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15 Salacious Facts About John Singer Sargent’s Portrait of Madame X

Today, John Singer Sargent's Portrait of Madame X is regarded as a brilliant and tasteful depiction of classical beauty and femininity—so it might shock you to learn that when the American artist first unveiled this painting in 1884, all hell broke loose.

1. SARGENT BEGGED HIS MODEL TO POSE FOR THIS PORTRAIT.

Madame X was actually Madame Virginie Gautreau, an American expat whose beauty was much admired in her adopted French homeland. Gautreau gained such renown for her beauty that she received frequent overtures from awestruck artists in search of a muse, and she routinely rejected them. 

While living in Paris, the twenty-something Sargent reached out to Gautreau through a mutual friend, to whom he wrote, "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." Finally, after two years of his begging, the glamorous Gautreau agreed to begin sitting for Sargent in early 1883. 

2. MADAME X HAD A BIZARRE, POTENTIALLY DANGEROUS BEAUTY REGIMEN.

To achieve the pale complexion one art critic later derided as “cadaverish,” Gautreau is rumored to have eaten arsenic wafers (modern researchers have determined it more likely to be rice powder) and used a lavender-colored face powder. As a clever contrast, she rouged her ears and dyed her hair red with henna. 

3. THE ANCIENT WORLD INFLUENCED HER STYLING. 

The way Madame X wears her hair is a nod to the styles of the bygone Hellenic era. Her tiara, with a dazzling diamond crescent, is an allusion to Diana, goddess of the hunt and the moon. Combined, these could be considered clues to this lady's nighttime hobbies. 

4. GAUTREAU WAS AN INFURIATING MUSE.

Having finally secured this great beauty, Sargent drew a series of sketches to experiment with various poses and props. Gautreau gamely turned her head, held a champagne glass, and lounged on a sofa. But she was a restless sitter. When she demanded months-long breaks from modeling, Sargent had no recourse. Growing frustrated, the artist complained he was still "struggling with the unpaintable beauty and hopeless laziness of Mme. Gautreau." 

5. SARGENT WAS INITIALLY UNSURE OF THE PAINTING'S MERIT.

Sargent set out to create Portrait of Madame X to cement his reputation in France's art world, but months of managing his fickle model tainted his feelings about the piece. In late 1883, the unsure artist confessed in a letter, "One day I was dissatisfied with it and dashed a tone of light rose over the former gloomy background. I turned the painting upside down, retired to the other end of the studio and looked at it under my arm. Vast improvement. The slender figure of the model shows to much greater advantage. The picture is framed and on a great easel, and Carolus has been to see it and said, 'You can send it to the Salon with confidence.' Encouraging, but false. I have made up my mind to be refused." 

6. IT SPARKED AN UPROAR WHEN IT WAS UNVEILED. 

Despite Sargent’s gloomy predictions, Portrait of Madame X was accepted for the Paris Salon of 1884. But it didn’t receive the warm reception for which he had hoped: Critics seethed over the nearly bare shoulders and a bit of cleavage they found too provocative. 

The Gazette des beaux-arts critic Louis de Fourcaud described the crowd's reaction: "Epithets crisscross in the air—Detestable! Boring! Curious! Monstrous! ... One could darken 10 pages with the one-word comments heard in front of this picture." 

7. THE PAINTING HURT ITS MODEL'S REPUTATION, TOO.

Before the painting debuted, Gautreau was already the target of gossip for her seductive style and indiscreet extramarital affairs. But these were matters not meant for polite conversation. Many felt Sargent's Portrait of Madame X laid bare Gautreau's dirty laundry in a public forum. After the piece's unveiling, her mother, Marie Virginie de Ternant, made quite a scene screaming at Sargent, "All Paris is making fun of my daughter. She is ruined … She'll die of chagrin." 

8. GAUTREAU'S MOTHER WANTED THE PIECE PULLED DOWN.

De Ternant first approached Sargent about taking the painting down. While her charges of defamation and screams greatly upset him, he initially refused to remove Portrait of Madame X from the exhibition. When that failed, she went to the Salon itself, whose board also rejected her demand. Eventually, Sargent did take the painting down, but rumors persisted it was to keep it away from the family. He wouldn't exhibit the piece again for years. 

9. THE INTENSE REACTION SPURRED SARGENT TO REVISE.

When Portrait of Madame X debuted, it was more suggestive than it is today. The left strap of its iconic dress dangled daringly off of Madame's slim shoulder in 1884. But racked with self-doubt in the wake of its horrendous reception, Sargent addressed criticisms that her garb was “flagrantly insufficient” by repositioning the strap onto her shoulder proper. 

10. PORTRAIT OF MADAME X MADE SARGENT FAMOUS OVERSEAS.

The French scandal surrounding the portrait prompted Sargent to flee the country entirely. He moved to London before eventually settling in New York. When he began exhibiting the piece again in 1905, Americans and the British were in awe of Sargent's skill at capturing his subject in a flattering and captivating manner. In both nations, he became hotly sought for commissioned work. 

11. AN INCOMPLETE COPY LIVES IN LONDON.  

During the tortuous creation of Portrait of Madame X, Sargent worked on a copy, which today is on display at the Tate Britain.

12. THE PAINTING IS LARGER THAN LIFE.

The piece measures in at  82 inches by 43.25 inches, or nearly 7 feet by 4 feet.

13. SARGENT CONSIDERED IT HIS GREATEST WORK.

Early on, Sargent hoped his portrait of the mesmerizing Madame would define his career—and it eventually did. Portrait of Madame X was not just Sargent's most controversial work, but the one for which he would become best known. Though the initial response was nightmarish, the painting’s defiant attitude and stunning style have made it one of the most admired portraits in Western art. Over the years, Sargent came to appreciate his masterpiece’s merits. After keeping the piece for over 30 years, he sold it to the Metropolitan Museum in 1916, admitting, "I suppose it is the best thing I have done." 

14. EVEN DECADES LATER, SARGENT STILL WORRIED ABOUT HIS MODEL'S REPUTATION.

A condition of the sale to the Met was that the museum "disguise the sitter's name." 

15. GAUTREAU HOPED ANOTHER PORTRAIT WOULD REVAMP HER IMAGE. 

Though her ego and reputation took a beating, Gautreau did not die of chagrin as her mother had predicted. She did shy away from the spotlight for a time, but in 1891, Gustave Courtois painted another portrait of her in a dress—complete with a strap falling down—that was exhibited at the Salon, but it failed to generate any notoriety. In 1898, she felt confident enough to allow another artist to immortalize her in a portrait. French painter Antonio de La Gándara also focused on this beauty's shoulders and distinctive profile, but Madame Pierre Gautreau presents this scandal-plagued socialite in a far more conservative light. 

Over a century after its creation, Portrait of Madame X has moved past its scandalous start, and Gautreau has become a style icon revered around the world for decades. Her legacy is one of elegance, beauty, and grace. Her scandals just make her more interesting.

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The Getty Center, Surrounded By Wildfires, Will Leave Its Art Where It Is
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The wildfires sweeping through California have left countless homeowners and businesses scrambling as the blazes continue to grow out of control in various locations throughout the state. While art lovers worried when they heard that Los Angeles's Getty Center would be closing its doors this week, as the fires closed part of the 405 Freeway, there was a bit of good news. According to museum officials, the priceless works housed inside the famed Getty Center are said to be perfectly secure and won't need to be evacuated from the facility.

“The safest place for the art is right here at the Getty,” Ron Hartwig, the Getty’s vice president of communications, told the Los Angeles Times. According to its website, the museum was closed on December 5 and December 6 “to protect the collections from smoke from fires in the region,” but as of now, the art inside is staying put.

Though every museum has its own way of protecting the priceless works inside it, the Los Angeles Times notes that the Getty Center was constructed in such a way as to protect its contents from the very kind of emergency it's currently facing. The air throughout the gallery is filtered by a system that forces it out, rather than a filtration method which would bring air in. This system will keep the smoke and air pollutants from getting into the facility, and by closing the museum this week, the Getty is preventing the harmful air from entering the building through any open doors.

There is also a water tank at the facility that holds 1 million gallons in reserve for just such an occasion, and any brush on the property is routinely cleared away to prevent the likelihood of a fire spreading. The Getty Villa, a separate campus located in the Pacific Palisades off the Pacific Coast Highway, was also closed out of concern for air quality this week.

The museum is currently working with the police and fire departments in the area to determine the need for future closures and the evacuation of any personnel. So far, the fires have claimed more than 83,000 acres of land, leading to the evacuation of thousands of people and the temporary closure of I-405, which runs right alongside the Getty near Los Angeles’s Bel-Air neighborhood.

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This 77-Year-Old Artist Saves Money on Art Supplies by 'Painting' in Microsoft Excel
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It takes a lot of creativity to turn a blank canvas into an inspired work of art. Japanese artist Tatsuo Horiuchi makes his pictures out of something that’s even more dull than a white page: an empty spreadsheet in Microsoft Excel.

When he retired, the 77-year-old Horiuchi, whose work was recently spotlighted by Great Big Story, decided he wanted to get into art. At the time, he was hesitant to spend money on painting supplies or even computer software, though, so he began experimenting with one of the programs that was already at his disposal.

Horiuchi's unique “painting” method shows that in the right hands, Excel’s graph-building features can be used to bring colorful landscapes to life. The tranquil ponds, dense forests, and blossoming flowers in his art are made by drawing shapes with the software's line tool, then adding shading with the bucket tool.

Since picking up the hobby in the 2000s, Horiuchi has been awarded multiple prizes for his creative work with Excel. Let that be inspiration for Microsoft loyalists who are still broken up about the death of Paint.

You can get a behind-the-scenes look at the artist's process in the video below.

[h/t Great Big Story]

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