“I never judge, only chronicle.”
Today it’s probably hard to believe that this portrait of a young woman in a simple elegant black gown was ridiculed by the Parisians back in 1884. And Parisians can be brutal when it comes to fashion. The portrait of Madame Pierre Gautreau (now commonly known as Madame X) by John Singer Sargent was exhibited for the first and the last time at the Salon in Paris after the artist had been showing his work there quite successfully for several consecutive years. However, despite portrait’s fiasco with the public and critiques, the artist considered Madame X the best work of his entire career!
Unlike Sargent’s other portraits, Madame X wasn’t a commissioned piece. The artist himself expressed a desire to paint a portrait of a young American expatriate, like himself, who was known in Paris for her unconventional beauty and sophisticated appearance. He wrote to their common acquaintance: “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… you might tell her that I am a man of prodigious talent.”
The portrait, as we know it today, isn’t exactly the same as when it hang on view at the Salon. Madame Gautreau’s shockingly aristocratic dress had a tiny detail that was intensely unsettling to the public – one of the slender gold straps slipped down the model’s shoulder. Sargent later repainted the shoulder and the strap and kept the painting for nearly thirty years. He eventually sold the portrait to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, but asked that the model’s name was disguised.
The whole story seems terribly unjust in regards to Sargent as by 1884, Madame X by any means wasn’t the most shocking and revolutionary work of art (at least because he didn’t intend to shock anyone, probably only to tease a little bit). Just think about Manet’s Dejeneur sur l’Herbe and Olympia, both painted in 1863 – first was rejected by the Salon and exhibited at the Salon de Refuses, while the second made it to the Salon but was condemned as vulgar, after public sorted out that the nude is not a goddess but a high-priced prostitute.
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