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Couldn’t resist that title – I mean how many opportunities will I get to use that pun?  Even if I take part in another A to Z Blogging Challenge, what are the odds that “X” will fall on a Friday?  Boggles the mind.  Well, my mind anyway.  And my mind is easily boggleable.  So here we go – the title of this post is:

Portrait of Madame X – or, I Should Be So Insulted!

In 1884, the renowned artist John Singer Sargent painted one of his most famous portraits.  The portrait, larger than life-size, is 82 inches tall – that’s almost 7 feet tall, folks!  The subject of the painting was Madame Virginie Avegno Gautreau.

When the painting was unveiled in Paris at the Salon of 1884, it became instantly a salacious painting and a scandal in French society as a result of the sexual suggestiveness of her pose and the pale pasty color of her skin. The portrait was forever after known as “Madame X.” Mme. Gautreau’s reputation was apparently destroyed by this painting, and Sargent left France a short time later never truly regaining his former standing as the darling of Paris. Mme. Gautreau herself despised the painting at the time  (she is reported to have changed her mind in later years just before her death in 1915.).

The doors of the Salon were hardly open before the picture was damned. The public took great exception to Mme. Gautreau’s clothing; the art critics of the day totally panned the painter’s skill and technique. The Salon was scandalized.  Odd, considering that they had enthusiastically accepted it for exhibition.  But, apparently they “saw the light” as a result of the public’s response.
The Salon was in an uproar. The uproar was led by the lady’s relatives. A demand was made that the picture should be withdrawn.

Among the many quirks of human nature, it is fairly common that though a person will confess and even call attention to his/her own failings, s/he will deeply resent the same “sin” being pointed out by someone else. So it was with the dress of Madame Gautreau.

In this painting, Sargent “exposed” to the public a fact about herself which she had previously never made any attempt to conceal.  As a matter of fact, she considered her fashion sense one of her many social assets. Her shock and dismay over this painting were profound. It was planned that her family would wait until after the exhibition closed, and the painting was delivered to her (it was her property, after all), after which they would see that it was destroyed, and then remove all mention of its existence from the family records. Anticipating this, Sargent, before the exhibition was over, took it away himself. After remaining many years in his studio it is now one of the treasures of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, NY. 

Perhaps one of the most interesting facts about this painting is that it was altered from the original, by Mr. Sargent himself.  He likely painted her as she appeared, which was with the strap of the dress, on her right shoulder, hanging down!  How suggestive can one get?  Before displaying it, he altered it, concerned, apparently, about the poor woman’s reputation.

Times have changed.  Indeed it wasn’t long before painters were not only displaying portraits of women in far more suggestive clothing, many of the models were completely nude, and many artists even revealed the heretofore secret presence of a third breast!  Talk about photographic realism!  And rather than the merely sexually explicit “pasty white skin,” painters have become positively pornographic by using every other color under the sun – some even in tanned flesh tones (on some of the white models, anyway).

Now you know more about Madame X than you ever wanted.  But you still have not seen it.  To see the real thing, go to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, or content yourselves with viewing the following:

Doesn’t your heart positively bleed sympathy for the poor woman? Here is a representation of what the portrait likely looked like before the alteration:

Like I said in the title, I should be so insulted!  Either way, it is a beautiful painting.  I am sorry that Sargent didn’t live long enough to know how well-respected and venerated this painting would become – ex post facto.

I wish you all, my Gentle Readers, enough. . .

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