It was the portrait of Theodore Roosevelt that first got me to notice the paintings of John Singer Sargent. For a time, I was captivated by old black and white photos of prominent historical figures. Then, I discovered that some of them had been “colorized” by computers. Looking at a color photo of Abraham Lincoln or Mark Twain is shocking, but inevitably you wonder how accurately the computer process produces a lifelike image.
This led me to compare portraits to photos, trying to see how accurate they were. After spending a lot of time comparing a colorized photo of Roosevelt to a portrait painted by Sargent, I began to believe that the painting conveyed more emotion than the photo. Fascinated, I began to seek out more portraits by Sargent. I was hooked.
It took a while for me to realize exactly why I like the paintings of Sargent. He was trained in a Parisian atelier (private art school) by a teacher who taught the methods and techniques of Diego Velazques, my favorite artist. His teacher would endlessly repeat the words of Velazques, “In art everything that is not indispensable is harmful.”
John Singer Sargent, was an expatriate American painter who spent most of his life constantly moving around in Europe. Born in Italy to American parents, he spent most of his life in either London or Paris, learning to speak French, German, and Italian as well as English. It was in Paris that his art began to be noticed, after he won acclaim at the annual Paris Salon—the official art show that showcased the best of art produced that year.
Sargent was exceptionally talented and could have chosen almost any artistic career since he was as talented in music and writing as painting, but he chose to be a portrait artist because he needed to make sufficient money to support his parents and siblings. Sargent was never interested in the "dignified poverty" of a bohemian artist, so he approached painting as a money making proposition and followed a detailed business plan.
In order to become a successful portrait artist, Sargent needed to meet the kind of people who could afford a portrait. He carefully courted members of Parisian high society, often offering to paint their portrait for free. One of those he pursued was a prominent physician, Dr. Samuel Jean de Pozzi. The portrait, Dr. Pozzi At Home (pictured right) won Sargent the kind of attention he needed in Parisian society.
His painting of Pozzi was the inspiration for Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Gray. Wild patterned the artist in the novel, Basil Hallward, after Sargent.
Sargent needed to fit in with high society, but he was consciously aware that he was not a part of that society. One of the paintings that he kept on display in his studio was a copy he had made of Diego Velazquez’s Don Antonio el Ingles, a portrait of a court dwarf posing with a mastiff, knowing that when the original was painted, in art a dwarf represented the artistic outsider. By making the copy, Sargent was admitting that he was the outsider catering to the whims of high society. Perhaps this is the reason that, once he was financially secure in his last decades, he grew tired of the genre, agreeing only occasionally to paint the rich or famous.
Considering the ongoing debate today about tariffs, it is ironic that Sargent drew criticism in France for being an American after the US instituted a tariff on importing French Art. Born in Italy, and living most of his life in Europe—he didn’t even visit America until he was fully grown—Sargent was far more European than American. Years later when he was offered a knighthood, he had to remind King Edward that he was not an Englishman.
It was Dr. Pozzi who introduced Sargent to Virginie Amelie Avegno Gastreau, another expatriate American, whose desire to be noticed was as intense as Sargent’s.
Amelie had moved from New Orleans to Paris shortly after her father had been killed in the Civil War. Groomed by her mother almost solely to be married to a man of wealth and prominence, she was one of the first women to be labeled a “professional beauty” by the British newspapers. Amelie was shapely, tall, and had the pale luminescent skin tones that were prized in high society. (While some of that was natural, her mother kept exacting financial records that reveal the secret formula for perfect skin tones included liberal dusting with rice powder followed by equally liberal amounts of lavender dusting.) In a day when many rich women had their faces painted with enamel and regularly swallowed arsenic to achieve the perfect pale pallor, Amalie was a natural beauty. She enhanced this with her red hair, carefully dyed eyebrows, and her ears tipped with rouge.
Note. I always thought that I was the first person to think that some women appeared to apply their makeup with a trowel, but one newspaper pundit accused Amelie of using a golden trowel over a century ago. To be fair, this was much later in her life, but even in the prime of her youth, Amelie, like all the women in high society, spent enormous amounts of time and money on their makeup.
Married to a prominent banker, Amelie was extremely popular, with newspapers regularly reporting where she went, who she was with, and what she wore. Everyone gossiped about her love life, her sense of fashion, and who she met secretly. Amelie was, in her time, what Kim Kardashian is today: an attractive woman whose sole talent is remaining famous.
Sargent managed to convince Amelie Gastreau to sit for a portrait. Together, they plotted to produce a shocking portrait—one that would garner both of them the attention they craved. Convincing Amelie proved easier than actually painting her portrait, for the beauty bored easily and did not have the discipline to remain still enough for a portrait. It took months, and Sargent produced 30 preliminary sketches, several water colors, one partially completed painting, and one masterpiece.
Amelie Gastreau was portrayed wearing a clinging black dress with a deep décolletage, standing at a table with her face in profile. The portrait was beautiful, managing to convey the translucent skin tones and a haunting beauty. Sargent and Amelie were both excited with the result and Sargent entered the painting in the 1884 Paris Salon with the title Madame ***, modestly withholding the name of the beauty that all of Paris would recognize instantly.
On opening day—the painting was received horribly. People were shocked and yelled insults. The newspapers denounced the painting, the artist, and the model. Amelie’s mother demanded that Sargent withdraw the painting, while Amelie hid herself in the refuge of her home.
What was upsetting everyone was that the dress strap on Amelie’s left shoulder had fallen down on her arm, suggesting that she was either in the process of disrobing for an affair, or hurriedly redressing after one. It was not the amount of skin being shown that was upsetting, it was that the painting made public what all of Paris knew privately—that the upper class viewed having affairs as de rigueur. The behavior was expected, but confessing it was forbidden.
Sargent left the painting in the Salon, but when it was over, he scraped the paint of the shoulder strap off and repositioned the strap up on Amelie’s shoulder. Since Amelie and her husband refused to purchase the painting, it remained in Sargent’s studios for decades. His career as a portrait artist in Paris was irreparably damaged, so he moved to London, occasionally leaving for short periods of time in America. Ironically, his career as a portrait artist flourished outside of Paris, in no large part because of the notoriety of the painting of Madame Gastreau.
Amelie Gastreau, never recovered socially despite desperate measures. She had her portrait painted by a different artist. The new, "chaste" portrait covered almost all of her skin—and no one cared or noticed. Another new portrait was produced, complete with a plunging neck line and a fallen dress strap. Once again, no one cared. As she aged, she appeared less and less in the newspapers. Eventually, Amelie gave up and became a recluse in her own home, seeing no one and never venturing out, except late at night. When she died in 1915, few noticed.
Sargent went on to great acclaim, on both sides of the Atlantic. For the rest of his life, he was in the enviable position of being able to refuse commissions, despite substantially raising the price he demanded for a portrait. In 1910, he offered the portrait of Madame Gastreau to the New York Metropolitan for the bargain price of roughly $5,000, less than he charged for a portrait. His sole condition was that the portrait not be listed with the name of the subject. The Met agreed and since that time, the work has been known as the Portrait of Madame X.
Surprisingly, while the painting was famous, the Met did not learn that Sargent had repositioned the shoulder strap until 1981 when a photo of the original painting as it hung in the Paris Salon surfaced. X-rays have confirmed the original position. If you remember, Sargent had produced a second painting of Amelie, now hanging in the Tate. On that unfinished painting, the shoulder strap is missing, still waiting for Sargent to finish the portrait.
The woman in the portrait never worked a day in her life, far too busy with a life in high society, a life style that meant rising at noon, spending three or more hours a day fixing her hair and putting on makeup in preparation for a day of theater, dinners, going to multiple parties—a typical night might require as many as eight costume changes. All of this was necessary to be memorable.
As Deborah Davis noted in her book, Strapless, today, no one remembers the name of Virginie Amelie Avegno Gastreau. But, as Madame X, she is remembered as the woman who works eight hours a day, six days a week—and she hasn’t changed her dress in 134 years.