There she was, imposing, although she was clear across the room. Her skin was luminous. The angle of her head gave her a somewhat haughty air, her dress stunning, as if she was about to go out for a night on the town. I approached her with awe. By sixteen I’d been sneaking into New York City on weekends for years, usually to do innocuous things like visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was there that I saw her. She taught me the power of art. I stood at her feet in wonder for a long time.
Madame X, the painting by John Singer Sargent, is widely known. Perhaps slightly less well known, although certainly no secret, is the reception that the painting got when it was first shown at the Paris Salon of 1884. The original had one strap falling off her shoulder, giving the painting a distinctly sexual and somewhat wanton air. Paris society was scandalized. Sargent never worked in Paris again.
The subject of the painting was Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, a Parisian socialite who’d been born in New Orleans but brought over to Paris as an 8-year-old child after her father died in the American Civil War. By the time Sargent approached her, she was a well-known socialite, married to a banker, twenty-four. Sargent was enraptured by her, although she was by no means a traditional beauty, and clamored to paint her. Alas, she hated sitting for his endless studies (he did 30 before settling on the pose that would go on to become iconic), and he lamented what today we might call her ADD.
Virginie was known to have had a string of lovers. (In fact, one, a doctor who had previously sat for Sargent, was the one who facilitated the introduction between the painter and the subject). It was that fleshy sensuality that Sargent captured so well, the creamy skin, the curves, the inside of the arm resting on the table.
I think that’s probably what caught my eye at the Metropolitan all those years ago. Pictures of the painting are interesting, but completely fail to capture the stunning, arresting quality of the massive painting in person. (The painting is seven feet eight inches tall). I didn’t know any of the backstory, didn’t even know the painting was particularly well-known, but could feel the woman’s confidence and how she owned her physical presence. She was no shrinking violet. I liked that she dared to stand there, knowing the painter would only tell a story about her, not capture completely who she was. (Because, what portrait can?). She represented a great deal of something I craved at sixteen, although I’d spend half a life trying to figure out what it was: presence, physicality, an unrepentant take on sex and life and the mistakes we make. She was vain and she was hopeful.
Later, I’d find out she often took breaks in her sittings for Sargent to tend to her four-year-old child, who would die four years before her, in 1911, when the daughter was thirty-two and Madame X was fifty-two. There was so much the painting didn’t reveal. Did she die four years after her daughter out of a mother’s despair? Did she lament when her neck stopped being quite so swan-like in her fifties? Was she appalled by the start of the First World War and the loss of the life of grace and leisure she’d enjoyed? What did her voice sound like, and how did she take the public shaming that happened after the painting was shown? History is full of women who have been ostracized for daring to be different, for being haughty and proud, for wanting more than society thought they should have. Whenever I see Madame X, I am reminded of the millions of us.
I thought of her of the other day when I found online and then posted a picture of a woman with a crown, in a gown, in a different pose than Madame X but with the same bared skin, the same luscious confidence. I’ve visited Madame X from time to time, this alabaster icon of a woman who wants more, but it’s been years since I’ve seen her. It may be time for another visit, to see what middle-aged me appreciates that teen me might have missed.