Each week, we bring you the backstory of work featured in our collection, written by a member of our curatorial team. 

Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau), 1884, Metropolitan Museum of Art

by Poppy Simpson, Head of Curation

In 1916, the American painter John Singer Sargent sold what is now one of his most famous portraits to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In the course of the sale, he wrote to one of the museum’s curators: “I should prefer, on account of the row I had with the lady years ago, that the picture should not be called by her name.”

The painting was, of course, the infamous ‘Madame X’. 32 years earlier, the portrait had almost ended Sargent’s career and destroyed the reputation of its subject.

Virginie Amélie Gautreau (born Avegno) was an American, the daughter of white Creole parents in New Orleans. In the 1860s, she and her widowed mother left the ailing family plantation for Paris, where the young Virginie was educated. The next decade brought marriage to Pierre Gautreau, a banker and shipping magnate twice her age, which secured Virginie’s access to Parisian high society, where she gained a reputation for both her beauty and rumoured infidelities. Indeed, her unconventional looks—alabaster skin and henna-dyed hair—caught the attention of many artists in the city. The American expatriate painter Edward Simmons recalled: “I remember seeing Madame de Gautrot [sic], the noted beauty of the day, and could not help stalking her as one does a deer”.

Gautreau refused most requests to sit for portraits but decided to pose for Sargent after a number of entreaties. It’s likely that she saw the collaboration as an opportunity to advance her social standing; despite her marriage, looks, and public admirers, Virginie was still considered an outsider and excluded from the highest echelons of the French ‘beau monde’. A portrait created for the Paris Salon—the illustrious, jury-selected exhibition that had been the centre of artistic life in the city since the 17th century—could be just the ticket to a more sophisticated reputation.

And Sargent had his own motives. While he had exhibited at the Salon previously, the majority of his commissions came from expats, and he was eager to cement his artistic reputation as well as achieve acceptance as a French society painter.

Painting the portrait proved a challenge. Sargent drafted over 30 studies of Gautreau, who soon became bored by the process. The frustrated artist bemoaned “the unpaintable beauty and hopeless laziness of Madame Gautreau.“ And yet both were confident about the portrait’s reception.

Their optimism was misplaced. The critics savaged the work: “When one stands 20 metres from the painting, it looks like it might be something,” wrote one critic in L'Événement. “But when one gets closer…one realises that it is only hideousness.” Meanwhile, the upper and middle-class Salon audiences were outraged by the suggestive black dress (chosen by Sargent) that seemed barely held up by two straps - Sargent later overpainted one shoulder strap, which was shown falling down Gautreau’s shoulder, to make it look more securely fastened.

Such was the furore that Gautreau’s ambitious mother asked Sargent to withdraw the portrait, claiming, “Ma fille est perdue—tout Paris se moque d'elle” (“my daughter is lost—all of Paris mocks her”). Sargent refused to retire the painting but he found the criticism too much and soon left permanently for London. A humiliated Gautreau, meanwhile, removed herself from fashionable society.

So why the fuss? Sure, Sargent took an unconventional approach to the painting’s composition, and Gautreau’s expanse of white skin might have unsettled some viewers. Yet, there were plenty of nudes in the Salon exhibition that year. Indeed, twenty years earlier, Manet had (despite much opposition) exhibited ‘Olympia’—a painting of a naked prostitute who glares confrontationally from the canvas. In this context, it’s difficult to see ‘Madame X’ as shocking.

Olympia, Edouard Manet, 1856

The answer lies in an understanding of the Salon exhibition and its audience’s expectations. This was a place where careers were made or broken. It was a place of tradition that lauded academic paintings—the genres of history, landscape and portrait. Since the 1860s, the Impressionists had been exhibiting at the Salon des Refusés (the Exhibition of Rejects) in protest of the stranglehold the conservative Salon had over the art world. But still the Salon retained its caché and drew vast audiences, especially from amongst the middle class, who craved art that appealed to their sense of self and their aspirations. Nudes were acceptable and understood in the context of artistic tradition. Society portraits were also enormously popular, but as long as they conformed to idealised concepts of beauty and virtue (Monet’s ‘Camille’ for example).

Camille (The Woman in the Green Dress), Claude Monet, 1866

Sargent’s painting—stark and sexual—did not conform. Gautreau’s confident, unusual pose and her daring, dramatic dress hinted at her reputation. For contemporary audiences, the concept of a painting that revealed something of the subject’s true character was an entirely modern and, it appears, overly challenging one. As the critic Jonathan Jones has noted: “Manet shocked with low life. Sargent shocked with the secrets of high life.”