Why Madame X Scandalized the Art World

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In 2019, it’s hard to see why John Singer Sargent’s 1883–84 paintingMadame X scandalized Paris. If you visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s American wing, where it now hangs in an ornate gold frame, you’ll see a simple composition of a porcelain-skinned woman with an updo standing against a brushy brown background. She wears a plunging black gown with gold straps, one hand clutching a fan while the other rests on a round table. Her face is in profile, the line of her long nose leading the viewer’s eye slantwise out of the picture.

Today, the painting looks elegant—a woman with immaculate skin and patrician features, clothed in what appears to be an expensive, well-constructed dress. That perception belies the sordid history of its model, Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, and the brouhaha surrounding the portrait’s debut at the 1884 Paris Salon. The public’s reaction was so vehement that Sargent moved out of the country, and his high-society model’s reputation was forever tarnished.

This response was partially due to what now seems like an innocuous detail: Sargent’s picture initially showed one of the dress straps hanging seductively from its subject’s shoulder. Yet the painting’s lewdness probably wasn’t what offended Parisian society. The artwork was something worse—downright tacky.

Sargent was born in Italy in 1856 to an American doctor and social climber mother. “Dr. Sargent and his wife didn’t have the financial means of the gilded expatriates,” Donna M. Lucey writes in her 2017 book, Sargent’s Women: Four Lives Behind the Canvas, “but the couple socialized at the edges of that class, with Sargent’s mother cutting a slightly ridiculous figure as she tried to keep up.” The family moved around Europe, outsiders in both national and financial terms.

Nevertheless, Sargent’s mother ensured that her son attended a prestigious Parisian atelier. He first applied for the city’s annual, tastemaking Salon exhibition in 1877, with a portrait of his childhood friend, Frances Sherborne Ridley Watts. After his success at the Salon, the artist began to receive more portrait commissions, and soon had a profitable career painting upper-class women who had the funds for such vanities.

Despite the demand for his portrait services, Sargent had his own artistic ambitions. He first met Gautreau, a society figure who went by Amélie, in the 1880s. He was captivated and decided he had to paint her—not for a commission, but for his own satisfaction.

In the mid-20th century, Sargent biographer Charles Merill Mount circulated a rumor that the artist was introduced to Gautreau by a prominent gynecologist named Samuel-Jean Pozzi, with whom she may have been having an affair. Sargent had painted a portrait of the doctor, titled Dr. Pozzi at Home, in 1881. In the painting, the doctor is dressed in particularly ornate loungewear: a long red robe tied with tassels, and pointy red-and-silver slippers as a scarlet curtain ripples behind him.

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