I always love a "making of" or "behind the scenes" story, sometimes more than the work itself. I can't tell you how many movies have disappointed me when I finally saw them after reading abou tthem for years.
Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X tells the story of what is probably Sargent's most famous painting (I throw in that "probably" just because I'm not enough of an art historian to make a definitive statement). Nearly seven feet tall, the painting shows a woman with unearthly pale skin, wearing a black dress that appears to be held up by nothing--the thin jeweled straps are merely decorative--stands in a half turn so her body is in full view and her face in profile. She looks distant, both hidden and unseen, coming and going.
Originally titled "Portrait of Mme De...," Singer made the painting his official entry in the 1884 Paris Salon, the biggest art event of the year. Sargent had been exhibiting at the Salon since 1877 and had known nothing but success. The young American artist had been building a lucrative portrait painting business, but the painting of the woman in black nearly destroyed him. From the moment the Salon opened, visitors stood in front of it staring, not because they admired the work, but because they were horrified that any artist would dare exhibit something so awful in public. They hated her ghastly pallor, her barely there (by 19th century standards) and her confident sexuality. The critical reception was just as bad. Sargent was mortified. The mother of the woman in the painting wrote to Sargent demanding that he remove the painting from the Salon, stating that her daughter was in tears, her reputation in shreds.
One of Sargent's studies of Amelie.
Of course, the model didn't exactly have a reputation as a shy young thing that needed to be preserved. Virginie Amelie Avegno Gautreau was born in Louisiana, part of a plantation owning Creole family. Her father was killed in the Civil War and after the war's end, Amelie, as she was known, and her mother went to Paris to find better opportunities for the girl than were available in the Reconstruction ravaged South.
Her mother's gamble paid off when Amelie hit her teens and became a knockout. Aware that in France, only a married woman had the freedom to live life as she pleased, Amelie quickly accepted a marriage proposal from Pierre Gautreau (at age 19, I think, sorry don't have the book anymore), a wealthy banker. With her striking looks, daring fashion sense, and secure position in Parisian society, Amelie became one of the most famous women in Paris. She was a "professional beauty," someone whose appearance at any event drew breathless attention from all of Parisian society. She had affairs with a number of men, causing some some gossip, but probably less than there would be today; she was hardly the only upper-class woman in France who had an "arrangement" with her husband.
Sargent saw Amelie and was intrigued; he knew a portrait of her would get attention. Through mutual friends, he asked if she would let him paint her portrait, and she agreed. She knew that Sargent was a rising star in French society and being painted by him was more stylish than being painted by some of the other artists who had inquired about her.
If Sargent had been making a film, this would have been described as a difficult shoot. The work moved frustratingly slowly; it was hard to get twenty-three year old Amelie to pose between her busy Parisian social life, and her duties as a mother to her four year old daughter (she didn't seem to be one of those aristocrat women who had no interest in their children). Finally she invited Sargent to come to the Gautreau family estate in Brittany where they could work with fewer distractions. That didn't help much either. Amelie didn't like posing for long periods of time, and Sargent struggled to find the right pose and look for her. In a letter to his cousin Vernon Lee, Sargent wrote "struggling with the unpaintable beauty and hopeless laziness of Madame Gautreau.")He did numerous sketches, watercolors and small oil paintings, which are lovely in their own right. But the dazzling, giant portrait he wanted wasn't coming together. The pose Sargent finally chose would have been hard for a professional model to hold, let alone an impatient socialite. One of the straps of her dress slipped off her shoulder; Sargent decided to paint it that way. Eventually they parted and Sargent took the painting back to his studio to keep working on it. He tried different backgrounds, different colors to capture Amelie's skin tone. He tried to finish a clean copy before the salon, feeling like the original had been worked on too much, but didn't finish it in time. He finally decided to go with the version he had.
Amelie saw the painting, though, and liked it. It was only after the furiously negative reception at the salon that she changed her mind. Sargent's friend Ralph Curtis described the reaction in a letter to American relatives.
My Dear People,
Your paper will be ordered this a.m. Yesterday the birthday or funeral of a painter Scamps (John Sargent). Most exquis. weather. Walked up Champs E. chestnuts in full flower and dense mob of "tout Paris" in pretty clothes, gesticulating and laughing, slowly going into the Ark of Art. In 15 mins. I saw no end of acquaintances and strangers, and heard everyone say "ou est le portrait Gautreau?" "Oh allez voir ca" -- John covered with dust stopped with his trunks at the club the night before and took me on to his house where we dined. He was very nervous about what he feared, but his fears were far exceeded by the facts of yesterday. There was a grande tapage before it all day. In a few minutes I found him dodging behind doors to avoid friends who looked grave. By the corridors he took me to see it. I was disappointed in the colour. She looks decomposed. All the women jeer. Ah voilà "la belle!' "Oh quel horreur!" etc. Then a painter exclaims "superbe de style. "magnifique d'audace!" "quel dessin!" Then the blageur club man-- "C'est une copie!" "Comment une cope?" "Mais oui--la peinture d'aprés un autre morceau de peinture s'appele une copie." I heard that. All the a.m. it was one series of bons mots, mauvaises plaisanteries and fierce discussions. John, poor boy, was navré. We got out a big déjeuner at Ledoyens of a dozen painters and ladies and I took him there. In the p.m. the tide turned as I kept saying it would. It was discovered to be the knowing thing to say "étrangement épatant!" I went home with him, and remained there while he went to see the Boits. Mde. Gautreau and mére came to his studio "bathed in tears." I stayed them off but the mother returned and caught him and made a fearful scene saying "Ma fille est perdue--tout Paris se monque d'elle. Mon genre sera forcé de se battre. Elle mourira de chagrin" etc. John replied it was against all laws to retire a picture. He had painted her exactly as she was dressed, that nothing could be said of the canvas worse than had been said in print of her appearance dans le monde etc. etc. Defending his cause made him feel much better. Still we talked it over till 1 o'clock here last night and I fear he has never had such a blow. He says he wants to get out of Paris for a time. He goes to Eng. in 3 weeks. I fear là bas he will fall into Pre-R. influences wh. has got a strange hold of him he says since Siena.
I want him to go to Seville and do the tobacco girls with me in Nov. Says he will--nous verrons.
[You can read the letter with translations of the French words and phrases here; thanks to the same site for assisting me with some facts that I had forgotten in the months since I read Davis's book.]
Amelie's family wanted the painting removed from the Salon and destroyed, but artists weren't allowed to withdraw paintings once the exhibit opened. After it was over, Sargent brought the painting back to his studio and made one change. The fallen strap had been a particular point of outrage, with people feeling it made it look like Amelie's dress was too close to coming off. It was one thing for an artist to paint a professional model in the nude, but this kind of suggestiveness in a well-known, married society woman was too much. Sargent painted over the fallen strap and repainted it back on her shoulder. That's the version we have today; luckily, some photos were taken of the original version, so we know how it was supposed to look. He also changed the title to "Portrait of Madame X," which sounds to me like the name of a woman with something to hide.
Sargent kept the painting in his studio until the early 1900s, when he began to loan it out to exhibits. The Metropolitan Museum of Art bought the painting in 1916, where it still hangs today. The Tate Gallery has the unfinished copy Sargent tried to paint before the Salon. You can see some of the studies and sketches Sargent made before the final painting here.
In an effort to erase the memory of Madame X, Amelie had her portrait painted by several other artists, but none of these were as memorable as Madame X. She later changed her opinion again, and was happy to have it exhibited. Critical opinion also changed, of course.
Damn it, I did it again, I got so caught up in unnecessarily retelling the story that I haven't paid attention to Davis's book at all. Here's what I'll say--it doesn't completely work because of the two main characters: Amelie, or what we know of her, isn't nearly as fascinating as the painting. Sargent, on the other hand, was probably a fascinating man, but he did a remarkable job of hiding his private life from everyone. So I found myself not very interested in Amelie and interested in Sargent, who is frustratingly elusive. However, I do recommend this book because Davis does a really wonderful job of describing the place, time, and background of the events. To be honest, Amelie's family history is more absorbing than anything she does or says; the story of the expatriate Sargents almost makes up for the inability to get a full picture of Sargent (I don't blame Davis for this, by the way--I've seen other historians fail to find out more about him, too), and even the Gautreau history holds up well. Davis excels at describing Parisian life and art in the late 1800s. I recommend the book (which is brief and efficient, by the way) for these reasons. And maybe someday, someone will find that hidden cache of memoirs and letters that will reveal the true Sargent.
(Remember that "Will try to keep it short?" Yes, I failed miserably. Again.)