Henry James, perhaps the most famous American expatriate novelist of the 19th century, achieved much of his fame with The portrait of a lady. John Singer Sargent, perhaps the most famous American expatriate painter of the 19th century, achieved much of his fame with the portrait of a woman – but not before he seemed to kill his illustrious career with a stroke. . When first presented to the public at the Paris Salon of 1884, Sargent’s work Portrait of Madame X prompted a range of reactions from bitter dismissal to near-violent anger. But today, as Great Art Explained host James Payne says in the new video above, “it’s really hard to see what it was all about.”
“Twenty years earlier, in 1865, Manet had shown Olympia at the Salon, to a scandalized Paris. So why the shock now? The difference was that Manet Olympia was a prostitute, like the women in the Toulouse-Lautrec painting also exhibited in 1884. But Madame X was part of French high society. She was, all these first viewers would have known her, the socialite, banker’s wife and “professional beauty” Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau. Her supposed penchant for infidelities would not have been unusual for her place and time, but her experience as a New Orleans-born daughter of a European Creole family certainly would have been.
Contemplate Mrs X“Parisians were forced to confront their own decadence, which they preferred not to acknowledge, and that is where Sargent went wrong. The salons were a sacrosanct part of French culture, and he, a foreigner, displayed immorality on their faces with a painting of another foreigner, exotic as well.He had already caused some controversy three years earlier with Dr. Pozzi at homeanother full-length portrait that portrays its subject – the highly accomplished and notoriously handsome gynecologist Samuel-Jean Pozzi – in a way that borders on sheer informality with lust.
Payne therefore considers Dr. Wells And Mrs X as “male-female versions of the same type. They are both flamboyant peacock figures, with a touch of vanity and a talent for seduction. There’s something about the way they’re posed that’s unconventional. They have an indirect gaze, and they both have supreme confidence that borders on arrogance. That only Sargent could have – or at least would have – captured and conveyed these qualities with such candor was not so appreciated at the time. Ostracized in Paris, where he had been a sought-after portraitist by the wealthy, he packed Madam X and left for London, where he soon rebuilt his career. The advice to do so came from none other than Henry James, who knew a thing or two about beneficial relocation.
How John Singer Sargent became the greatest portrait painter of all time – painting ‘Outside the Lines’
When “Madame X” by John Singer Sargent scandalized the art world in 1884
The scandalous painting that helped create modern art: an introduction to the work of Édouard Manet Olympia
Great Art Explained: Watch 15-minute presentations of great works by Warhol, Rothko, Kahlo, Picasso and more
School of Art History: learn about the art and life of Toulouse-Lautrec, Gustav Klimt, Frances Bacon, Edvard Munch and many more
Based in Seoul, Hake MArshall writes and broadcaststs about cities, language and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter city books, the book The City Without a State: A Walk through 21st Century Los Angeles and the video series The city in cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.