Most people know John Singer Sargent’s infamous painting “Madame X” even if they don’t know the name and have never heard of the artist because this painting has quite the sensational story attached to it.
According to surrounding lore, Sargent initially painted “Madame X” with the right strap of her black gown slipping off of her shoulder. When the painting debuted at the 1884 Salon in Paris (the place to have a painting displayed at the time and a good signifier of current or future artistic success) it created an uproar, so scandalous was the pose. Indeed, facing numerous charges of the painting’s indecency, Sargent eventually repainted the strap sitting firmly, and properly, on Madame’s shoulder.
Pursuing my art history minor in New York City I had the amazing opportunity to see “Madame X” in person at the Metropolitan Museum. The painting has always had a special place in my heart for, if nothing else, the drama associated with its debut. So I was very pleased when a copy of Deborah Davis‘ book Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X (2004) fell into my lap.
Part historical research, part biography, part social commentary, part feminist text, Deborah Davis handles a lot of material in a relatively small volume (320 pages with font of average size and relevant pictures included). One of the reasons Davis decided to research this particular painting and its subject is because so little information remains about Virginie Amelie Gautreau, her life, or how Sargent came to paint her scandalous portrait.
While “Madame X” eventually catapulted Sargent into the artistic canon and toward immortality, the portrait likely led to Gautreau’s ruin and her obscurity. In her book, Davis tries to set the record straight, portraying Gautreau as the powerful, savvy woman she was before a bare shoulder changed her social standing forever.
My library system catalogs this book as a biography of John Singer Sargent, which for a lot of reasons is the logical choice. However, really, most of the book is spent looking at the life of Sargent’s subject and patron: Madame Gautreau.
The book traces Gautreau’s family history, her migration from New Orleans to Paris (where she became a quasi-celebrity along the lines of Kim Kardashian or Paris Hilton virtually overnight at the tender age of twenty-three), and perhaps most interestingly just how much work went into being a beautiful woman in Paris in the 1880s. No details escapes Davis’ examination as she looks at the clothing, finances, indeed the very persona Gautreau had to cultivate to live the decadent lifestyle she became accustomed to.
The strong point in Strapless is when Davis sticks to such facts: how Gautreau lived, why Sargent would want to paint her, what happened at the Salon when “Madame X” debuted. Davis also expertly outlines the tenuous, and often stressful, patron-artisan relationships that Sargent and artists like him had to cultivate in order to eke out a living with their brush.
The momentum flags when Davis veers into the hypothetical wondering if Sargent might have been in love with Gautreau, torn between her and one of his young proteges. While the theory is interesting, it does remain a theory very akin to the conspiracy theories so often found in research on the Titanic.
That aside, Strapless is a remarkably well-done book. The thorough research shows through without dulling the writing. Davis’ text is conversational and very accessible–more so, it must be said, than many writings found in the field of art history. An excellent book on art history for enthusiasts and art historians alike.
Sound good? Find it on Amazon: Strapless