The Portrait of Madame Pierre Gautreau (Madame X) by John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) is an oil on canvas completed in 1884. The artwork measures 92.5 x 43.25 inches and is housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
Perhaps Sargent’s best-known, and one of his early portraits, is that of Madame Pierre Gautreau. It represents the type of society portrait for which the painter gained acclaim. John Singer Sargent was largely considered an American artist, although he was born in Florence, Italy and spent much of his formative years traveling within Europe. His early artistic career was developed in Paris, France and after the scandal surrounding this portrait, he left for London, England. He was based out of London for the rest of his art career. He did entertain much of the American elite, completing portrait commissions for many of the important and wealthy families in Boston and New York City. Sargent is known as a hugely important figure in Western art.
At only 28 years old, Sargent painted Gautreau. The portrait was first exhibited at Paris Salon in 1884, where it shocked onlookers. Although they were familiar with Madame Gautreau’s reputation, her low-cut dress and loose strap hanging off her shoulder were too revealing for Parisian high society. Madame Gautreau’s family berated Sargent, harshly criticizing the piece. Eventually, Sargent repainted the famously loosened dress strap, but he refused to remove it from the exhibition. The family called for its destruction. However, Sargent kept it in his possession until 1916. From 1905 to 1916, Sargent exhibited it in international exhibitions under the title “Madame X.” In 1916, the artwork was exhibited at the World’s Fair in San Francisco.
Due to the artwork’s popularity in America, Sargent agreed to sell it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. During the transaction, the painting became known as Portrait of Madame X, as Sargent requested that they hide identity of the sitter as the work was to go on permanent display. Sargent is said to have commented that he supposed “it is the best thing I have done.” It remains on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Images of Artwork
What is Depicted in the Artwork?
John Singer Sargent’s Madame X is a full-length portrait of Madame Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau (1859-1915). Gautreau was born Virginie Avegno in New Orleans, Louisiana. She had a French family lineage and after her father’s death, she moved with her mother back to Paris, where she was raised and educated. By 1879, she was married Pierre Gautreau, a wealthy French Banker. She was known within the European elite and became a staple within French Society.
For some of the elements in the portrait, Sargent was inspired by Ancient Greece and Classical mythology. First, scholars have suggested that Madame Gautreau’s pose is inspired by Italian Renaissance painting. Additionally, the table to the left of Madame Gautreau’s classically posed figure is adorned with mythological sirens on the table legs. Lastly, Gautreau chose to wear a diamond crescent tiara, which was a symbol for the Greek Goddess Diana.
After many attempts to devise the best pose for his portrait, Sargent chose to depict Madame Gautreau leaning against a small table in full-length and larger than life size. The monumental artwork was over 7 feet in height, which only served to extenuate its salaciousness.
From the many poses that Sargent tried for his portrait of Madame X, Sargent chose this standing pose. Madame Gautreau’s neck is turned. Against an empty background, Sargent depicts her looking out over her left shoulder. She gazes out over her shoulder, exposing her sharp jawline. Sargent exaggerated the curve of her neck, extending the line down through her wrist which is posed atop her fingers pressing down on the table beside her. The train of her inky dress is gathered in her left hand, alongside a folded black hand fan. Her wedding ring is visible in the small swatch of metallic paint across her finger. Madame Gautreau’s hairstyle is an updo pinned up by a crescent shaped tiara that is made of swipes of metallic paint.
The background indicates the Spanish influence upon the work. In 1879, Sargent had visited Spain. Like his mentor Carolus-Duran (1837-1917), Sargent studied the works of Diego Velazquez (1599-1660). The foreground of Sargent’s artwork remains dark, while the figure of Gautreau shines light against the background. This technique, known as chiaroscuro, or “light-dark” in Italian, is characteristic of Velazquez’s works.
Similar to older paintings by Velazquez, Sargent utilized very little preliminary sketches or painting underneath the final portrait. This free painting and loose brushwork add an element of spontaneousness, which serves to create a sense of vulnerability to the portrait. It’s as if we are seeing the moment just as Sargent saw it. Right in front of our eyes, Madame Gautreau’s right shoulder strap slips precariously off her shoulder. The movement indicates with the loose brushwork causes the viewer to imagine her whole top might slip from her body. Ironically, scholars have noted that her dress was made from a whalebone corset, which would not have been physically able to fall down, despite the strap’s indication.
The only other element in the image is an elegantly carved table on which Gautreau props her hand. One-third of the table has been cropped off. Finally, Sargent’s recognizable, sprawling signature, is inked across the canvas at the lower right.
“People Also Asked Questions”
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What is the story behind the painting Madame X?
Madame Gautreau was the wife of a French banker. She was known throughout European society due to her extramarital affairs, which were widely gossiped about. Her natural beauty was accentuated with henna as hair dye and heavy lavender make up. Due to her fame, Sargent requested to paint her portrait, hoping that the young socialite would aid Sargent’s career.
In June of 1883, Sargent traveled to Brittany and Gautreau’s estate. At Les Chênes, the estate, he spent time sketching at least 30 preliminary drawings in pencil, watercolor and even oil. At once, he found Gautreau a difficult sitter. She was notoriously impatient and made it difficult to paint her. In fact, Sargent wrote that “the unpaintable beauty and hopeless laziness of Gautreau” made capturing her likeness difficult.
He was hoping that painting her portrait would enhance both of their reputations and sought to paint her exactly as she represented herself to society. So, Sargent painted the right strap of her gown slipping off one shoulder. Sargent typically painted his sitters as he found them, seemingly revealing their own proclivities. Though he did just this with Gautreau, he was nervous regarding the reception the portrait would have at the Salon.
It would seem he was right to be nervous, as the controversial beauty, Madame Pierre Gautreau, would be deemed immoral due to the sexualized nature of her pose, low cut dress and hanging shoulder strap.
Sargent titled the piece Madame … .However, the public immediately recognized Gautreau in the image. Gautreau’s mother called for its immediate removal from the Salon. Though this did not happen, the solution was Sargent repainting the strap so that it sat firmly on her shoulder. Sargent returned to his Paris studio with the infamous painting, keeping it in his possession until 1916.
How much is the Madame X painting worth?
In 1916, the Metropolitan Museum of Art purchased the work from Sargent for 1,000 pounds. This was perhaps less than its actual value would have been, but Sargent had wanted the painting to go to an American Museum. According to an article published in the Indian Express in 2022, the artwork is worth $106,000,000. This estimated value isn’t supported with any factual evidence. However, most Art Historians would agree that is intrinsic value is priceless as it can not be recreated!
Why was Portrait of Madame X scandalous?
The portrait of Madame X was scandalous for a few reasons. Most specifically, Sargent’s decision to depict Gautreau as he saw her, was controversial. Gautreau was known in Parisian Society for her daring seductive aesthetic. This was depicted in full by Sargent who painted her shoulder strap down, hanging off her shoulder.
Another reason for the critical response at the Paris Salon was how sensual the pose and revealed skin were. Gautreau was known for her heavy lavender make-up which made her pale skin even more translucent. Sargent’s portrait was even more jarring because her unnaturally pale skin was juxtaposed against the dark sooty dress.
Other Artwork by the Artist
Madame Gautreau Drinking a Toast, 1883, Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum, Boston, MA
Ms. Ada Rehan, 1895, The Metropolitan Museum of art, New York, NY
Other Artwork of the Depiction
Gautreau was painted a number of different times by Sargent himself, as well as other artists. Sargent had completed many studies for different poses in order to perfect the pose that he would choose for the final piece. Madame Gautreau Drinking a Toast is one such potential pose that Sargent experimented with. This piece was completed one year earlier than the final image. It is housed in the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum and is said to be the impetus for Gardner’s decision to sit for her own portrait by Sargent. Additionally, another unfinished version sharing the final pose of the salon portrait is held in the Tate Gallery in London. In this version the strap is not there, but the bodice shape implies that he intended the strap to hang loose over her shoulder. The bottom of this version remains unfinished.
As far as other artists’ depictions of her, there are several examples. Gustave Courtois, the French painter, completed his version of her in 1891. Then, six years after Courtois image, Antonio de La Gandara would finish another portrait of her. For this portrait, de La Gandara painted her from the back. This version was said to be her favorite.
Eye of the Beholder. Ed Alan Chong et al. (Boston: ISGM and Beacon Press, 2003): 203.
Kim, Jongwoo Jeremy, “Painted Men in Britain 1868-1918” The United States of America. United States: The Museum, 1987.
“John Singer Sargent. Madame X” The Metropolitan Museum of Art. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/20012492metmuseum.org)
Natasha Wallace, “John Sargent’s Madame X” Jssgallery. 1998-2003. http://www.jssgallery.org/Paintings/Madame_X.htm
“Madame X” Artble. 2022. https://www.artble.com/artists/john_singer_sargent/paintings/madame_xhttp://artble.com/
Rajvanshi, Khvati, “Behind the Art. Madame X by John Singer Sargent the Scandalous Painting that Shook Paris in 1884.” Indian Express. October 9th, 2022. https://indianexpress.com/article/lifestyle/art-and-culture/behind-the-art-madame-x-by-john-singer-sargent-the-scandalous-painting-that-shook-paris-in-1884-8196643/