It was the era of the parisienne, the professional French beauty, famous worldwide for her looks. Whole lives were devoted to it. Some went so far as to have their skin painted or enameled, a practice which sometimes led to facial paralysis, blood poisoning and even death. One social observer noted, "In Paris, half the female population lives off fashion, while the other half lives for fashion."
In the late 1870s a stunningly beautiful parisienne, Amélie Gautreau, dominated the social landscape. Madame Gautreau was born Virginie Amélie Avegno in New Orleans to French Creole parents. After her father was killed in the Battle of Shiloh, Amélie's mother moved her young daughters to live in Paris. Amélie began her ascent into Parisian society after marrying the wealthy Pedro Gautreau in 1878.
Amélie captured the imagination of many young aspiring artists, chief among them John Singer Sargent, who became obsessed with the beauty and pursued her relentlessly in hopes of painting her portrait. He knew a successful portrait of Gautreau would result in future commissions from the rich and famous of Parisian society.
Deborah Davis's 2003 dual biography, Strapless, plots the course of the lives of two people whose stories will be forever woven together in this story of art, celebrity and scandal. The cast of supporting characters includes Richard and Cosima Wagner, Henry James, and Oscar Wilde. Davis vividly paints her own picture of life in nineteenth-century Parisian society and the scandal that rocked that world.
After getting her to agree to sit for the portrait, Sargent struggled for months with what he called "the unpaintable beauty and hopeless laziness of Madame Gautreau." Eventually:
...he condemned Amélie, who hated remaining motionless, to one of the most tortuous poses in art history. He had her stand with her right arm leaning tensely on a table that was just a little too short to be a comfortable source of support. Her face turned sideways to draw attention to her remarkable profile, while her body pointed to the front. The muscles of her neck strained to keep her head at its awkward angle.
John Singer Sargent, Portrait of Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau), 1884, oil on canvas, 234.95 × 109.86 cm (92.5 × 43.3 in), Metropolitan Museum of Art
Sargent finished the portrait in time for the 1884 Salon, the most important art show in the world, with thousands attending daily. He had painted the famed beauty in a chic black dress and had no idea of the scandal that was about to erupt over his depiction of a strap dangling off Madame Gautreau's bare white shoulder.
Nudes were everywhere in the 1884 Salon:
...though highly idealized, even the most 'classical' nudes must have seemed erotic to Salon audiences. Women in the nineteenth century tended to cover their flesh in public with layers of clothing, from buttoned-up gloves to floor-length hems. Salon exhibitions provided easy access to sexual images that were not part of daily life. And artist knew that their nudes, however sanitized or decorous, were titillating. they placed them liberally in their paintings, often in such settings as forests and courtrooms where it made no sense for their subjects to be naked.
So why the scandal over a mere fallen strap? According to Davis:
The public's judgment was loud, quick, and definite. What a horror, people exclaimed. She looked monstrous and decomposed, some said. The painting was indecent. Amélie's exposed white shoulders and décolletage -- without a breast in sight -- disgusted them. And that fallen strap! Was it a prelude to, or the aftermath of, sex?
John Singer Sargent, in his studio with his painting Portrait of Madame X, black and white photographic print, 21 x 28 cm, circa 1884, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian, photographer unknown.
Sargent's career would go on to survive the scandal, while Amélie's reputation would never fully recover -- she was no longer the "it girl." As soon as the Salon ended, Sargent took his painting back to his studio and repainted the strap in its upright position. Many years later in 1915, when Sargent sold the painting to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, he requested that Amelie's name not be associated with the portrait. That is when it officially came to be known as the infamous Portrait of Madame X.