Madame X

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”:


9 thoughts on “Madame X

  1. […] lancerlord wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptI 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 … […]

  2. Bewildebeest says:

    Madame X was, in fact, a lascivious social climber with a bad reputation and a bad attitude.
    But does great art have to depict great people?

    I think the point of the work, aside from exercises in color, is that it captures that taut, haughty, pretentious essence so well.
    I should also point out that Sargent was hardly approving that part of her personality, or making her more noble. In fact, he originally displayed it next to the doctor who was rumored to have performed a number of abortions for her, which, at the time, was a violently negative comment.

  3. Bewildebeest says:

    Furthermore, while you might place great emphasis on the “casual” or “natural” pose (which does indeed produce great works), insisting on that emphasis as one of the primary bases of good art eliminates almost all art before the middle of the 20th century. The carefully articulated pose wasn’t a product of Sargent’s–it was the accepted norm at the time.

  4. artmodel says:

    Bewildebeest, thanks for your comments. I would point out, though, that I have never stated on this blog that the life subjects for great art must be “great people” as you put it. Quite the contrary. I believe that flawed people (which is really everyone!) are the much better subjects. However, there are flaws which bring out a person’s humanity and vulnerability, and thus arouse empathy, curiosity, or fascination from the viewer. Then there are flaws which have the opposite effect, by arousing contempt, revulsion, or emotional detachment. Personally, I don’t believe great art should necessarily bring out such negative feelings. Some of the best work, as I’m sure you know, has been of prostitutes, peasants, homeless etc – some of which I post here on Museworthy – and do not fall into the “great people” category. Still, the work is moving, and imbued with “life”.

    If the information you provided about Sargent is true – that he painted Madame X in such a way to emphasize her haughtiness and then planned to display the painting next to the abortion doctor (never heard that part), then I find that a pretty cruel act on Sargent’s part, frankly. While I am no fan of Madame X the woman, I don’t find it admirable for Sargent to deliberately and publicly mock the woman to gain public stature and attention for himself. If he was not intending to glorify her or celebrate her persona as you claim, then perhaps he should have just left her alone then? No work of art is worth the humiliation or degradation of another human being. I think art is most moving and powerful and memorable – when it comes from a compassionate, sensitive place within the artist. From your remarks, it sounds like Sargent was motivated by derision, arrogance, and a holier-than-thou judgmental attitude toward this woman’s misbehavior. If so, my distaste for the painting is only reinforced. And Sargent seems a bit of a prick, to be honest.

    Lastly, I would like to point out that I have posted many works of art here which were created before the “middle of the 20th century”, which you noted as the turning point for “natural” art poses. It may have been the “accepted norm” to create rigidly staged poses before then, but there were certainly many artists defying that norm. And I applaud them. My general point, however, had more to do with my personal experience as an art model, and my acute awareness of how a pose feels when being carried out. I know how “staged” I feel when I am staged in such a way, and I can tell you unequivocally that I feel improperly utilized when doing so. As the art model, I enter a studio to bring “life” into it. That’s the whole point. When I feel like an inanimate object – a prop- I always feel slightly disappointed in my “service” to the class.

    I really appreciate your comments on Sargent and Madame X. Feel free to read Museworthy more in the future and contribute remarks. You’ve brought great discussion here, which I welcome always!


  5. artmodel says:

    Sounds interesting, Lukas. Thanks for the link!


  6. Chris Miller says:

    Thanks for the slideshow — and commentary.

    Old man that I am — I firmly believe that if you’ve still got it – flaunt it — and something feels so vulnerable to me about that woman — who is something like a fresh-cut flower — emerging from the dark petals of her gown — on display but for a moment — before she wilts and fades and gets thrown out (and isn’t her arm already wilting ?)

    How I wish this kind of portrait were still being made. (if anyone could do it – it would be Jeremy Lipking)

  7. Rob says:

    The title “Madame X” is just an Americanized version of the original French title, “Portrait de Mme***”. Since it was being shown at the Paris Salon, the name of the model, as was customary at the time, was kept out of the title as a polite gesture to keep her name out of the notices and reviews. It certainly wasn’t a pompous attempt to make the subject “mysterious”.

  8. artmodel says:


    Thanks for the info. But did keeping her name out of the painting title really conceal her identity? She was well-known to everybody in those circles, so I find it hard to believe that merely by naming it “Madame X” created even an ounce of anonymity for a notorious woman. But hey, if you say so! I still cant stand it.


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