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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

Additional Resources

Ormond, Richard, Elaine Kilmurray, and Warren Adelson. John Singer Sargent: Portraits of the 1890s. New Haven: Yale University Press for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2002.

Fairbrother, Trevor. John Singer Sargent: The Sensualist. Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 2000.

Ratcliff, C. John Singer Sargent. New York: Abbeville Press, 2001.

Sidlauskas, Susan. “Painting Skin: John Singer Sargent’s ‘Madame X.’” American Art 15.3 (Autumn 2001): 8–33.

Simpson, Marc, Richard Ormond, and H. Barbara Weinberg. Uncanny Spectacle: The Public Career of the Young John Singer Sargent. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997.

Madame X (Madame Gautreau)

» John Singer Sargent (American, 1856–1925)

Although given the title Madame *** at the Paris Salon of 1884, contemporary viewers would have easily identified the woman in John Singer Sargent’s portrait.

Virginie Avegno was an American who came to Paris with her mother after her father was killed in the Civil War. With her mother intent on securing her material wealth and social standing, Virginie married a wealthy banker named Pierre Gautreau and entered the circles of the Parisian elite.

Madame Gautreau became well-known, not only for her grace and beauty, but also for her unique approach to cosmetic application. Gautreau covered her body in lavender powder, giving herself a pearly, blue tint that she accented with hennaed hair and rouged ears. Gautreau’s changing skin tone, which varied not only across the surface of her body, but from day to day and under different lighting conditions, proved a challenge to Sargent when he set out to paint her portrait. From the extensive body of preliminary sketches and studies that exist, it seems that Sargent also struggled with finding exactly the right pose for subject.

In the resultant painting, Madame Gautreau appears with a deathly pallor, her body tense and contorted. The work horrified audiences at the Paris Salon. Surviving commentary is explicit about some of the offending elements in the work. A fallen dress strap in the original painting was so distasteful to Salon-goers, for instance, that Sargent was forced to repaint it. Reactions to this hint at the “undressed” body suggest even deeper anxieties about women like “Madame X,” who are beautiful and sensual, but at the same time self-possessed and unavailable.

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