I’m going to write some blasphemous comments in this post. Well, blasphemous to some people at least. I’m fully aware that John Singer Sargent is a revered American portrait artist, as he should be. He is idolized by realist painters and referenced frequently by instructors during art classes. Now I am no art critic and I don’t pretend to be. But I am comfortable, and confident, expressing my opinion solely from the viewpoint of an experienced, dedicated artist’s model who loves her job with a passion. So here I go.
I don’t like Madame X. And the more I learn about the subject and circumstances surrounding the painting, the less I like it. I will qualify one more time that I am not an art historian, but I do know a few telling details. I know that “Madame X” was an American, Virginie Amelie Avegno Gautreau. Specifically she was a New Orleans native whose family moved to France when she was a young girl. She grew into adulthood and morphed herself into a “Paris socialite”. I also know that she was a peculiar woman who wore excessive amounts of lavender powder as make-up. And I know that Sargent posed her for this portrait – I mean meticulously posed her down to every angled centimeter and pinky finger. Of course the painting is a standout for the sharp contrast of her pale skin against the black dress and brown background. That’s quite dramatic. But I just can’t get past the nagging sense that Madame X is a study in vanity – a portrait of a haughty, pretentious, and, to some degree, fraudulent woman whose mission in life was to marry well, move in prestigious circles, attend parties, and pose for the prominent artists of the time. YAWN. Give me Dora Maar. Or one of Toulouse Lautrec’s can-can girls. Or Van Gogh’s prostitutes. Or ANY person besides this narcissistic social climber.
However, Sargent was clearly inspired by her – profoundly, in fact- and that’s what we celebrate here at Museworthy – inspiration. See what a fair and balanced blog editor I am? My own personal disdain for a work of art does not preclude its posting. Excuse me while I go pat myself on the back.
I just want to communicate my belief that an art model, or any sitter for an artist, whether shopkeeper, professional model, dancer, peasant, barmaid, Duke or Dutchess of snobville, etc., is a human being both before and after they pose. The negation of that humanity through obsessive staging and affectations leads to, well, a staged and affected pose, which leads to a staged and affected work of art. When I pose, I feel incredibly alive. I can hear myself breathing and feel my heart beating. I feel most alive when I fall into a pose almost accidentally. Spontaneity is the art model’s fortuitous moment. By extension, it is the artist’s fortuitous moment as well. (And putting a quasi-subversive title on the work, like “Madame X”, comes across as a pompous attempt to make the subject “mysterious”. Personally, that doesn’t work for me. It just gives the painting more of a “full of shit” quality).
So because it meets the Museworthy criteria, here’s “Madame X”: