Portrait of Madame X by John Singer Sargent
Interpretation of Controversial Society Portrait

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Portrait of Madame X
By John Singer Sargent.
One of the greatest
19th century portraits
of the American school.

Portrait of Madame X (1884)


Analysis of Portrait of Madame X
Explanation of Other Modern Portraits


Name: Portrait of Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau) (1884)
Artist: John Singer Sargent (1856-1925)
Medium: Oil painting on canvas
Genre: Portrait art
Movement: Realism
Location: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

For an interpretation of other pictures from the 19th and 20th centuries, see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).

For analysis of portraits
by modern artists like
John Singer Sargent, see:
How to Appreciate Paintings.


One of the best portrait artists of his day, revered for his extraordinary natural talent, John Singer Sargent was the last great practitioner of what was already a dying art. Within a decade of his death, photography would set new standards in portraiture, which hitherto had been the domain of the great realists including, Franz von Lenbach (1836-1904), Wilhelm Leibl (1844-1900) Thomas Eakins (1844-1916), William Merritt Chase (1849-1916), John Millais (1829-96), William Orpen (1878-1931), and Sargent himself. Nevertheless, Sargent enjoyed a highly successful career as a society portraitist - mostly in Paris and London, where he spent most of his life. His early works - all painted in Paris - included well-known portraits of Rosina Ferrara (Head of a Capri Girl) (1878, Berger Collection); Madame Edouard Pailleron (1879, Corcoran Gallery of Art); Carmela Bertagna (1879, Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio); Madame Ramon Subercaseaux (1881, Private Collection); Charlotte Louise Burckhardt (Lady with the Rose) (1882, Metropolitan Museum); and Mrs Henry White (1883, Corcoran Gallery of Art), several of which he exhibited at the official Salon, to admiring reviews. His Paris period also saw the creation of his three greatest modern paintings - the famous Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (The Boit Sisters) (1882, Museum of Fine Art, Boston); El Jaleo (1882, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston); and Portrait of Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau) (1884). All three reveal the influence of Spanish painting on Sargent's modern art, especially that of Velazquez (1599–1660).

Analysis of Portrait of Madame X by John Singer Sargent

Portrait of Madame X is a painting of Virginie Amelie Avegno Gautreau (1859-1915), the New Orleans-born wife of Pierre Gautreau, a wealthy businessman. At the time, she was a well-known Parisian socialite named, noted for her beauty, who occasionally posed as a model for eminent artists. Exhibited at the 1884 Salon, the painting was Sargent's idea and was intended to boost his career as a society portraitist (he was 28 at the time). But instead, its daring and sensual content - in particular, its off-the-shoulder dress strap - caused a scandal, and actually led to a loss of commissions. As a result, the artist left Paris and settled in London. Sargent himself considered Madame X to be one of his greatest portrait paintings and kept it displayed in his studio until he sold it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1916, not long after Gautreau's death.



The portrait took Sargent more than a year to finish, due to what he described as "the unpaintable beauty and hopeless laziness of Madame Gautreau". Most of the preparatory drawing and sketching was done at Gautreau's country estate in Brittany, where Sargent completed more than thirty oil, watercolour and pencil studies. For the portrait itself, he settled on a pose (taken in part from his evocative El Jaleo) that accentuated her distinctive profile, a low-cut dress with a shoulder strap provocatively hanging off her right shoulder, and a colour scheme that highlighted the 'aristocratic' whiteness of her skin. The title he chose - Portrait of Madame *** (subsequently changed to Portrait of Madame X) - was intended to conceal Gautreau's true identity, while the large canvas made the work conspicuous enough to command attention on the crowded walls of the Salon.

Alas, the all-too noticeable painting caused a scandal when it was shown at the 1884 Salon. The public were shocked by the low-cut style of Gautreau's dress, outraged by its suggestive dress-strap, and repelled by the awkward twisted pose of her right arm. Worse, her identity soon became common knowledge. The Gautreau family felt humiliated and begged Sargent to withdraw the picture. Sargent refused, although later he overpainted the shoulder strap to make it appear properly fastened.

Although Sargent left Paris greatly chastened by his experience, his career went from strength to strength, both in America and England.

As for Madame Gautreau, in 1891 she was painted once more, by the academic portraitist Gustave-Claude-Etienne Courtois (1852-1923) - this time in a wispy but conventional, white, daytime dress, which was well-received by critics and public. In 1898 she posed yet again - this time in an oyster coloured satin evening dress - for Antonio de La Gandara (1861-1917), whose portrait remained her favourite.

NOTE: In addition to his formal portrait of Madame Gautreau (1884, Metropolitan Museum), Sargent also painted a second, unfinished version (1884, Tate Collection, London) using the same controversial pose, in which the placement of the right shoulder strap remains unresolved. Among the numerous preparatory works for Portrait of Madame X, are: Madame Gautreau (Madame X) (drawing, watercolour and graphite on white paper, 1883, Harvard Art Museum); and Madame Gautreau Drinking a Toast (oil sketch, 1883, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston).

Explanation of Other Modern Portraits

Portrait of Madame Moitessier (1856) National Gallery, London.
By J.A.D. Ingres.

Young Italian Woman Leaning on her Elbow (1900) J. Paul Getty Museum.
By Paul Cezanne.

Boy with a Pipe (Garcon a la Pipe) (1905) Private Collection.
By Pablo Picasso.

Portrait of Gertrude Stein (1906) Metropolitan Museum.
By Pablo Picasso.

Portrait of Juan Gris (1915) Metropolitan Museum of Art.
By Modigliani.


• For the meaning of other 19th century portraits, see: Homepage.

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