Life Lessons From Art History

Today it would have been Virginie Avegno Gautreau’s birthday, better known as Madame X. She was the subject of one of John Singer Sargent’s most iconic paintings and a personal favorite.

Sargent had earned an esteemed reputation as a portrait artist by that time, one that was strongly influenced by his constant success in the Paris Art Salons and ample clientele. The painter was fascinated with Gautreau defiant personality, her exotic looks and elegance and ability to attract attention as a cherished socialite. I don’t know why Sargent then decided to take the biggest risk of his career.

Madame_X_(Madame_Pierre_Gautreau),_John_Singer_Sargent,_1884_(unfree_frame_crop).jpg

“Madame X” by John Singer Sargent, 1844.

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

 He Asked Gautreau to pose for him. He spent days around her sketching her in different poses and then decided to paint her in a standing pose, featuring her profile, her svelte figure, her tiny waist in that provocative dress. It was in fact one the simplest and most brilliant paintings he had done. But it was not what catapult “Madame X” into the hall of fame of art history, it was a fallen strap.

Her naked shoulder, the fallen strap that seemed as it has been carelessly forgotten caused a revolution at the 1884 salon. People were on Sargent for a tiny strap. How daring! This was the man that would draw male nudes with their full masculinity on display, that painted fabrics so sensuous that it makes them almost impossible to keep your hands away from them, sensual women, gipsies and actresses. But it was that bare shoulder that caused him to distress and made a scratch on his otherwise impeccable reputation. That was in Paris, the always modern Paris nevertheless.

Sargent, beaten up, decided to scratch the fallen strap  and painted it on its original place, in a move that rivaled the Vatican ordering to cover their paintings with fig leaves.

Current and original version as seen through X-ray studies.

Current and original version as seen through X-ray studies.

John Singer Sargent was devastated by the bad reviews and left  to London where he ended up producing an incredible body of freer and beautiful work.

The reason why this is relevant, beyond its place between art history scandals, is that at some point we all experience setbacks like Sargent did. This event, although probably painful for the painter at the time, sounds truly ridiculous with the advantage point of view presented by time. Gautreau had other minor portraits made of her by other artists that do not rival Sargent’s work in quality or beauty. His talent surpassed the stupid scandal and it left us with a gorgeous life size painting well worth a an obligatory visit at The MET (thanks to Sargent who sold it to the museum three decades later)

So if you feel all eyes are on you, learn from Sargent. It will pass! If you are being bullied, remember bullies do not hold a place in history the way the courageous people are. If you decide to amend mistakes, make sure it is because you believe on it and not because you are trying to please an audience. If you fill critics hold the key to your value and talent, remember the best will always attract bad comments and well as the nice ones. And if you feel like Madame X, then wear your straps whatever way you like. Ban de fig leaves, ban de repaints, own your s...tuff!


Happy birthday, Madame X. Thanks for inspiring several generations of trailblazers. I hope I get to visit you again very soon!