Henry James, perhaps the most famous American expatriate novelist of the nineteenth century, won a great deal of his fame with The Portrait of a Lady. John Singer Sargent, perhaps the most famous American expatriate painter of the nineteenth century, won a great deal of his fame with a portrait of a lady — but not before it seemed to kill his illustrious career at a stroke. When it was first shown to the public at the Paris Salon of 1884, Sargent’s Portrait of Madame X drew 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 is genuinely hard to see what the fuss was about.”
“Twenty years before, in 1865, Manet had shown Olympia at the Salon, to a scandalized Paris. So why the shock now? The difference was that Manet’s Olympia was a prostitute, like the women in Toulouse-Lautrec’s painting also on display in 1884. But Madame X was part of French high society.” She was, all those first viewers would have known, the socialite, banker’s wife, and “professional beauty” Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau. Her rumored penchant for infidelities wouldn’t have been unusual for her particular place and time, but her background as the New Orleans-born daughter of a European Creole family certainly would have.
Beholding Madame X, “Parisians were forced to confront their own decadence, which they preferred not to acknowledge, and this was where Sargent went wrong. The salons were a sacrosanct part of French culture, and he, a foreigner, was flaunting immorality in their faces with a painting of another foreigner, an exotic one at that.” He’d already stirred up a certain amount of controversy three years earlier with Dr. Pozzi at Home, another full-length portrait that portrayed its subject – the highly accomplished and notoriously handsome gynecologist Samuel-Jean Pozzi — in a manner whose sheer informality verges on the concupiscent.
Payne thus regards Dr. Pozzi and Madame X as “male-female versions of the same type. They are both flamboyant peacock figures, with a streak of vanity and a knack for seduction. There is something in the way they are posed which is unconventional. They have an indirect gaze, and they both have supreme confidence verging on arrogance.” That only Sargent could have — or, at least, would have — captured and transmitted those qualities with such directness wasn’t appreciated quite so much at the time. Ostracized in Paris, where he’d been a sought-after portraitist to the wealthy, he packed up Madame X and set off 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 advantageous relocation.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.