Thursday, February 26, 2009

"But it's only paint!"

Here's a little more about that 'scandalous' painting. Sargent's Madame Paul Gautreau (or Madame X) caused a furor in its day because of the dress and the way it was worn in the picture by Parisian "it" girl, Amelie Virginie Gautreau. 

In the original version shown in the Paris Salon in 1884, Sargent painted the right strap falling off her shoulder, lending the painting a sexually charged air that had Paris in an uproar. The sitter's family wanted to destroy the work but Sargent whisked it away as soon as the show closed, painted the strap back in place on the shoulder, and the painting hangs in the Metropolitan Museum today.

I find it interesting to compare compositionally what the altered line of the strap does to the painting. Whereas everything seems to flower open from the decollatage up to the lovely head in the original, in the final version there is a closing of the lines. The new angle of the right strap would seem to lead us to her head, but don't you think the lush expanse of bare chest in the original is far more effective at leading us toward her face? If anything is compromised here it is the purity of the line of Amelie's shoulder, not to mention the artist's original vision. Apparently Mme. Gautreau's relatives disagreed.

In the comments below, Sargent begins his painting. From a letter to his friend, Vernon Lee, as quoted in John Sargent, by Hon Evan Charteris, first published by Benjamin Blom, Inc. NY, in 1927:

"'In a few days I shall be back in Paris, tackling my other 'envoi,' the Portrait of a Great Beauty. Do you object to people who are '
farde├ęs'* to the extent of being uniform lavender or blotting-paper colour all over? If so you would not care for my sitter; but she has the most beautiful lines, and if the lavender or chlorate of potash-lozenge colour be pretty in itself I should be more than pleased.'"

* meaning 'disguised' 

John Singer Sargent, Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau), 1884, oil on canvas, 234.95 x 109.86 cm, Manhattan: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I am unable to find source or attribution information for this photograph, taken just before or during the Paris Salon in 1884.

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