Art Through Time: A Global View
The Body Art: Madame X (Madame Gautreau)
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.
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.”
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.