Cézanne, Jas de Bouffan and the peasant workers

Paul Cézanne aged 22
Paul Cézanne aged 22

Four years ago I visited the Courtauld Gallery in London to see the Cezanne exhibition which featured three of his five Card Players paintings. I was fascinated by the figures depicted in these works of art, the same fascination the artist must have had for these rustic characters as they featured in many of his paintings. From around 1887, Cézanne began to paint single figures again and, in his early works, he would used his wife and son as models, later he would get some of the peasant workers to model for him at the family’s estate, Le Jas de Bouffan, (“home of the winds” in the language of Provencal). In this blog I want to have a look at some of his paintings which featured these peasants and the estate where it all happened.

The House and Farm at Jas de bouffan by Cézanne (1887)
The House and Farm at Jas de bouffan by Cézanne (1887)

Paul Cézanne’s father, Louis-Auguste Cézanne, was a banker and in September 1859, when Cézanne was twenty years old, his father acquired the Le Jas de Bouffan estate from its then present owner, Gabriel Joursin, who was heavily in debt to the bank. It was a spectacularly beautiful estate, located on the outskirts of Aix-en-Provence, with its long avenue, lined with chestnut trees, leading to the large manor house. The family moved into the large estate house, which was run-down, some of the rooms were in such poor condition that they could not be lived in and were permanently locked up. Initially the family just lived on the first floor with the ground floor rooms set aside for storage. Cézanne, who much to his father’s dismay, wanted to become a professional artist but had placated his father by agreeing to study law at the Law faculty at Aix. His father allowed him to paint murals on the high walls of the grand salon on the ground floor, a room which he was eventually allowed to turn it into his temporary studio.

Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter by Cézanne (1860-2)
Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter by Cézanne (1860-2)

It could have been that as the surface of the walls was in such a poor condition his father allowed his son to exercise his artistic ability on them. Cézanne decorated the walls with four large panels of the Seasons. The odd thing about his four murals was that he signed them, not with his own name, but with the name “INGRES” and added the date 1811 on the bottom left of the panel representing Winter. So, why sign the painting “Ingres” and why the date, which was almost fifty years in the past? It is thought that the young Cézanne wanted to prove to his father that he was as good an artist as the legendary Ingres and the date probably referred to Ingres’ famous work Jupiter and Thétis, which Ingres completed in 1811 and was in the collection of Cézanne’s local museum, Musée Granet, in Aix-en Provence.

The Artist's Father, Reading L'Événement by Cézanne (1866)
The Artist’s Father, Reading L’Événement by Cézanne (1866)

In all, between 1860 and 1870, Cézanne painted twelve large works of art directly on to the walls of the large salon and which remained in situ until 1912. One of these works was entitled The Artist’s Father, Reading “L’Événement” which can be seen at the National Gallery of Art, Washington. Cézanne completed the work in 1866 and depicts Louis-Auguste Cézanne reading the newspaper L’Evénement. The newspaper is a reference to Cézanne’s great friend from his childhood days, the novelist Émile Zola, who was one of the people who urged Cézanne to overcome his father’s demands to have him study law and instead, go to Paris and study art. Zola had become the art critic for the L’Evénement in 1866. It was certainly not the paper Cézanne’s father would have read !

The House of the Jas de Bouffan by Cézanne (1874)
The House of the Jas de Bouffan by Cézanne (1874)

Although often working in his indoor studio, Cézanne also enjoyed painting en plein air in the vast grounds of the estate, which contained a farm, as well as a number of vineyards. He painted a number of views of the manor house, one of which was completed around 1874 and was entitled The House of the Jas de Bouffan. In this work we see the great old ochre-coloured building, with its ivy- clad walls nestled amongst a thriving mix of tall, well-established trees and greenery. It is a beautiful sunlit scene which captures the myriad of visual wonders offered up by nature. Cézanne despite moving around the country, including Paris, where he exhibited works at the first Impressionism exhibition in April 1874, often returned to Jas de Bouffan to relax and paint. The roof of the house had to be replaced in the early 1880’s and it was then that Cézanne’s father made a little studio in the attic for his son. In 1886 when his father died, Cézanne came into a large inheritance which included the family’s beloved estate. This was the same year he married his lover and artist’s model of seventeen years, Hortense. In September 1899, two years after the death of his mother, Cézanne and his two sisters sold Jas de Bouffan to Louis Granel, an agricultural engineer.

House in the Jas de Bouffan
House in the Jas de Bouffan

Much later, the house and a portion of the grounds were sold to the city of Aix. The house has been open to the public since 2006 for visits in connection with the tours organized by the Office de Tourisme with regards to the life of Cézanne.

Man in Blue Smock by Cézanne (1897)
Man in Blue Smock by Cézanne (1897)

As I wrote before, in the late 1880’s Cézanne began to concentrate once again on single portraits and used his wife Hortense and son Paul as models. Later, in the 1890’s he started to paint a number of pictures which featured some of the workers of the estate. Using actual peasant workers that he knew added that little bit extra realism to the depictions. One such work was entitled Man in a Blue Smock which he completed around 1897 which is now housed in the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth. The worker who sat for Cézanne in this painting was also one of the models used for the famous Card Players series. It is an interesting work which needs to be carefully studied. The man, with a large moustache, shows little expression as he sits before Cézanne, the artist and his boss! It appears that he has been asked to put on a painter’s blue smock over his ordinary working clothes, which includes a red bandanna

The painting of the peasant is awash with muted blues and browns but the red used for the bandanna, the man’s cheeks and the backs of the hands draw our eyes to these very points in the painting. The background of the work is predominately filled with pastel colours but what is most interesting is what is behind the left shoulder of the main character. One can make out a faceless lady carrying a parasol. The museum curator believes that this faceless woman perhaps suggests some mute dialogue between opposite sexes, differing social classes, or even between the artist’s earliest and most fully evolved efforts as a painter. This latter reason falls in well with the fact that the lady with the parasol is a copy of one of Cézanne’s first works which he completed in 1859, when he was twenty years of age, and which can now be found in the Musée Granet in Aix.

Seated Peasant by Cézanne (c.1896)
Seated Peasant by Cézanne (c.1896)

Another painting featuring one of his peasant workers is entitled Seated Peasant which he completed around 1896 and is part of the Annenberg Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York The peasant in the painting is young and is seated cross-legged on a cane chair. The setting for the painting is inside one of the rooms in the big house. It is “L-shaped” in design. The background is once again a simple plastered wall with its dado rail. Cézanne has restricted his palette to a small number of colours – greys, blues, browns, yellows and grey greens which are only replaced by the odd small splash of purple and red. Although there is a similarity between him and the peasants in the various Card Players works he has never been identified as being in any of those five famous paintings. The man seems lost in thought. His mouth is drawn down on each side giving his facial expression an air of melancholia. He wears a baggy dark brown coat over a grey jacket and a yellow waistcoat or vest. He wears striped trousers. Look at the way Cézanne has painted his hand which rest on his thigh. It is very large in comparison to the rest of his body and could almost be described it as being “ham-fisted”. As in some other portraits by Cézanne, he has introduced a still-life element into the work. On the floor in the bottom left of the painting he has added two green-bound books, two small boxes, a small bottle and a stick all of which have been placed on a cloth. Only the artist knows why he included these inanimate objects into this portrait! Maybe he was asserting his ability to paint still-life objects.

Peasant Standing with Arms Crossed (Paysan debout, les bras croisés) by Cézanne (1895)
Peasant Standing with Arms Crossed (Paysan debout, les bras croisés) by Cézanne (1895)

Around the same time, Cézanne painted another portrait of a peasant in a standing position. It looks very much like the setting for the portrait was in the same room as the previous work. It was entitled Paysan debout, les bras croisés, (Peasant Standing with Arms Crossed) and was completed around 1896.

Peasant by Cézanne (c.1891)
Peasant by Cézanne (c.1891)

My final work I am showcasing is a head and shoulder depiction simply entitled Le paysan (Peasant) which Cézanne completed around 1891. Again we have this peasant with a most unhappy countenance as he stares downwards. Again his mouth is turned down in an expression of sadness. One has to believe that this is the pose Cézanne wanted his sitter to exhibit. Was the artist trying, by this posed facial expression of his sitter, to get over to us that the life of a peasant was not a happy one. Maybe Cézanne want us to empathize with the man. Maybe Cézanne was determined to depict the inequalities of life in this portrait. Once again the background is plain and in no way detracts from the sitter. The work is a mass of greys and blues but the careful splashes of red on the peasant’s face make us focus on the man’s expression and by doing so poses the question to us as to what we think about is his lot in life.

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Sarah Siddons

Sarah Siddons by J. Dickinson
Sarah Siddons by J. Dickinson

The subject of my blog today is not an artist, although many would term her a theatrical artist, and in fact she was looked upon as one of the greatest English tragic actors of the eighteenth century. She was a Shakespearean actor of great renown and particularly famous for her interpretations of Lady Macbeth. She was a lady who was so popular that her portrait was painted a number of times by leading portraitists of the time. Let me introduce you to Sarae Kemble, later known as Sarah Siddons.

Sarae Kemble was born in the Welsh town of Brecon in July 1755. She was the eldest of twelve children of Roger Kemble and his wife Sarah Ward. Her father, who was a theatre manager, managed a troupe of travelling actors, the Warwickshire Company of Comedians. Sarah was fortunate to be the eldest child as her mother made sure that she received a good education and insisted on her attending school at the various towns the troupe of actors performed but this did not preclude her from making many appearances on the stage when she was still just a small child.

During her teenage years she fell in love with William Siddons, who was one of her father’s troupe of actors. However, like most parents, Sarah’s mother and father baulked at her liaison with Siddons as they had already received an offer of marriage from a local squire. Sarah would not agree to such a relationship and held out until she was eighteen and eventually in November of 1773 she married her beloved William Siddons in Trinity Church, Coventry. A year later, in 1774, she appeared as Belvidra in the English Restoration play, a tragedy, written by Thomas Otway, called Venice Preserv’d, which was first performed in 1680. Sarah Siddons’ performance was hailed a great success and the excellent revues of her depiction of her character came to the attention of the veteran actor of the time, David Garrick. She was invited to appear at the prestigious Theatre Royal, Drury Lane but whether it was nerves or whether she had still yet polished her acting ability, her performances were slated and, to her shame and horror, the theatre dispensed of her services.

It may have all been for the best as she spent the next six years travelling around the country with touring companies, honing her skill as an actor, all the time enhancing her reputation and finally she was invited back to the scene of her early disasters, Theatre Royal Drury Lane, where she was hailed as a theatrical genius for her portrayal of Isabella in David Garrick’s adaptation of Thomas Southerne’s play, Isabella or The Fatal Marriage.

Mrs. Siddons as the Tragic Muse by Sir Joshua Reynolds
Mrs. Siddons as the Tragic Muse by Sir Joshua Reynolds

It was around this time, in 1784 that she sat for Sir Joshua Reynolds who depicted her as the Tragic Muse, Melepoméne, in his famous portrait, Mrs Siddons as The Tragic Muse. The name Melpoméne comes from the Greek word melpo or melpomai, which means “to celebrate with dance and song. She is a Greek and Roman mythological character who was one of nine muses of the arts. She started off as the Muse of Song but later became the Muse of Tragedy. Reynolds was himself a great fan of the actor and was also a lover of all things classical and decided to combine his two loves in one single portrait. Reynolds was so overwhelmed by the actress that it was said that when she first visited him, he led her by the hand into his studio uttering:

“…Ascend upon your undisputed throne, and graciously bestow upon me some great idea of the Tragic Muse…”.

Further evidence of his devotion to the twenty-eight year old actor was that he signed his name on the gold embroidery at the hem of her dress. He explained this pictorial inclusion to the sitter saying:

“…I have resolved to go down to posterity on the hem of your garment…”

In the portrait we see Sarah Siddons seated in her throne chair with the allegories of Pity and Terror standing behind her and who merge into the brown background. Her body is towards us whilst her head and face are in profile. Her facial expression is one of concern. She looks troubled and in two minds as Pain and Terror influence her thought process. Despite this, she exudes an air of sophistication and dignity. Her dress is a mass of subtle colours, ochres and light and dark browns. Look at the beautiful and skilful way Reynolds has depicted the folds of the heavy fabric dress.

Sarah Siddons by Thomas Gainsborough
Sarah Siddons by Thomas Gainsborough

A year later, in 1785, another portrait of Sarah Siddons was completed. The artist was Thomas Gainsborough and the tile of the work was simply Sarah Siddons. It has been recorded that Gainsborough struggled with the portrait of Siddons especially when it came to her nose and her right hand which rests on the arm of the chair. It took him many attempts to get them right as has been revealed in the pentimenti. The word, pentimento (pentimenti is the plural), comes from the Italian word pentirsi, which means to repent or change your mind and pentimento is a change made by the artist during the process of painting. Such changes are concealed beneath  subsequent paint layers and often, if the final layer of paint has become transparent over a long period of time, an earlier layer of paint can be detected. Other ways of detecting such changes is with infra-red reflectograms and X-rays. Gainsborough himself commented about the difficulty he had with portraying her long nose when he uttered:

“…Confound the nose, there’s no end to it…”

Another well known artist, Sir Thomas Lawrence, painted a portrait of Sarah Siddons in 1804 when she was forty-nine years of age and nearing the end of her theatrical career.

Sir Thomas Lawrence knew Sarah Siddons and her family well. His portraits of her were probably more about Siddons the woman rather than Siddons the actor or one of Siddon’s many female characters she had played on stage. Thomas Lawrence and Siddons had first met in Bath in 1777 when she was twenty-two and on tour with a theatrical production. He was just eight years of age. Lawrence was a kind of child prodigy, an accomplished artist even at that age and had the ability to recite poetry, the two achievements which his father used to extract money from the passing public. At her first meeting with young Thomas Lawrence, Siddons never realised how he would affect her later  life and that of her family.

In 1787, just before his eighteenth birthday, Thomas Lawrence arrived in London. He met up again with Sarah Siddons, who was by now a cultural icon at the high-point of her theatrical career. Lawrence began consecutive relationships with two of her daughters, Maria and Sarah. Sadly they both died in their twenties. Sarah Siddons was by now separated from her husband William. Siddons herself was also in love with Thomas Lawrence, her daughters’ charming and alluring suitor, and he painted many portraits of her.

Mrs Siddons by Sir Thomas Lawrence (1804)
Mrs Siddons by Sir Thomas Lawrence (1804)

In his 1804 portrait entitled Mrs Siddons, we do not see her portrayed as an actor playing one of her many roles but at one of her many recitals when she would, with an actor’s panache, read from one of the plays which had made her so famous. In this portrait we see Sarah standing next to a table. On the table is a small lectern, on which are scripts of plays by Thomas Otway and Shakespeare.

Mrs Siddons as Mrs Haller in ‘The Stranger’ by Sir Tomas Lawrence
Mrs Siddons as Mrs Haller in ‘The Stranger’ by Sir Tomas Lawrence

Lawrence had completed an earlier painting of Sarah Siddons in 1797 entitled Sarah Siddons (possibly as Mrs Haller) in ‘The Stranger’ , a play written by August Friedrich Ferdinand von Kotzebue the German dramatist and writer. The role she played was of the adulteress, Mrs Haller. In the portrait we see the sadness in Sarah Siddon’s expression which could well be the feelings expressed by the character in the play or it could be the unhappiness of her own life which would have been well known to Lawrence.  At last we may be seeing the real Sarah Siddons.

Sarah Siddons was a tall woman with strikingly beautiful features. Her most famous role was that of Lady Macbeth in the Shakespeare play, Macbeth. The way in which she played the part of Macbeth’s wife was legendry for the emotions she expressed when murder was on her mind. She was so good in the role, she made it her own. Audiences were spellbound by her performances.

Statue of Sarah Siddons,_Paddington_Green
Statue of Sarah Siddons,_Paddington_Green

Sarah Siddons gave up acting in 1812. She died in London in 1831 a month before her 76th birthday and was interred in Saint Mary’s Cemetery at Paddington Green. There is a statue of her on Paddington Green.

John Singer Sargent and Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau

In my last blog I featured a painting by Theodore Roussel entitled The Reading Girl which was at the time both controversial and newsworthy, only going to prove the old adage that there is no such thing as bad publicity.  My blog today follows a similar theme, a controversial painting which had major repercussions on the artist and his career.

Self portrait by John Singer Sargent (1907)
Self portrait by John Singer Sargent (1907)

My featured artist is John Singer Sargent.   He came from a very wealthy family.   His grandfather was Winthrop Sargent IV, who had descended from one of the oldest colonial families.  Due to a failed merchant-shipping business in Gloucester, Massachusetts, he moved his family to Philadelphia.  It was in that city that John Singer Sargent’s father, Fitzwilliam Sargent became an eye surgeon.  In 1850, Fitzwilliam Sargent married Mary Newbold Singer who was the daughter of a successful local merchant. In 1853 Mary gave birth to their first child, a daughter, who sadly died a year later.   Sargent’s mother suffered a nervous breakdown after the death of her daughter and her husband decided that it would be better for his wife’s health to move away from Philadelphia and the sad memories and take up residency in Europe.  Initially Sargent’s father’s idea was for he and his wife to stay in Europe just a short time until she was better but their life away from America extended and soon they became expatriates.  He and his wife based themselves in Paris but they would often travel and stay in Florence, Rome, or Nice in the winters and in the summers they would journey to the Alps were the climate was much cooler and more pleasant.   Their son John was born in January 1856 whilst they were in Florence.

Because of the nomadic lifestyle of the family and because of his determination not to stay in school, John Singer Sargent did not receive formal schooling and was taught at home by his father and mother.  He proved to be an excellent pupil excelling in languages and the arts.  Art played a great part in his early life as his mother was a talented amateur artist and his father was a talented medical illustrator.  Following more additions to the family and because his wife wanted to remain in Europe, John Singer Sargent’s father eventually resigned his post at the Willis Eye Hospital in Philadelphia and acquiesced to his wife’s wishes for the family to remain in Europe.

John Singer Sargent soon developed a love of art and his father had him enrol at the Accademia di Bella Arti in Florence during the winter of 1873/4.  In 1876, at the age of eighteen, Sargent passed the entrance exam to the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris.  Here he studied anatomy and perspective and spent time in the Paris museums copying the works of art of the masters. In those early days at the art academy Sargent was schooled as a French artist.  It was the era of French Impressionism and he was greatly influenced by the work of the Impressionist movement.  He was also a lover of the works of art by the Spanish painter, Velazquez and the Dutch master Frans Hals.

Portrait of Carolus-Duran by John Singer Sargent (1879)
Portrait of Carolus-Duran by John Singer Sargent (1879)

However nearer to home he was inspired by his art tutor, the French painter, Carolus-Duran, a portrait of whom he completed in 1879.     John Singer Sargent’s reputation as a great artist and portraitist grew rapidly and in Paris he was the toast of artistic circles.  Everything he did was loved by the critics and the public.  The Parisians loved him.  He could do no wrong.  Well actually he could and did and through one painting, a portrait of a lady, his fall from grace was rapid and final and caused him to exile himself from Paris and France and take refuge in England.  So what happened?  The answer to this question is examined in this very blog.

The lady whose portrait caused such a stir was Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau.  Virginie Amélie Avegno was born in New Orleans in January 1859.  She was the daughter of a white Creole family.  Her father was Major Anatole Placide Avengo, a Confederate army soldier and her mother was Marie Virginie de Ternant who came from a wealthy Louisiana plantation owning family.  Her father was killed during the American Civil War at the Battle of Shiloh in 1862.  Five years later in 1867 her widowed mother took her eight year old daughter to live and be educated in Paris and as a teenager was introduced into high French society.

Virginie Amélie Avegno blossomed into a beautiful woman.  She was a pale-skinned brunette.  She was renowned for her great beauty and was accepted into Parisian society circles.  She dazzled all who met her with her exquisite clothing and undeniable beauty.  She mastered the art of make-up to enhance her looks and was known for her heavy use of chalky lavender powder which was dusted on her face and body affording her a very distinctive pallor.  Her beauty was unique.  She had a long nose which was somewhat longer than the accepted norm, her forehead was also too high and yet these physical characteristics never detracted from her hourglass figure and the seductive way she would walk when entering a room of people.

In his 2011 book The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, David McCullough quotes an American art student named Edward Simmons who wrote about seeing Virginie and how the sight of her was unforgettable:

“…She walked as Virgil speaks of a goddess—sliding—and seemed to take no steps. Her head and neck undulated like that of a young doe, and something about her gave you the impression of infinite proportion, infinite grace, and infinite balance. Every artist wanted to make her in marble or paint…”

As always beauty as well as bringing out admirers, brings about jealousy and many of her detractors labelled her an arriviste, one who has attained a high position but has not attained general acceptance or respect.  I suppose we would liken her to one of the nouveau-riche looked down on by the “old establishment rich”

A mother’s most fervent wish is to see her daughters marry successfully which often translates into having their daughters marry a wealthy man.  Virginie’s mother must have been well pleased when her daughter married a wealthy French banker, Pierre Gautreau, and her daughter now had two of the greatest assets of life, beauty and a wealthy husband who held a great status in Parisian society.

John Singer Sargent met Virginie Gautreau at a social gathering around 1881.  He was smitten by her beauty and elegance; some say he soon became obsessed with her.  Having met her he wanted just one thing from life – to paint her portrait and have it exhibited at the Paris Salon so all could admire “his lady”.  Sargent had been inundated with portraiture commissions but on this occasion it was he who approached his desired sitter to ask if she would acquiesce to become the subject of his portrait.  Sargent realised that Gautreau was both part of high class Paris society and a renowned beauty and thus a portrait of her by him at the Salon would bring great kudos and he probably realised that if he portrayed her seductively it would cause a sensation similar to Manet’s Olympia at the 1865 Salon.  Sargent had unfortunately not realised how sensational it would turn out.

Watercolour figure study of Madame Gautreau  by John Singer Sargent (c.1883) Harvard Art Museum
Watercolour figure study of Madame Gautreau
by John Singer Sargent (c.1883)
Harvard Art Museum

After some help from colleagues Sargent persuaded Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau to sit for him.  For months on end he would complete many line drawings of her head in profile.  He would complete studies of her in pencil and watercolour, sometimes simply relaxing on a chaise-longue in a low-cut evening dress or depicted her in oil painting sketches drinking a champagne toast. In the summer of 1883, he stayed at the Gautreaus’ country estate in Brittany but admitted to his friend the writer, Vernon Lee, that he was still struggling to do justice to this un-paintable beauty.  He was also now having doubts as to whether it would be accepted into the 1884 Salon by the Salon jury.

In the winter of 1883, Sargent moved his Paris residence which had been on the Left Bank to a new studio across the Seine in the fashionable Parc Monceau neighbourhood and it was here that he completed his full-length portrait of Gautreau.  It was a nerve-wracking time for Sargent as he had suffered a loss of self-confidence in his artistic ability in respect to the depiction of his beloved beauty.  Despite his worries, the painting was finally completed in 1884 and the Salon jury accepted it into the 1884 Salon. This was the sixth year in a row that the Salon had accepted works by Sargent. Before the Salon opened there was already a frenzied excitement about the portrait.  Gautreau had talked wildly and incessantly to her friends and acquaintances about the painting, even though she had never seen the finished work.

Madam *** by John Singer Sargent as exhibited at 1884 Salon
Madam *** by John Singer Sargent
as exhibited at 1884 Salon

In the painting, Gautreau is seen dressed in a long black satin skirt with its sultry low-cut black velvet bodice.  Against the deep black of the dress and the plain dark background, the deathly blue-white of her powdered skin was even more eccentric and noticeable.   Her shoulders are bare with the exception of two narrow jewelled straps. Gautreau posture is one in which both her shoulders are held back, her body faces us and yet her head is angled to the left, which fully highlights her stunning profile.   Her left arm rests on her hip with her hand gripping the material of her dress.   Her right hangs down in a twisted manner s her fingers grasp the top of the table.  The result of this distorted pose was to create tension in the neck and arm but it also highlighted the subject’s graceful curves.   Her hair is pinned up high on her head atop of which is a tiara.  Sargent must have “designed” this un-natural pose presumably because he believed it brought a haughty sensuality to his sitter, for remember, besides wanting to do justice to his sitter’s beauty he also wanted this work to have a sensational affect when it was exhibited.  It was probably this thought of sensationalism that made him make the cardinal error which was to damn him.   During one of Gautreau’s sittings the thin strap of her dress had slipped from her right shoulder and as she was about to re-adjust it when Sargent told her to leave it down it was and he decided to make the portrait even more sultry by portraying Gautreau’s right shoulder bare.  The die was cast and the painting with the strapless shoulder went on exhibition under the title Portrait of Madame *** although most Parisians were aware that it was the portrait of Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau.

Even though the Salon had just opened the picture was condemned for what was termed the sitters’ “flagrant insufficiency” of clothing.  Little was said about the other aspects of the work, it was all about the seductive pose and dress (or undress) of the sitter.  The Paris public could not stop talking about Sargent’s portrait of Gautreau.  It was fast becoming a scandal of epic proportions.  The painting received many critical reviews.  Some objected to the portrait on the grounds that they disliked Madame Gautreau’s décolletage, others criticised what they termed the repulsive colour of her skin.  Few however were less harsh and stated that they liked the modern approach to the portrait and congratulated Sargent on is courageous approach.  It is difficult to understand the furore over the suggestiveness of the black dress when paintings of nudes littered the walls of the Salon but of course they would normally have biblical or mythological connotations to them which made blatant nudity acceptable.  Maybe it was the haughty pose of the arriviste with her heavily powdered features which was too much for the critics and public alike. Gautreau herself was humiliated by the whole affair and her mother, Madame Avegno, who was also horrified with publicity surrounding the portrait, demanded Sargent remove it from the Salon. He defended the portrait, telling the irate mother that it was a truthful likeness of the pose of her daughter and the clothes she wore.

John Singer Sargent in his studio with with his painting Madame X
John Singer Sargent in his studio with with his painting Madame X

Sargent had scandalised Paris society and he was widely criticised in Paris art circles for being improper.  For Sargent the criticism of the work and of him as an artist was almost impossible to bear.  He had been living and working in Paris for ten years and during that period he had received nothing but praise for his work and the commissions had poured in on the back of such praise.  The criticism of the portrait went beyond a simple poor review.  He was being mocked by the Paris public for what he later stated was the best painting he had ever completed.  For him the work was a true masterpiece but it would take a long time before the world acknowledged that fact.  Sargent hung the work first in his Paris studio and later in his studio in London and from 1905 onwards he allowed it to be seen at various international exhibitions.

Madame X by John Singer Sargent (c.1884) with the position of the strap of dress altered
Madame X by John Singer Sargent (c.1884)
with the position of the strap of dress altered

Sargent repainted the fallen strap on Guitreau’s right shoulder, re-titled it Madame X and eventually sold the work to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1916 where it is housed today.  An unfinished second version of the same pose is in the Tate Gallery London.

Sargent found the criticism unjustified and shortly after the 1884 Salon, in the May, at the age of 28, he left Paris disillusioned by the incident and disappointed by the fall off of sales of his paintings and moved to London where he remained for the rest of his life England.  Although his long-term career as a portraitist in France was over, he once again thrived artistically in the English capital and some say that it was here that he reached the pinnacle of his fame.  In those days to have you portrait done by Sargent was looked upon as having it painted by the best portraitist of the time.

John Singer Sargent      (1856 - 1925)
John Singer Sargent
(1856 – 1925)

He died in London in 1925, aged 69.