Finalmente! An unfinished painting after John Singer Sargent’s ‘Madame Gautreau Drinking a Toast’ was propped up on my bookshelf for 4 years. She is finally finished! I started it as part of an assignment for a painting course involving taking a drawing and turning it into a painting. I got as far as the background and basic shape of the figure and glass. My images tend to be landscapes, architecture or food. Figures, especially ones in colour and with faces aren’t really my thing. This was the first time I painted skintone. Scary! My painting was actually starting to look kind of like a human….. then I was afraid to work on it any more. So it sat untouched for a few years.
Recently, with some coaching from the amazing Val Nelson, I completed the painting! Below are the various stages. I didn’t think to photograph them all in the same place at the same time of day, so the lighting is not consistent. You might notice she had a nose job, facelift, forehead enhancement, and ear repositioning.
John Singer Sargent is one of my favourite artists. He was born in Firenze to expat American parents. They lived off his mother’s small inheritance and he had a very Bohemian upbringing. Sargent is mostly known as a formal portrait painter. I love his acquerelli, the watercolours he painted of friends and family while on vacation. They are so fluid, spontaneous, and bathed in light. He could do so much with each brushstroke. This painting was an oil sketch but has same spontaneity as his acquerelli. It was a study in preparation for ‘Madame X’.
Madame Gautreau is the same subject of ‘Madame X’, a very famous, or shall we say ‘di cattiva fama’, a notorious Sargent painting. The subject, Virginie Avegno Gautreau was an expat American socialite married to an older Parisian banker. Sargent thought a painting of her unusual features would bring him increased portrait commissions. Madame Gautreau thought being painted by Sargent would elevate her social status and add a dash of celebrity. Perhaps she is related to the Kardashians?She posed for the portrait wearing a slinky black velvet dress with an impossibly fitted bodice, her skin powdered in lavender. While posing, the jeweled right strap of her dress slipped from her shoulder, and Sargent painted it that way.
When the painting premiered at the Paris Salon of 1884, it caused an outright scandal. We could call it ‘Strap-Gate’. ‘Madame X’ was considered sexually provocative and in extremely bad taste. A humiliated Madame Gautreau retreated to the country and she refused to buy the painting. Sargent was critically panned by the Salon. He moved to London soon after the controversy and poor critical reception.
Sargent eventually repainted the strap back on the shoulder, and ‘Madame X’ was kept in his studio for 30 years. After the death of Madame Gautreau, he sold it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan for a pittance. There is also an unfinished version with a single strap at the Tate Gallery in London. I was lucky enough to see this one in person in 2001 at the Seattle Art Museum. Madame Gautreau finally did get the fame and attention she craved.
‘Madame X’ Metropolitan Museum of Art and ‘Unfinished Madame X’ Tate Gallery. Images Wikimedia Commons and jssgallery.org.
‘Madame X’ has been the subject of several books including ‘Strapless’ by Deborah Davis and ‘I am Madame X’ by Gioia Diliberto. Just last month the one act ballet ‘Strapless’ premiered in London.
‘Madame Gautreau Drinking a Toast’ lives at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. The Gardner Museum has a large Sargent Collection including many of his acquerelli di vacanze and the amazing gypsy dance ‘Il Jaleo’.
At the moment, I have no plans for a new career as una falsaria d’arte-an art forger. Studying and reproducing a Master painting is a valuable learning experience. They don’t call them ‘i Maestri’ for nothing! I think I will tackle Vermeer’s ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ next. Or maybe my own scandalous full size version of Madame X? Che pensati?