The Scandal of Madame X: Excerpt from David McCullough’s The Greater Journey

In an exclusive excerpt from David McCullough’s new book, the story of how John Singer Sargent’s obsession with a woman led to the famous painting Madame X—and the scandal it caused in Paris.

The painting entitled 'Madame X' by American artist John Singer Sargent is discussed at the National Gallery in London, Feb. 20, 2006. (Carl De Souza / AFP / Getty Images)

Sargent was by nature, as Vernon Lee wrote, always “especially attracted by the bizarre and outlandish,” the very essence of Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, who, contrary to the impression most people had, was an American.

Born in New Orleans, she had been brought to Paris as a child of eight by her widowed, socially ambitious mother. Her father, a major in the Confederate army, had been killed at the battle of Shiloh. She was, by 1883, twenty-four years old, two years younger than Sargent.

To her mother’s great approval, she had married a wealthy French banker, Pierre Gautreau, and became what was called a “professional beauty,” the perfect “parisienne,” someone known for her remarkable looks and social stage presence, and who, in her appearances in society, was expected to fill that role with all due attention to wardrobe and the artful use of cosmetics, no less than a great actress. In her particular case a heavy use of a chalky lavender powder on face and body gave her a pallor distinctive enough in itself to draw attention. To her critics she was all too plainly an arriviste.

Her beauty was distinctly different, almost eccentric, her nose too long by accepted standards, her forehead too high. Yet the total effect, and particularly given her hourglass figure and her way of moving, was striking in the extreme, her appeal unmistakably seductive, as she well knew.

An American art student named Edward Simmons wrote of being “thrilled by every movement of her body.”

She walked as Virgil speaks of a goddess—sliding—and seemed to take no steps. Her head and neck undulated like that of a young doe, and something about her gave you the impression of infinite proportion, infinite grace, and infinite balance. Every artist wanted to make her in marble or paint.

After meeting her socially, Sargent, some said, had become obsessed by her. He let it be known that he wanted to do “homage to her beauty” in a portrait to be shown at the Salon, the implication being it could bring each of them notoriety in the way Manet’s sensational Olympia had, albeit she need not pose in the nude.

Do you object to people who are fardées [made up] to the extent of being uniform lavender or blotting paper color all over [he wrote to Vernon Lee]. If so you would not care for my sitter. But she has the most beautiful lines and if the lavender or chlorate-of-potash lozenge color be pretty in itself I shall be more than pleased.

He did one line drawing after another of her head in profile, made studies in pencil and watercolor of her relaxing on a settee in a low-cut evening dress, painted her in oil drinking a toast, and here again in profile. In the summer of 1883, from the Gautreaus’ country estate in Brittany, he wrote to tell Vernon Lee he was “still struggling with the unpaintable beauty and hopeless laziness” of his subject.

That he and Amélie Gautreau were both Americans was by no means immaterial to their ambitions. The same year they met, a society journal noted that “Yankees” in Paris were gaining ever-greater prominence. “They have painters who carry off our medals, like Mr. Sargent, beautiful women who eclipse ours, Mme. Gautreau. . . .” If they were to be known always as Americans, then all the more reason to be at the forefront.

Finished with his preliminary studies, Sargent left Brittany for Nice to pay his annual visit to his parents, before moving on for an autumn stay in Florence.

“His life is a pleasant life,” FitzWilliam Sargent wrote to a brother in Philadelphia.

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Her sole purpose in life is to demonstrate by her skills in contriving incredible outfits which shape her and exhibit her and which she can carry off with bravado. . . .

He seems to be respected, even admired and beloved (according to all accounts) for his talent and success as an artist, for his conduct and character as a man. His work is a pleasurable occupation to him and brings him a very handsome income. He travels about in countries which provide him with materials for his pictures as well as with bread and butter and elements of health and enjoyment. He is well received everywhere for his manners are good and agreeable. He is good looking, plays the piano well and dances well, converses well, etc., etc. In short, he has given us, his parents great satisfaction so far. . . .

In the winter of 1883–84, Sargent moved from the Left Bank to a new studio across the Seine at 41 boulevard Berthier, in the then fashionable neighborhood near the Parc Monceau. It was there in a workplace elegantly furnished with comfortably upholstered chairs, Persian rugs, and drapery befitting his new professional standing, and an upright piano against one wall, that he painted his full-length portrait of Madame Gautreau, the whole time suffering what he called “a horrid state of anxiety.”

She was dressed in a long black satin skirt and low-cut black velvet bodice, her shoulders bare except for two slim jeweled straps. She held both shoulders back and her head cocked sharply to the left, giving full cameo emphasis to the remarkable profile.

Her left arm on her hip, she held her skirt with the left hand, while the right arm was oddly turned back on itself, her right hand gripping the top of the side table. She wore her hair up, with a tiny diamond tiara on top.

It was a flagrantly stagy pose, which could only have been difficult to hold for any length of time, even for one who was a poser by nature.

Against the deep black of the dress, the deathly blue-white of her powdered skin was even more strange and striking. When, during one sitting her right shoulder strap dropped suggestively over her arm, Sargent requested she leave it that way.

In contrast to his usual approach, he worked and reworked the canvas, simplifying and redefining edges.

One day I was dissatisfied with it and dashed a tone of light rose over the former gloomy background [he reported to a friend]. I turned the picture upside down, retired to another end of the studio and looked at it under my arm. Vast improvement. The élancée figure of the model shows to much greater advantage.

No doubt Madame Gautreau saw how the portrait was emerging under his brush from one sitting to another. Possibly her mother, too, may have been present occasionally. If they found anything about it disturbing at the time, there is no evidence that a word was said. When Carolus-Duran came by for a look, he told Sargent he could submit the painting to the Salon with perfect confidence. Sargent was not so sure.

Another who dropped in was Henry James. In Paris briefly, James had met and quite liked the young artist, calling him “the only Franco-American product of importance” in France. But, as James confided to a friend, he only “half-liked” the portrait of Madame Gautreau.

The 1884 Paris Salon, an exhibition filling thirty-one of the grandes salles in the Palais de l’Industrie, opened on a beautiful May morning with much excitement among the customary well-dressed crowds in attendance. So great had the number of American painters in Paris become, and so important to their careers was representation at the Salon, that they were now second only to the number of French artists included. For Sargent it marked the sixth consecutive year he had exhibited at the Salon, always with increasing acclaim.

Paintings filled every wall. The portrait of Amélie Gautreau, ideally placed at eye level, was hung in Salle 31, and the doors had been open scarcely an hour when it became the talk of the exhibition.

For all that would be written and said, no eyewitness account of the event and of its effect on Sargent compared to what his friend Ralph Curtis wrote to his parents the next day. Whether the opening marked Sargent’s birthday as an artist or his funeral, Curtis could not say.

Walked up the Champs-Élysées, chestnuts in full flower and a dense mob of “tout Paris” in pretty clothes, gesticulating and laughing, slowly going into the Ark of Art. In 15 minutes I saw no end of acquaintances and strangers and heard everybody say, “Où est le portrait Gautreau?” “Oh, allez voir ça.”

Curtis had seen Sargent the night before. “He was very nervous about what he feared,” he wrote, “but his fears were far exceeded by the facts of yesterday. There was a grande tapage [great fuss] before it [the portrait] all day.”

In a few minutes I found him dodging behind doors to avoid friends who looked grave. By the corridors he took me to see it. I was disappointed by the color. She looks decomposed. All the men jeer. “Ah voilà ‘la belle!’ ” “Oh, que le horreur!” Etc. Then a painter exclaims, “superbe de style, magnifique d’audace!” [Magnificent audacity!] “Quel dessin!” [What drawing!].

In an exhibition wherein paintings of nudes were commonplace, that of Madame Gautreau in her black evening dress was considered scandalously erotic.

But what was unacceptable to “tout Paris” was the blatant, self-centered impropriety of it all—the heavy powder, the odd, arrogant pose, the décolletage. Such vulgar flaunting was simply not done by women of social standing.

“All the A.M. it was one series of bons mots, mauvaises plaisanteries and fierce discussions,” Curtis continued in his letter. “John, poor boy, was navré [full of sorrow]. The tumult of talk lasted through the day, but by evening the tone of opinion about the picture had changed. It was discovered to be the knowing thing to say ‘étrangement épatant.’ [shocking, amazing!]”

“I went home with him,” Curtis continued, “and remained there while he went to see the Boits.” Madame Gautreau and her mother came to the studio “bathed in tears.” Curtis “stayed them off,” but Madame Avegno came back again, after Sargent had returned, and made “a fearful scene.”

“All Paris mocks my daughter,” she said. If the painting were to stay on exhibit, she would “die of chagrin.”

Sargent, obviously put out, told her there was nothing he could do, that it was against the rules of the Salon to retire a picture and that he had painted Amélie exactly as she was dressed.

“Defending his cause made Sargent feel much better,” wrote Curtis. “Still we talked it over until 1 o’clock here last night and I fear he has never had such a blow.”

The reviews were essentially of three kinds, those that objected to Madame Gautreau’s décolletage, those repulsed by the color of her skin, and those that, seeing “modernity” in the approach, applauded Sargent’s courage.

The New York Times dismissed the painting out of hand as a “caricature,” far below Sargent’s usual standard. “The pose of the figure is absurd, and the bluish coloring atrocious.” The Times of London conceded only that the portrait was “most interesting.” But the French critic Louis de Fourcaud, writing in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts, called it a masterpiece of characterization. It should be kept in mind, he wrote, that “in a person of this type everything relates to the cult of self and the increasing concern to captivate those around her.

Her sole purpose in life is to demonstrate by her skills in contriving incredible outfits which shape her and exhibit her and which she can carry off with bravado. . . .

Sargent had been living and working in Paris for a full decade and in that time had received only expressions of admiration and praise. He had never known an adverse review or even mild criticism, let alone public mockery. His portrait of Madame Gautreau was in fact a masterpiece and in time would be so recognized. He hung on to it, renaming it Madame X. He also repainted the fallen shoulder strap, restoring it to its proper place. Years later, when he sold the painting to the Metropolitan Museum in New York for $1,000, he would remark that it was perhaps the best thing he had done.

He and Amélie Gautreau seem to have had no further contact, though she, too, eventually changed her opinion about the painting and expressed pride in it.

Yet hard hit as he was and angry over what had happened, Sargent appears to have had no doubts about his ability or his ambition to keep painting. Feeling an immediate need for a change of scene, he followed up on an earlier plan to go to London. He left Paris in late May 1884, not to return until December.

Copyright © 2011 by David McCullough. From the forthcoming book THE GREATER JOURNEY by David McCullough to be published by Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission.

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David McCullough has twice received the Pulitzer Prize, for Truman and John Adams, and twice received the National Book Award, for The Path Between The Seas and Mornings on Horseback. His other acclaimed books are 1776, Brave Companions, The Great Bridge, and The Johnstown Flood. He is the recipient of numerous honors and awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award.