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13 / The Body

Madame X (Madame Gautreau)
Madame X (Madame Gautreau)
Artist / Origin John Singer Sargent (American, 1856–1925)
Region: Europe
Date 1883–84
Material Oil on canvas
Medium: Painting
Dimensions H: 82 1/8 in. (208.6 cm.), W: 43 ¼ in. (109 cm.)
Location The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
Credit Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Arthur Hoppock Hearn Fund/Photo by Max Yawney

expert perspective

Susan SidlauskasAssociate Professor of Art History, Rutgers University

Madame X (Madame Gautreau)

» John Singer Sargent (American, 1856–1925)

expert perspective

Susan Sidlauskas Susan Sidlauskas Associate Professor of Art History, Rutgers University

Madam X, Virginie Gautreau, was an American expatriate who came to Paris, to France, with her mother, who was French, to find her fortune. Gautreau was involved with a group of people who believed that the figure should be as decorated as its environment. And she styled herself as a kind of living art object. She presented herself as someone who had an extraordinary body—wanted it to be called attention to and did everything she could to shape it. Her dress—as you can see from this painting—it’s a very nipped waist, and a very emphatic torso, a bust, and a skirt that’s shaped along with her body. Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about her was that she painted her body with a pale, lavender powder. Unmistakably lavender. She was known to have a kind of blue tint. And this was her fame, but it was also the source of derision because many people made fun of her, but yet she was extraordinary. When she would enter a room everybody would watch her. She would glide through. Her skin was verged from sort of white to blue to lilac depending on what day it was, how firmly she had applied the paint, and also the lighting where she was and what part of the body it was. Certain pools of lavender would gather in the elbows and around the neck, under the shoulders. She also rouged her ears, and in the painting you can see this—that her body, especially her neck and shoulders, are kind of almost deathly blue white pallor, but the ears are rouged red. So here you have a woman whose skin is her calling card in many ways, but it’s not exactly a natural radiance. It’s, in fact, a color that was in many ways meant to be perceived at night.

Now one of the challenges that Sargent encountered when he started to paint her is that she posed for him in the full sunlight, in the natural light of her husband’s home in northern France, in Burgundy. And he realized that the blue was off. The blue was very different than the blue he had remembered in the low gas light or candle light, or sometimes oil lamps, of the lobbies of the society rooms where she circulated. So in the full light of day, the blue looked very strange. He was very disturbed by this. He wrote many letters to friends saying, ‘I can’t fix, I can’t get the color blue. It looks terrible. What am I going to do?’ And so, in a sense, you have a real tug of war between the two of them. She is concealing the natural color of her skin. She’s emulating an ideal of pallor and of a blue tint that can be seen through the skin—a kind a kind of waxen color or alabaster. But yet she wants to control that. This is a painter painting a woman who has painted herself. You could make an argument for her as a kind of artist who was in certain ways competing with Sargent for control over both the color and shape of her body.” 

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