Madame Gautreau Drinking a Toast, John Singer Sargent, 1882-83. This small, intimate painting was done a year before the infamous Madame X, and was given by Sargent to Madame Gautreau’s mother.
Madame X—Madame Pierre Gautreau—is remembered because of John Singer Sargent’s famous portrait. Like him, she was an American expatriate and arriviste, which perhaps explains why she sat for him when so many artists were clamoring to paint her.
She was born Virginie Amélie Avegno in New Orleans in 1859. Her parents were Creoles: her father claimed he was Italian, and her mother was French. Her father—an officer—was killed in the Battle of Shiloh in 1862.
Figure study of Madame Pierre Gautreau by Sargent in watercolor and graphite, c. 1883. The difficulties of painting a socialite's portrait included getting her to settle down to posing.
The South being suddenly inhospitable to planter society, Virginie’s mother moved the two of them to Paris, where the girl was educated for her role as a parisienne. This was the 19th century equivalent of a Sloane Ranger or BCBG—a young, polished woman whose primary raison d'être was to exist beautifully. These women were sometimes called “professional beauties.”
Just as Virginie herself was being reengineered for a European career, Paris in 1867 was in the midst of reinventing itself. The ancient city had been largely redesigned and rebuilt by Baron Haussmann. A brash new city required brash new people, people like Virginie Avegno, now married to Pierre Gautreau, banker. They might not have had pedigrees, but they had money and youth and beauty.
|The painting now known as Portrait of Madame X, by John Singer Sargent, 1884. The only one that mattered, and the one that scandalized Paris society.|
Virginie was a very pale brunette with an arresting face and an hourglass figure. She was a fardée, or an openly painted lady. Her hennaed hair and lavender powder (to enhance her pallor) enhanced, rather than detracted from, her reputation. She was very much a new woman in the Parisian style. And because she was a stunner, and an American, people gossiped. Did she use arsenic to achieve that pallor? With whom was she sleeping?
Madame Pierre Gautreau, Antonio de La Gandara,1898. Mme. Gautreau went on to be painted by many other society artists, but never as memorably as by Sargent.
Her reputation and exotic looks also made her a magnet for artists. Among them was Sargent. “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,” he wrote a friend.
Madame X was shown in the Paris Salon of 1884 under the title Portrait de Mme --, as if that could protect the sitter’s anonymity. Although Mme. Gautreau and Sargent both thought it was a masterpiece, the public reception was one of shock. Mme. Gautreau’s mother asked him to withdraw the painting, which the artist refused.
Portrait de Madame Gautreau,1891,Gustave-Claude-Étienne Courtois. This was painted seven years after Sargent's portrait, and the falling strap and décolletage raised nary an eyebrow.
Mme. Gautreau quickly recovered from her humiliation, and was painted again by other artists. Sargent moved on to greener pastures in London. And the painting is remembered as an iconic masterpiece.