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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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Art
The Simple Optical Illusion That Makes an Image Look Like It's Drawing Itself
iStock
iStock

Artist James Nolan Gandy invents robot arms that sketch intricate mathematical shapes with pen and paper. When viewed in real time, the effect is impressive. But it becomes even more so when the videos are sped up in a timelapse. If you look closely in the video below, the illustration appears to materialize faster than the robot can put the design to paper. Gizmodo recently explained how the illusion works to make it look like parts of the sketch are forming before the machine has time to draw them.

The optical illusion isn’t an example of tricky image editing: It’s the result of something called the wagon wheel effect. You can observe this in a car wheel accelerating down the highway or in propeller blades lifting up a helicopter. If an object makes enough rotations per second, it can appear to slow down, move backwards, or even stand still.

This is especially apparent on film. Every “moving image” we see on a screen is an illusion caused by the brain filling in the gaps between a sequence of still images. In the case of the timelapse video below, the camera captured the right amount of images, in the right order, to depict the pen as moving more slowly than it did in real life. But unlike the pen, the drawing formed throughout the video isn't subject to the wagon-wheel effect, so it still appears to move at full speed. This difference makes it look like the sketch is drawing itself, no pen required.

Gandy frequently shares behind-the-scenes videos of his mechanical art on his Instagram page. You can check out some of his non-timelapse clips like the one below to better understand how his machines work, then visit his website to browse and purchase the art made by his 'bots.

And if you think his stuff is impressive, make sure to explore some of the incredible art robots have made in the past.

[h/t Gizmodo]

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Tessa Angus
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Art
Surprising Sculptures Made From Fallen Feathers
Kate MccGwire, Orchis, 2012
Kate MccGwire, Orchis, 2012
Tessa Angus

Kate MccGwire is a British sculptor with an unusual medium: feathers. Her surreal, undulating works often take the form of installations—the feathers spilling out of a drain, a stove, a crypt wall—or stand-alone sculptures in which antique bell jars, cabinets, or trunks contain otherworldly shapes.

MccGwire developed her obsession with feathers after moving to a studio barge on the Thames in 2006, as she explains in a video from Crane.tv recently spotlighted by Boing Boing. The barge was near a large shed full of feral pigeons, whose feathers she would spot on her way to work. "I started picking them up and laying them out, collecting them," she remembers. "And after about two weeks I had like 300 feathers." At the time, concerns about bird flu were rife, which made the feathers seem "dangerous as well as beautiful."

When not supplied by her own next-door menagerie, the feathers for her artwork come from a network of racing pigeon societies all over the UK, who send her envelopes full every time the birds molt. Farmers and gamekeepers also send her fallen feathers from birds such as magpies, pheasants, and roosters.

The cultural associations around birds are a big part of what inspires MccGwire. “The dove is the symbol of peace, purity, and fertility," she told ArtNews in 2013, "but it’s exactly the same species as a pigeon—which everyone regards as being dirty, foul, a pest.”

The same duality is present in her own work, which she frequently shares on her Instagram account. “I want to seduce by what I do—but revolt in equal measure. It’s really important to me that you’ve got that rejection of things you think you know for sure.”

You can see some pictures of MccGwire's work, and watch the video from Crane.tv, below.

Kate MccGwire's installation "Evacuate"
Evacuate, 2010
J Wilde

Kate MccGwire's sculpture "Convolous"
Convolous, 2015
JP Bland

Kate MccGwire's installation "Gyre"
Gyre, 2012
Tessa Angus

Kate MccGwire's sculpture "Gag"
Gag, 2009
JP Bland

Kate MccGwire's sculpture "Writhe"
Writhe, 2010
Tessa Angus

Kate MccGwire's sculpture "Quell"
Quell, 2011
Tessa Angus

Kate MccGwire's sculpture "Taunt"
Taunt, 2012
Tessa Angus

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