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I <3 U, Madame X

Updated: Feb 20, 2021

Madame X is among the most striking images I’ve seen and in writing this I’m setting out to examine my response to the painting. I’ve scribbled some peremptory notes, which reflect both the reaction I had the last time I was in the Met and a finer detailing of that which captures me. The scope of the painting’s power is best witnessed in the room and my photo certainly undersells its quality.

I want to preface this by acknowledging my total amateurism in discussing fine art. Never have I tried to discuss it in writing because, like music, there is an essence to a wordless masterpiece that stirs simultaneously vast, vivid, and vague elements. To put language to that is, for me, a daunting task; however, I set forth on the journey!

Necessary Background Details

Madame X is the work of John Singer Sargent (1856-1925). It was received in 1884 at the Paris Salon and established Sargent as a name, if not with the proper reputation of an artist he would earn as his career expanded beyond the controversy that came with Madame X. It was scandalized for the sexuality of the subject (once even more pronounced from the right shoulder strap originally shown fallen, resting against the medial deltoid) and perhaps the implicit understanding both the artist and the model, expatriate Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, engaged in the project partly as an effort to establish higher social position in French society.

The quality of the work has lived into posterity, however, while the scandal died away before the turn of the twentieth century. Gautreau was a socialite and hostess known for her beauty. This is a phenomenon beyond the understanding of modern taste and lifestyle: not as banal as a trophy wife, not as crude as a reality TV star. As a popular hostess, Gautreau’s social position and responsibility would have looked something like a First Lady on a lesser scale (with this understanding, one can imagine how the sensual painting would have resulted in scandal). I get the feeling there is much more to say about what social life looked like and why it looked a certain way but I am far removed from being able to speak intelligently about this. I can only say, based on consuming art and history from before WWII, the way people found community and participated in social gatherings was much more definitively constructed and--I say this without wanting to romanticize it too much--artistic than whatever it is we do now. And I don’t even know what it is we do now! I find myself often in the position of “artist” by which I mean I do a lot more observing and reflecting than participating. It seems to me there was a time when people would gather in grand homes, enjoy multi-course meals, dance to ballroom music, sing and play for each other in a more significant and classically trained way, and interact with the intent of investment rather than immediate pleasure seeking with an abrupt end in mind. Of course, this vision is largely class-oriented and I’m sure trips to the bars, taverns, and “pleasure island” type locales were customary. But for the crowd privy to the cultivated delights of high society, a person in Gautreau’s position would have a compendium of duties as hostess and, though this role seems to have largely disappeared, it must have been a valued position: I have read both fictional and non-fictional accounts that seriously describe the talents and reputations of women who occupied such positions. The implication is, from my perspective, that they served as an important pivot point around which many different kinds of people would meet for political, artistic, friendly, and/or romantic exchange: curators of their society.

The images of beautiful people, sexually alluring people populate our everyday lives—for a number of reasons—more so than previous centuries. In the relative scarcity of shocking beauty, a certain kind of awe and disbelief came with its presence and was sought after by artists. Gautreau was certainly not the first person chased down by a painter and asked to sit for a portrait, inspired by the same convulsive desire a Dorian Gray type produces in the creative mind. Written correspondences indicate my claim:

"I have a great desire to paint her portrait and have reason to think she would allow it and is waiting for someone to propose this homage to her beauty. If you are 'bien avec elle' and will see her in Paris, you might tell her I am a man of prodigious talent.”

The homage to Gautreau’s beauty was met with ridicule, however, and the painting stayed in Sargent’s possession until he sold it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1916. Perhaps as a sales pitch, perhaps as a humble confession, perhaps as a combination of the two, Sargent wrote to the director of the museum, “I suppose it is the best thing I have ever done.”

First Impressions

I do not remember the first time I saw Madame X. It must have been sometime in the year 2019. On a whim, I thought I’d go exploring in the American Wing and, being a total ignoramus on the subject of American painting, had no idea who to look for or which pieces I should pay special attention to. In 2018, there was an exhibition of Thomas Cole on the lower level of the American Wing and, if memory serves, I had a vague desire to look at his work again and some others of the Hudson River School.

Before I walked into the room mostly dedicated to John Singer Sargent, it’s worth taking note of my artistic temperament if we are and I am to better understand the power with which Madame X struck me. I am drawn to the inner construction of individuals and the displaying of their private worlds through artistic expression; I am mesmerized by physiological aesthetics; I am more of an admirer of beauty than a lustful pursuer of it; in the mediums of painting and photography, expressions of the physicalized human experience is the subject I’m most drawn to (as opposed to experimentations in color, sound, geometric shape, etc.). And so it was with this taste my eyes landed on the glowing Madame X.

The Met, of course, is aware of the importance and quality of the piece, typically presented at the center of the east wall in the Singer Sargent parlor. Singer Sargent consciously used a big canvas for his work to stand out in the competitive Paris Salon setting; therefore, not only the painting’s superior positioning, but also its size (3.5+ feet x 7.5+ feet dimensions) contributes to its majesty.

What I See

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand the initial pull of the painting on the eye. This imagining of Gautreau (she sat for other paintings and painters) moves beyond the allure of her physiognomy and is rather scant in purposeful seduction. She is presented as a physically capable specimen: the posture is strong and reveals—especially in the unclad parts of her body—a woman carrying appreciable, defined muscle mass. Her face, neck, shoulders, arms and forearms harbor a kind of Athenian strength, aided by the tension of her head in profile, her right arm contracting isometrically against the table, and her active left arm.

Gautreau is shown as an unmistakable mesomorph, elucidated with a clear taper from shoulders to waist. We are left to guess at the power and strength of her lower half, but detail at the top of her right hip indicates a perky muscularity in at least the top of her legs. Her athletic prowess is more famously mingled with her magnetic womanhood, which reveals itself in carefully styled, reddish-brown hair (adorned with a tiara); soft lips, eye, and ear; a sculpted brow and high forehead; a black dress revealing her shape while providing its own kind of life force. The skin, a glowing white, crashes against the pitch black dress and is further highlighted by the dim room and mahogany table upon which Singer Sargent’s madame leans. The table, round, has its own kind of energy, partially reflecting Gautreau and whispering into the ear of our consciousness with a curvature that partners with the main subject’s own. That Gautreau ventures to touch and grasp the table with her sacred hand imbues the inanimate object with a much-desired privilege.

Gautreau’s beauty is hardened: it’s travailed some of the peaks and valleys of its earthly existence. At the time Singer Sargent painted her she was married and a mother, the first sign of her great gift’s waning a mere spot on the horizon but, nevertheless, there. It seems to me Singer Sargent captured something of her nobility in the face of this distant doom while taking on the responsibility of mother and wife with impenetrable posture, dress, and a statuesque pose. This pose is, perhaps, the source of power in the portrait. Madame X is very much a two-dimensional rendering of a classical sculpture: the marbled and supernatural skin; the athletic, muscular anatomy; the feminine anthropometry and physiognomy; the proud and protected gesture: protected by a lifetime of enduring beauty’s callers, enduring nature’s claims on beauty’s transience, incorporating her beauty as a part of her conscious experience.

On Beauty

Beauty is a funny thing for creatures defined by it and often results in a shell: to possess beauty means to attract its pursuants, who are sometimes bad actors. It is no mistake to discover a pretty person emotionally guarded or even combative as a result of interactions with people who impaled them for their appearance in different ways and for different reasons. Over time, this puts the soul in closer contact to its physical manifestation but drives a wedge between the individual and the outer world. And one can, out of a real necessity, become hardened. But to have discovered love and motherhood in the face of this imbues the hardening with a kind of swell. I feel this is the emotional foundation for Madame X’s steely component, one Singer Sargent recognized or came out of his brush subconsciously.

I think modern people absent of a sense of social change as a result of technological and cultural revolution would and should be suspect of the “homage to beauty” genre of which Madame X is a part. In fact, I would like to offer this absence as a pivotal reason for the resent-laden--my substitute term for “post-modern”--assessment of art. It is worth giving them their due: our age is one where beauty is commonly observed and frequently desecrated. Social media, television and film, the widespread use of cosmetic enhancement, pornography, magazines, and more contribute to dispersing beauty’s supply while removing a piece of its transcendent quality via its fungibility and participation in base displays. I can empathize with the kind of person who uses the word objectify in too many places. Stripped of its lofty power, treated more as a tool than ever before, the presentation of a beautiful person undeniably feels less human than ever before. And this feeling informs interpretations even of presentations rich in the human experience.

But this is a wrong view, one poisoned by the very thing it fights: real beauty does have a kind of soulful power that inspires awe and admiration, especially affecting artistic types and inspiring work. This is the seed Dorian Gray’s physical prowess planted in Basil Hallward. The degree to which this kind of inspiration is understood by the masses and/or the elite who participate in artistic creation and consumption has been diminished by beauty’s omnipresence: a fall Sunday spent in front of the television includes rare, athletic men; lusty cheerleaders; immaculate pop stars singing introductory songs for each station’s prime time game; a parade of perfect blondes and brunettes selling products during commercial breaks; the news blurbs in-between games featuring attractive women with seductive voices in anchor positions; and the sideline reporters (think Erin Andrews) one level shy or a mere decade older than supermodels. And this is all from a couple of football games. Think of the ubiquity of beautiful people in movies and television.

I suggest even through all of this exposure, the proper frame of mind can still give beauty its due (but maybe a conscious distancing is necessary to desaturate the senses). More importantly, a proper frame of mind can imagine a world where the excess of symmetrical, fertile people were seen far less often: no high-quality photography, no internet, no television, no birth control, no night clubs, no common work or school space for men and women, a diminished capacity for cosmetic enhancement, venereal disease as a fatal threat, child birth as a fatal threat and deadly serious undertaking, no gyms/exercise routines available for enhancing physicality, scant information on nutrition, bathing suits that revealed nothing, and many more things I’m not accounting for. One can then imagine, I hope, a version of reality where a certain kind of genetically gifted person could walk into a room and stun people in obvious and not so obvious ways.

It is the spiritual reception of this kind of presence that produces artistic inspiration; sexual understanding informs the spiritual. This is the muse for Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18; the Venus de Milo; the confounding effect of Aglaya and Nastasia Fillipovna on Dostoevsky’s Prince Mischkin; The Picture of Dorian Gray; at least one third of every painting or photograph ever. The reception of this kind of beauty must be understood beyond sex, even if that element is present. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, for example, is often used as evidence he was bisexual or gay. I could care less about Shakespeare’s sexuality in and of itself; however, I want to propose the possibility that a heterosexual man (I understand sexuality to be not on a spectrum, though I’m open to the possibility of this being more of a reality than I am presently aware) could, indeed, look upon a fellow man with stunning looks and experience awe and admiration without sexual desire. Of course, the influence of this kind of person’s gift on the vision and spirit of others has to do with the procreative signals their natural appearance communicates. But reducing it down to only this primal response blots out the totality of the experience; the experience which is part of the beyond. And perhaps the a la mode practice of labelling any and every heterosexual man as gay or bisexual who isn’t strictly a half-neutered robot with limited sexual experience and grey personality, reveals a lack of understanding for this experience. Proof positive of the aforementioned possibility--or at least one proof--is the common recurrence of gay men and straight women acknowledging and near-on worshipping the beauty of a woman without wanting to engage in sexual activity with her. I am not aware of limiting factors that would prevent a lesbian woman and straight man having a similar response to a male. I say all of this because Singer Sargent was likely gay and, yet, here we have an homage to the beauty of a woman in Madame X.

If we can accept the possibility that a human being can be held captive by an aura of physical magic possessed by another, we can have some deeper insight into what I believe sparked John Singer Sargent’s desire to paint Virginie Gautreau. I do not ask for the sexual element to be removed in our understanding of a muse (even in the aforementioned Shakespeare example); I only suggest and hope there is an understanding of the experience beyond or separate from only sensuous desire. There are, after all, examples of beauty captured in individuals whose sexual interest has mostly expired or has not yet come into bloom: think of Rembrandt’s portraits or Bouguereau’s more nascent subjects. I would also characterize Tolstoy’s description of Princess Marya (War and Peace) as an example of a person absent an empire of physical wonders but, nevertheless, stunning for the grandeur of her inner world. So obvious is the radiance of her soul, it manifests in his physiognomic descriptions of Marya.

This is not the kind of beauty which guided the hand of Singer Sargent, for Gautreau represents something of the spectacular, the fecund, the strong. I’m suggesting the capacity for beauty to leak into all kinds of different spheres when grand enough and for a master artist to gather in one cup the multitudes of it with a clarity of vision that eclipses the uni-dimensional displaying and consuming of it in our era.

Singer Sargent

I have such a trust in the earnestness of the emotions and physicality in Madame X because the whole of John Singer Sargent’s opus suggests a spellbinding capacity to demonstrate the souls of his subjects. Rarely do I encounter portraits of people where it seems the capaciousness of their personality is immediately available and Singer Sargent achieves this miracle in Madame X, The Wyndham Sisters, Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, Mr. and Mrs. Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes, Mrs. Hugh Hammersley (his sister), and countless others. When I look at his work I see lifelike eyes; emotions simultaneously subtle, vivid, and radiant through detail in the face, pose, and posture; the use of light and shadow to aid in mood and coloring of personality.

Some of the things I notice in his paintings are beyond my thought construction and I can’t state them elegantly. I know there are ways he draws women which capture indefinably beautiful parts of them: the way their chins and jaws are shaped and tilted, the ways their mouths suggest something playful but vague, the way a piece of clothing will hug a part of their body. In men, he has a keen sense of the guarded, the exhibitionists, the strong, the proud, the vulnerable. I find myself continually observing the degree to which their chests are elevated, neutral, or depressed as a marker of his male figures. His illustrations of children appear with accompanying ebullient, awkward, and somewhat blurry personalities but always glowing with diamonds of potential.

I write the above paragraphs not as a complete reflection on this artist who I hold in such high regard, but to give some more framing around the topic of my obsession with Madame X: something about Singer Sargent’s vision overlaps with my own imagination and so I am drawn to his work more than perhaps all of the others I’ve been exposed to.

I would like to stop here in the hopes I’ve said something of use about Madame X, Singer Sargent, or the topic of beauty beyond lust. The painting in discussion is, to me, a representation of what a striking person can do in the depths of our imagination: they turn into something above their human form and the intricacies of their bodies become more pronounced and glorious in the mind, fused with the emotions with which we recall them and those they presented to us and produced in us upon first witnessing them. When a great master lends their touch to the exhuming of this image from within themselves and moulds it into work for the rest of us to behold, we get to bathe in the flood of their creation which hydrates our own perception and imagination. This is my experience with John Singer Sargent’s reproduction of his mind and soul’s vision of Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau.

*For more artistic discussion:

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