Ever since portraiture become popular among the newly empowered merchant classes in Europe a few centuries ago, it has been common practice for portrait artists in the early stages of their career to paint non-commissioned portraits as examples of their ability.
These are often intended to be striking and memorable, advertising the artist’s capabilities and hopefully achieving wide notice — putting the their creator’s services in demand.
John Singer Sargent was no exception, though his attempt to paint a dramatic and attention getting portrait of a beautiful American socialite resulted in a simultaneous artistic triumph and societal disaster.
Virginie Amélie Avegno was an American who became Madame Pierre Gautreau, and was known for her beauty and charm. Like Sargent, she wanted greater acceptance in the circles of Parisian society in which she now moved, so she accepted his invitation to pose for a full-length portrait, having turned down similar offers from other painters.
Work on the portrait stretched out longer than either Mme Gatreau or the artist would have liked. There are numerous drawings and studies, and at least one unfinished full size study (now in the Tate, image above, second from bottom).
When the finished portrait was displayed at the Salon of 1884, Sargent had placed his model against a plain background in an unusual pose — her weight partially on a backward turned arm, her body toward the viewer, her head turned in dramatic profile and her skin strikingly pale against the dark background, with the exception of her ear, almost as red as her lips.
She was dressed in a daring black gown, one golden strap of which was off her shoulder.
The painting debuted at the Salon and did indeed garner attention, but the Parisians declared it a scandal rather than a triumph, shaming both artist and model (whose name had been unsuccessfully withheld by the title “Mme ***”).
Sargent, who did not relish this kind of negative attention, repainted the strap on the shoulder instead of off, and renamed the painting “Madame X”, but it did not improve subsequent reception of the work in France.
Sargent gave up on his hope of establishing himself in Paris and moved shortly thereafter to London, where he kept the painting in his studio (above, bottom), not allowing it to be exhibited again for 30 years. Mme Gatreau subsequently had her portrait painted by other artists, like Antonio de La Gandara.
Jonathan Jones, in his column for the Guardian, suggests it was not the painting style, the pale complexion of Mme Gatreau, the stark composition or the dangling strap, but the dress itself, and what it revealed about Parisian high society at the time, that prompted the reaction of scandal.
When he eventually sold the painting to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Sargent is said to have remarked “I suppose it is the best thing I have done.”