There was no doubt in my mind which painting I wanted to first speak about. In my final year at University, this is the painting that inspired me to return to art and undertake an MA in Art History. It is John Singer Sargent’s Madame X, though her identity is well known today as Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, the famous 19th Century Parisian socialite.
For those of you who haven’t seen the painting before, it’s legacy lasts in the way it temporarily stalled Sargent’s career and damaged Amélie‘s reputation, arguably beyond repair. The original painting featured Amélie with her strap down and this combined with her suggestive position and provocative black dress was too much for the Salon (THE place in Paris to be exhibiting in the 19th Century). The image was later edited by Sargent to show the strap upon her shoulder and the version that remains today.
This was not the last time she was painted, however, nor was it the last time that Sargent would paint, but he left Paris for a quiet town in England after the scandal, where he would eventually go on to create another masterpiece, Carnation, Lilly, Lilly, Rose.
It’s been reported that later in Amélie‘s life also she removed all mirrors from her house, not necessarily directly because of this painting, but the picture provided a negative turning point in her reputation amongst the glamorous people of Paris from which she did not seem to recover.
The painting itself was one of Sargent’s most laboured projects as he spent hours agonising over her position, eventually settling on this awkward, but inviting, pose. This work of art now hangs in the Metropolitan Museum, New York, and is still striking to this day.
If you’d like to find out more about Amélie, Strapless by Deborah Davis is pretty much the definitive guide to her life and well worth a read.
Just for fun, here’s a couple of celebrity remakes below:
Julianne Moore for Harper’s Bazaar
Nicole Kidman for Vogue