it was in Paris that she came of age and became a fixture in Parisian high society, eventually marrying a well-respected banker and shipping magnate named Pierre Gautreau. From the start, it was obvious that the Madame Pierre Gautreau-- Amelie-- was a beauty-- a prominent, and somewhat unusual beauty that made her an object of fascination to many. And she knew it. With her chic hourglass figure, elegant patrician nose, flowing red hair, and ridiculously pale skin, Amélie Gautreau did everything she could to highlight her rarefied beauty, even using lavender-toned blush and allegedly eating arsenic wafers to give herself an even paler complexion. It appears that she completely fit that old saying: women wanted to be her, and men wanted to be with her. To that last point, the married Amélie certainly did not discourage men’s interest in her, and she became notorious in Paris for her love affairs as much as anything else-- so much so that her exploits were documented in the tabloids of the day. One of her paramours was a doctor by the name of Pozzi, whose portrait had been painted previously by one very famous painter: John Singer Sargent.

Sargent knew about Amélie Gautreau, of course-- anyone who was anyone in Paris did-- and he had a grand idea. If he was able to create a stunning portrait of one of the most beautiful women in all of Europe, he could grab even more attention at the ever-influential Paris salon, and get even bigger and better commissions-- and onward and upward. So Sargent, inspired and all-aflutter, wrote to Dr. Pozzi and asked that a connection be made. He said, quote, “I have a great desire to paint her portrait and have reason to think she would allow it and is waiting for someone to propose this homage to her beauty. If you are 'bien avec elle’ (good with it) and will see her in Paris, you might tell her I am a man of prodigious talent.” Unquote.

Strangely enough, Gautreau wasn’t all about the idea, at least not at the beginning. Sargent effectively had to hound her with requests and was adamant that he do so without requesting a fee or a commission on the work of art. It was his idea, after all, and he wasn’t going to charge her a thing. So eventually, Gautreau obliged, and she and Sargent began to make plans to meet and begin the process of sitting for the portrait. But it didn’t go too well, initially. During the winter of 1883 as things got underway, Gautreau discovered-- like many before and after her-- that sitting for an oil painting-- or even a charcoal drawing-- can be an excruciating experience. You have to sit, or stand still, for a long time. A long-held pose can be tiring, even painful. And of course in the 1880s there were no podcasts or TV to distract you-- and if the artist you’re working with is silent in concentration, oh boy. You’re in for a tedious experience. To top it all off, Gautreau still had a very full social calendar to deal with, so sitting for Sargent fell by the wayside. However, though the process was difficult for both artist and subject, they came to an agreement that both were in this for the long haul-- this incredible portrait must, and would, be made. So Gautreau invited Sargent to her estate in Brittany in June 1883 to get to the serious work of establishing the basis for the piece, where he broke from his academic training and created a series of thirty drawings and preliminary compositions in pencil, oil, and watercolors-- very against his Carolus-Duran-inspired training. But, hey, you’ve gotta do whatever you can to keep your muse happy. And happy Sargent was, too-- remaining on site at the Gautreau estate in Brittany until mid-fall of that year, when he deemed his work complete.

Coming up next, the unveiling of John Singer Sargent’s brand-new masterpiece-- and the unexpected reaction that it produced in all of Paris. Stay with us.

Welcome back to ArtCurious.

John Singer Sargent’s finished portrait of Amelie, Madame Pierre Gautreau, ended up being different in both size and appearance than the artist had originally intended. The first change that he made was that he wanted the work to be big--really big-- to ensure that it would be rightfully noticed at the Salon. The canvas he chose measures in at 92 x 43 inches, or more than 7 ½ feet tall and 3 ½ feet wide-- more than life-size. These extra-large dimensions forced an alteration from his preliminary sketches that showed Gautreau sitting, or lounging, so that he opted, in the final version, to have his leading lady standing in order to fill more canvas space-- a full-body portrait. Noticeable she would be, to say the very least. And noticeable, even more, for that infamously pale skin of hers. Sargent was adamant that he’d get that detail right. To mimic her utterly, and artificially, pale skin, Sargent used a combination of lead white, an intense rouge, vermillion red, a blue-green pigment, and black, all mixed to create Gautreau’s iconic pallor. The final appearance is striking indeed: the spectral glow of her skin emanating from the canvas, shining in comparison to her long black gown. Gautreau’s head is turned in profile against an abstracted brown background, leaning against a wooden table with that same elegant insouciance that Fanny Watts displayed in her own portrait. Only there was a difference here. Fanny Watts was decently dressed, in the eyes of the general public. In Sargent’s portrait of Virginie Gautreau, though, the sitter dons a gown with a drastically plunging neckline and golden shoulder straps-- one of which was presented as having fallen, ever-so-gently, off Gautreau’s right shoulder.

The fallen strap is, perhaps, the most interesting part of the story. When John Singer Sargent finally unveiled his completed work at the Paris Salon of 1884, he-- and Gautreau-- were ready for their respective victory laps. Both were extraordinarily proud of this incredible, towering portrait. But--the reception was not what either had anticipated. It was far, far worse-- and Salon attendees were horrified by what they saw. What drew the most of their collective ire? That fallen strap. That simple golden, glimmering strap caught the eye of every passerby, and it screamed one thing: loose morals. Was the strap dangling off her shoulder because she was about to take off her dress for an unidentified suitor? Is her far-off expression the sign of a daydream about a recent--or soon-to-occur, tryst? One French critic certainly thought the worst of it, writing that the portrait seemed so brazen and sexualized that if one was to stand in front of the painting and listen, one would quote, “hear every curse word in the French language.” Thus, with the flick of his paintbrush, Sargent had created a firestorm that made visible every speck of gossip that had ever been published or whispered about Amelie Gautreau: that she was promiscuous, open to extramarital affairs, that she was a woman to be avoided, with virtue to be questioned.

To be fair, Sargent must have had at least an inkling that the work would cause such a scene, because he effectively attempted to anonymize the sitter by not identifying her in the title. The label next to the painting simply read, “Portrait of Madame --Blank.” But when your sitter was a lauded and gossiped-about member of Parisian high society, it wouldn’t be terribly long before that sitter would be identified, and that’s exactly what happened. Amélie Gautreau was outed almost immediately as the “Madame” of the image, and both she and the entire Gautreau family experienced harassment due to the picture. Sargent himself wasn’t immune either, eventually falling victim to Gautreau’s mother herself, who tracked him down and hounded him to withdraw the portrait from exhibition at the Salon, screaming, “All Paris is making fun of my daughter. She is ruined!” Sargent, of course, refused. He didn’t allow the work to be taken down. He claimed that he wasn’t trying to be brazen or scandalous, that he wasn’t trying to flaunt sexuality in the face of an otherwise slightly prudish society. He claimed he was simply depicting Gautreau as she appeared before him-- no insinuation in sight. And he felt no strong need to remove the work from exhibition, being that it was uncommissioned-- it belonged to no one but the artist himself. And so on view it stayed, for the remainder of the Salon’s exhibition period.

One thing didn’t remain for long, though-- that dangling dress strap. Gautreau’s family, and eventually Gautreau herself, exerted so much pressure on the artist that, after it returned to his studio in the aftermath of the Salon, he caved and repainted the image, placing that golden strap squarely and securely on Amelie Gautreau’s right shoulder. Partially this move was a financial bet-- Sargent was hoping that the repainting would assuage his muse and her family, and that they would put forward the hefty funds to purchase the picture outright. But, alas, they refused-- but who could blame them? They were embarrassed by the response that the painting garnered, and who’d want to be surrounded with a daily reminder of that experience in one’s own home? So with Sargent it stayed, traveling with him as he moved to London quickly after, where he remained for the rest of his life. Some have suggested that the London move was precipitated by the poor reception to the painting of Gautreau and the fact that some Parisian aristocrats were hesitant to hire Sargent for their portraits out of fear of backlash from their peers, or out of concern that their own portraits would be ridiculed or despised. In England, though, Sargent found a larger group of sitters available, and in America, too. In fact, he reached the height of his popularity more than a decade after the completion of Madame X.

Up until the very end, Sargent seems to have carried a soft spot for Amelie Gautreau, possibly out of guilt that his famous painting caused her and her family so much grief. He kept her painting in his possession for over thirty years before opting to show it again, and even then he made the conscious decision to exhibit it only in the United States, far away from Parisian society and from anyone connected with the Gautreau family. In 1916, Sargent sold the piece to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art for a sum of $1,000, but made one request: he insisted that the name of the painting be changed from Portrait of Madame Pierre Gautreau to Portrait of Madame X to preserve Gautreau’s anonymity and thus her legacy. What a delicate request, and one that is ultimately made even more special when Sargent himself insisted that the work was, quote, “the best thing I’ve ever done.”

Sargent’s overt kindness to Gautreau, after the fact, does make some sense. It’s fair to say that after the Salon, Gautreau’s reputation was damaged. She used the opportunity to disappear quietly from Parisian high society from some time to recover, but an interesting footnote remains: she continued, in the following decade, to sit as the subject of multiple paintings, including one, an 1891 work by an artist named Gustave Courtois, that portrays Gautreau again in profile, wearing a Greek-inspired gown with a plunging neckline, and a lacy shoulder strap… slipped down and around her left arm. This one, it seems, made little-to-no-fuss in the greater society, and I’m not sure what to think about it. It begs so many questions: was this work basically ignored because it was a been-there-done-that situation? A copycat of a more famous, or infamous, work by a more talented artist? Were the artist and sitter conspiring, in a way, to play off of Gautreau’s celebrity and regain a kind of status? I don’t know. What I do know is that Gautreau lived the rest of her life, especially after the turn of the century, in a relatively quiet manner,  passing away at the age of 56 in 1915. But it’s safe to say that her memory-- of when she was a scandalous beauty, the talk--or gossip-- of all of Paris--still remains loud and clear, echoing from the stately halls of one of the world’s top museums.

Next time on the ArtCurious Podcast, we’re returning to a work of art that we covered briefly in our last season, and we’re ready to do a deep dive on one of the most shocking works of art created by that big Daddy of Modernism, Édouard Manet. That’s coming up in two weeks-- don’t miss it.  

Thank you for listening to this first episode of the fourth season of the ArtCurious Podcast. This episode was written, produced, and narrated by me, Jennifer Dasal, with additional writing and research help by Kelsey Breen. Our theme music is by Alex Davis at alexdavismusic.com, our logo is by Dave Rainey at daveraineydesign.com, and social media help is by Emily Crockett. Our production and editorial services are provided by Kaboonki Creative. Video. Content. Ideas. Learn more at kaboonki.com.

The ArtCurious Podcast is sponsored primarily by Anchorlight. Anchorlight is an interdisciplinary creative space, founded to foster artists, designers, and craftspeople at varying stages of their development. Home to studios, residency opportunities, and exhibition spaces, Anchorlight encourages mentorship and the cross-pollination of skills among creatives in the Triangle. please visit anchorlightraleigh.com.

The ArtCurious Podcast is also fiscally sponsored by VAE Raleigh, a 501c3 nonprofit creativity incubator. This means that you can donate to the show and it is fully tax-deductible! Follow the “Donate” links at our website for more details, and thank you.

As always, you can also go to our website for images, information and links to our previous episodes. That site is artcuriouspodcast.com. And you can contact us via the website, email us at artcuriouspodcast@gmail.com, or find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram at artcuriouspod. --and remember to subscribe and review us on Apple Podcasts and tell anyone you want about the show. Check back in two weeks as we continue to explore the unexpected, the slightly odd, and the strangely wonderful in the shocking works of  art history.

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