As displayed at the Met

Edouard Manet 
French Painter (1832-1883)

Le D'jeuner sur l'Herbe

Dejeuner sur l’herbe

of Salon Painting
Gustave Courtoi
French painter (1853 -1923)

Madame Gauthereau

Antonio de la Gandara 
French painter (1861-1917)

Madame Pierre Gautreau

Madame X Family Tree
compiled by Alain Bugnicourt


Madame X 
John Singer Sargent -- American painter 
Metropolitan Museum, New York
Oil on canvas
208.6 x 109.9 cm (82 1/8 x 43 1/4 in.)
Jpg: Lee Sandstead  / Art Renewal Center  


When Madame X was shown at the Salon of 1884 it became instantly a salacious painting and a scandal in French society as a result of its sexual suggestiveness of her pose and the pail pasty color of her skin. The "X" of Madame X was actually Madame Gautreau (1859-1915) who’s  reputation was apparently destroyed and John left France shortly to never truly regain his former standing as the darling of Paris. 

The size of the painting is enormous, measuring 82 inches  by 43 inches or nearly seven feet tall (2 meters) -- and with the underlying sensuality of the painting, in the time that it was done (if it isn't still to some degree today),  almost threatening to the viewer. 

When I first read about this painting, I was struck by the notion that if the painting was so damning to her reputation, why hadn't Madame Gautreau nor her husband ever destroyed it; which seemed to tell me that she must have secretly loved it; but this was not the case. The uproar over the painting, especially from her family made her hate it.

So what gives?

On the 15th of November '98  I went to the library and ordered a number of books. The following is from John Sargent, by Hon Evan Charteris, first published by Benjamin Blom, Inc. NY, in 1927, two years after the death of Sargent: 
(Hon Evan Charteris)
“In 1883 Sargent had begun a portrait which was to have a good deal of influence on his career. As far back as 1881 he met Madame Gautreau in Paris society, where she moved rather conspicuously, shining as a star of considerable beauty, and drawing attention as to one dressed in advance of her epoch. It was the period in which in London the professional beauty, with all the specialization which the term connoted, was recognized as having a definite role in social hierarchy. Madame Gautreau occupied a corresponding position in Paris. Immediately after meeting her, Sargent wrote to his friend del Castillo to find out if he could do anything to induce Madame Gautreau to sit [for] him. 'I have.' he wrote, 'a great desire to paint her portrait and have reason to think she would allow it and is waiting for someone to propose this homage to her beauty. If you are 'bien avec elle' [13] and will see her in Paris you might tell her that I am a man of prodigious talent.' 
Vernon Lee
(Friend of JSS)



"The necessary preliminaries were arranged, and the disillusionment seems to have begun quickly, for after the first few sittings he wrote to Vernon Lee from Nice on February 10 (1883): 'In a few days I shall be back in Paris, tackling my other 'envoi,' the Portrait of a Great Beauty. Do you object to people who are 'fardeés'[15] to the extent of being uniform lavender or blotting-paper colour all over? If so you would not care for my sitter; but she has the most beautiful lines, and if the lavender or chlorate of potash-lozenge colour be pretty in itself I should be more than pleased.' 

"In another letter, and again to Vernon Lee, he wrote: 'Your letter has just reached me still in this country house (Les Chêes Parramé) struggling with the unpaintable beauty and hopeless laziness of Madame Gaureau.' 

"Even when the picture was nearing completion he was assailed by misgivings. 'My portrait!' he wrote to Castillo, 'it is much changed and far more advanced than when you last saw it. One day I was dissatisfied with it and dashed a tone of light rose over the former gloomy background. I turned the picture upside down, retired to the other end of the studio and looked at it under my arm. Vast improvement. The élancée figure of the model shows to much greater advantage. The picture is framed and on a great easel, and Carolus has been to see it and said: 'Vous pouvez l'envoyer au Salon avec confiance.'[14] Encouraging, but false. I have made up my mind to be refused.' 

"The picture was accepted for the Salon of 1884. Varnishing day did nothing to assure the painter. On the opening day he was in a state of extreme nervousness. It was the seventh successive year in which he had exhibited. Every Salon had seen the critics more favorable, the public more ready to applaud. But without suggesting that the critics and the public of Paris are fickle, it is probably fair to say that popularity, fame and reputation are more subject to violent fluctuations there than other European capitals. This, at any rate, was to be Sargent's experience. 

"The doors of the Salon were hardly open before the picture was damned. The public took upon themselves to inveigh against the flagrant  insufficiency, judged by prevailing standards, of the sitters clothing; the critics fell  foul of the execution. The Parisian public is always vocal and expressive. 
The Salon was in an uproar. Here was an occasion such as they had not had since Le D'jeuner sur l'Herbe,  L'Olympia and the Exhibition of Independents. The onslaught was led the lady's relatives. A demand was made that the picture should be withdrawn. It is not among the least of the curiosities of human nature, that while an individual will confess and even call attention to his own failings, he will deeply resent the same office being undertaken by someone else. So it was with the dress of Madame Gautreau. Here the distinguished artist was proclaimed to the public in paint a fact about herself which she had hitherto never made any attempt to conceal, one which had, indeed, formed one of her many social assets. Her sentiment was profound. If the picture could not be withdrawn, the family might at least bide its time, wait till the Salon was closed, the picture delivered, and then by destroying, blot it as an unclean thing from the records of the family. Anticipating this, Sargent, before the exhibition was over, took it away himself. After remaining many years in his studio it now figures as one of the glories of the Metropolitan Museum in New York." (pages 59-61)  

"The scene at the Salon is described in a letter written by Sargent's friend and fellow-painter, Ralph Curtis, to his parents. It will be noted that at a certain point Sargent's forbearance gave way and  his pugnacity . . . burst out: 

(See Letter from Ralph Curtis to his family)

"Sargent, who was twenty-eight, had been working for ten years in Paris. The Salon of 1884 was to have been a culmination of his efforts. He had painted what is now recognized as a masterpiece, displaying excellence which he was perhaps never to surpass. It had been received with a storm of abuse. Paris, which had been smooth and well-disposed and encouraging, had turned, and like a child splintering a plaything, had dealt a violent blow at its recognized favorite. He was not in the least in doubt of his own art, but he was always sensitive to atmosphere, always easily affected by unsympathetic environment. Paris had awaken suddenly one May morning in an uncongenial mood, its friendliness hidden in clouds; the accord which prevailed between painter and public was at an end." (Pages 63-64) 

"Vernon Lee summed it up this way: “ . . . it seemed as if for years, he was engrossed in perpetually dissatisfied (and, as regards to Parisian public, disastrous) attempts to render adequately the ‘strange, weird, fantastic, curious’ beauty of that peacock-woman, Mme. Gautreau.” (Page 250) 


By 1906 Madame Gautreau had changed her opinion of the painting.  In a letter to Major Roller John writes: 

    I think I know what Mme Gautreau wants . . .  the Kaiser who was such a dear,  thought her portrait the most fascinating woman's likeness that he has ever seen, and that he wishes me to have an exhibition in Berlin . . . (see letter)
The 1890's saw la Belle Époque in full swing and accepted fashion, both in painting and in suggestive nature of Mme's gown and pose had caught up. In '91 Mme Gauthereau was again painted -- this time by Gustave Courtoi in an obvious attempt at recreating the essential elements of John's painting. As you can see, though the pose and dress is just as daring, it never reaches the same power. 

Times had certainly changed. The thought that such a painting would even be considered a scandal had faded to black and in its place these paintings were deemed flattering to the subject; but John had moved on and had turned his attention towards America for his work. In 1916, as the painting was being exhibited at the Worlds Fair in San Francisco, he wrote his friend Edward Robinson who was by then the director of the Metropolitan Museum in New York. 


    Edward Robinson


       . . . now that [the painting] is in America I rather feel inclined to let it stay there if a Museum should want it. I suppose it is the best thing I have done. I would let the Metropolitan Museum have it for £ 1,000 pounds . . .  let me know your opinion . . . (see letter)
I think we all know what his opinion was. 

John worked intensely harder on this painting than any other submitted to the Salon to that date. He did a number of studies and drawings in pencil, watercolors as well as oils. Even after the show, John began an unfinished copy of Madame X  that now hangs at the Tate Gallery.

In order to fully understand the jeers from the public, it's important to note that the painting, as we have it today, is altered from the original version! To add to the 

Photo of Madame X as if hung at the Salon
 salacious nature, the paining had been shown at the Salon with the right dress strap off her shoulder! A Photograph of the painting, as it was displayed, shows exactly how it looked. Numerous preliminary sketches also depicted her with the strap off -- it was clearly part of her personality. Sargent made the adjustment after taking it back to his studio. 

John Singer Sargent loved Beauty. "Indeed, [Vernon Lee would later say] I feel certain that his conscious endeavor, his self-formulated program, was to paint whatever he saw with absolute and researchful fidelity, never avoiding ugliness nor seeking after beauty. But, like most, though perhaps not all, supreme artists. John Sargent was not aware of what he was really about, nor in what manner his superficial verbal program was for ever disregarded by the unspoken, imperious synthesis of his particular temperament and gifts. Also like other painters of those . . . days, John Sargent did not know that seeing is a business of the mind, the memory and the heart, quite as much as of the eyes; and the valeurs which the most stiff-necked impressionist could strive after were the values of association and preference. Now to his constitution, ugliness and vulgarity were negative values, instinctively avoided. In theory, John Sargent would doubtless have defended Manet for cutting some of his figures in half, and even decapitating them by the frame, let alone choosing to portray bounders and sots in ballet stalls and bars. I can almost hear him [arguing] for Renoir's crowd of cads and shop-girls under umbrellas and for Degas's magnificent lady in her bathroom, under the ministrations of a corn-cutter." 

But what set him apart from others, according to Vernon Lee, was "Sargent's outspoken love of the exotic [and the] unavowed love of rare kinds of beauty, for incredible types of elegance like his Mme. Gautreau"   (from pages 250-252) 

To me (Natasha), John Singer Sargent is a powerful and wonderful painter. He is a man who simply loved women in virtually each one of his portraits. His feelings radiates from them. But his complementary eye did not seem to have been just to women. The other portrait at the Nelson (Francisco Bernareggi) was years later of a friend of his. It is done in a style that the Gallery called “Free Form” and looks very impressionistic, maybe like Renoir. The portrait is a close-up of a man in his 20's. I can’t describe it other than to say the man in the picture is simply gorgeous. He has thick flowing dark hair, flowing not too unlike what we’ve all seen in the drawing of Edgar Allen Poe (although fuller) with a dark full but youthful mustache. I don’t know if Madame Gautreau ever fully realized just how lucky she was but certainly . . . certainly, if it were not for the consternation of her contemporary public and her family, she must have been exceptionally pleased that her boldness was captured so perfectly by John Singer Sargent. 

Now over a hundred years later, I chuckle to myself as I recall standing before his other work of Mrs. Wade, and  remembering the grand size and powerfulness of it all, commanding the viewers attention, the Painting of Madame Gautreau (Madame X) which hung in the Salon of 1884 must have just blown those people away!!!!!!!!!!!! 

By: Natasha Wallace
Copyright 1998-2003

Just out

"Strapless: The Rise of John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X" by Deborah Davis 



John Singer Sargent, An Exhibition -- Whitney Museum, NY & The Art Institute of Chicago 1986-1987
Madame Gautreau, Virginie Avegno (1859-1915)
Philip Resheph  has been doing some research of his own on Madame Gautreau (Madame X) who's maiden name was Virginie Avegno, and this is what he found:
     Dear Natasha,

    It seems that Virginie's father, Major Anatole Avegno, died of a leg wound that he received at the battle of Shiloh in 1862 [Civil War, United States], and as a result, his brother took the family to Paris.

    Her father seems to have led the most extraordinary regiment called the Avegno Zouaves, which included some Chinese soldiers and rather unwisely wore dark blue coats, as a result of which they were fired on by their own side!

    Shiloh seems to have been a bit of a massacre all round. 

Thank you Philip. One of the books I read, also confirmed this story in general terms. It said that it was Virginie and her mother. For those that don't know New Orleans -- a lot of French settled in New Orleans well before it was part of the United States and was/is a important port of trade located  right at the mouth of the Mississippi (Virginie's birthplace). So it was probably natural that her family would flee to France.

Also, I read a quote from one of the Paris local papers (in one of the books I read) that connected John Sargent and Madame Gautreau before he painted her. The quote  was from a Frenchman Perdican about the "American invasion" of 1881 after a recent horse race inwhich an American horse won. It said:   "Their painters, like Mr. Sargent, take away our medals, Their pretty women, like Madame Gauthereau outshine our own- and their horses thrash our steeds, as Foxhall ridden by Fordham did on Sunday" ("Sargent: The Early Portraits" by R. Ormand, p. 113).

Madame Gautreau's Birthplace 
A travel log claims that Virginie was born on the Parlange Plantation near New Road, Lousiana, which is on the Mississippi river, 90 miles north of New Orleans. Her great grandfather Marquis Vincent de Ternant was the plantation's first owner. The plantation grew cotton and had slaves. The place is open for viewing.

Parlange Plantation

Comparison of outrage to Manet and Sargent 
Early on, a Friends of the Gallery, Philip Resheph, and I discussed this painting and the way Hon. Evan Charteris' use of comparing the outrage of the public to the two paintings by Manet, notably Le D'jeuner sur l'Herbe, and L'Olympia, Philip was quick to point out that these were not similar events. First of all, in Manet's work, both paintings are of hired models, Sargent's is of a prominent society woman and she was not paid. Secondly, and very importantly, Manet's subjects were nude whereas Sargent's was not. Though I'm sure you caught this last distinction yourself, it is an important one and I think Philip raises some good points and it is worth noting here.

What I think Charteris was trying to say was not that the outrage was the same exactly, but that Sargent had to face similar resistance to the nature of what beauty is in art and what is acceptable. Like Manet, Sargent pushed at the boundaries but more within the establishment. John dared to show the boldness of Madame Gautreau's beauty and manner. This was a real woman a here-and-now person not a goddess or a romanticized character. 

Sargent had made a critical miscalculation. Although he had previously taken Whistler’s controversial painting Girl in White and had turned it into a resounding success with Fumée d'Ambre Gris (see two studies in white) he had failed to understand that like  Ingres' Odalisque with a Slave, the subject was an other-worldly place (see Olympia in juxtaposition Madame X would not be. 

Sure, Sargent had toned it down, she was clothed and not naked; but the line of acceptability for portraiture is much more constraining than for subject paintings. And although he painted the truth, and although Gautreau may have powdered her skin and looked pasty, the attempt to show the core of Olympia -- the flirt and tease of Gautreau who after all is real person not just a model, was too much. It was this immediacy of the subject -- a contemporary and known person to the people viewing her along with her sexuality -- larger than life (seven feet tall and remember the painting, as it is now with the dress strap repainted, is a tamer version of the original) draws your attention -- no -- demands your attention! In the context of the hushed and whispered gossip of her reputation from the other women and the "in your face I'm beautiful" to the men standing looking at her -- this was more than society could bare; and just like Manet, they revolted against it.

Manet cutting his figures in half 
One of the best examples of Manet doing this is  Café-Concert (a Natasha essay with picture)

Degas's magnificent lady in her bathroom
Philip Resheph thinks that possibly Deagas's Woman Bathing (1885),  or The Tub  (1886) might be the painting Vernon Lee is referring to. 

Thanks Philip  : )



Madame X - Close-up 1

Madame X - Close-up 2

Madame X
Altered to show how it might have originally been painted


Study for Madame X 
(Madame Pierre Gautreau) 
c. 1883

Madame Gautreau 

Madame Pierre Gautreau Sketch

Madame Pierre Gautreau 

Two Studies for Madame X 
c. 1883 
Pencil on paper

Madame X Study
c. 1883

c. 1883–84

Profile of Madame Gautreau

Profile Head and Three Faces

Three Profiles of Madame Gautreau

Study for "Madame Pierre Gautreau"
c. 1884 

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Created December 1998


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