Portrait of Madame X, or Madame X, is an elegant portrait by John Singer Sargent featuring a young socialite named Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau. Sargent ranked this as one of his best works, but it was also one of his most controversial. In this post, I cover:
- Key Facts
- Color and Light
- Key Takeaways
- Want to Learn More?
- Thanks for Reading!
Here are some of the key facts about Portrait of Madame X:
- Virginie Gautreau (the subject in the painting) was the wife of a wealthy businessman named Pierre Gautreau. She was described as being a “professional beauty”, an English term for people who used their social skills and appearance to advance socially.
- The painting was not a commission, but rather a request by Sargent to paint the young socialite. In a letter to a mutual friend, Sargent wrote:
“I have 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 … you might tell her that I am a man of prodigious talent.”
(You can tell Sargent was not shy about his remarkable abilities).
- Madame Gautreau eventually agreed to sit for a portrait by Sargent, who created many studies in preparation for the main work. These studies were done in pencil, watercolors, and oils with several different poses.
- Sargent was frustrated by “the unpaintable beauty and hopeless laziness of Madame Gautreau”. She grew tired of the long sittings with Sargent and had to keep up with her regular social engagements. The painting ended up taking Sargent about two years to complete.
- It was exhibited at the Salon in 1884 and, coming in at an imposing 82 by 43.25 inches, it was meant to make a powerful statement and propel Sargent’s career in portrait commissions. But the painting was instead met with criticism and controversy. At the time, the painting was considered overly-sexual and provocative, mostly due to the off-the-shoulder dress strap (which he ended up painting over due to the controversy). In the study below, you can see what the original off-the-shoulder dress strap looked like.
- Sargent attempted to keep the identity of Madame Gautreau concealed, originally naming the painting Portrait de Mme ***. But, with all the controversy surrounding the painting, her identity quickly became public knowledge. The Gautreau family was embarrassed by this and requested the painting be withdrawn from the Salon. Sargent refused, saying he had painted her “exactly as she was dressed, that nothing could be said of the canvas worse than had been said in print of her appearance”.
- Due to the controversy, Sargent left Paris for London and kept the painting in his studio there. Although the painting was initially a setback for Sargent in Paris, he continued to grow in popularity in England and America. As we now know, he would end up becoming one of the most renowned portrait artists in history.
- Madame Gautreau subsequently posed for two other artists: Gustave-Claude-Etienne Courtois in 1891 and Antonio de La Gandara in 1898. The latter was her favorite.
- The painting was eventually sold to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, not long after the death of Madame Gautreau. The painting is still with that Museum.
Color and Light
Sargent was restrained with his use of color in this portrait, which features a subtle palette of browns, grays, and blacks.
There is a powerful contrast between the soft, light skin tones and the dark, imposing browns and blacks in the rest of the painting. This technique is known as chiaroscuro (which means “light-dark”). Also, notice how most of the light colors are around the subject’s face. It then gets darker as you go towards the bottom of the painting. This helps focus your attention around the top of the painting.
To demonstrate the use of light and dark in the painting, I prepared a simple two-value notan (below). This is a simplified version of the painting with just two values, white and black. White represents the lights and black represents the darks. Notice how much information is conveyed with just these two values. This also shows how mostly light colors were used for the skin tones, and mostly dark colors were used for everything else.
A key feature of Madame Gautreau’s appearance was her pale skin. She was even known to apply a lavender powder which further softened her appearance. To paint the pale skin tones, Sargent used a combination of lead white, rose madder, vermilion, viridian, and bone black. The colors are light and there are no dramatic shifts in color on her skin (apart from her facial features). In particular, notice how Sargent rendered the subject’s neck-line with only the slightest change in color.
The soft, skin tones contrast against the rather dramatic colors and shadows used in the rest of the painting, particularly the silky black dress. On one hand, you have the subtle contours of the face which are depicted with nothing but the slightest of color changes, and on the other hand, you have the imposing blacks and grays picking up the twists and turns in the dress.
In terms of composition, the focal point is clearly Madame Gautreau, but Sargent also included a table on the left-hand side on which she is resting her hand. The inclusion of the table adds context to the scene and breaks up what would otherwise be a large area of negative space. It also ensures the painting does not appear too centralized.
Madame Gautreau is painted with one arm extended backward, resting on the table, and the other arm relaxed at the front of her body. You can see similar poses in some of Sargent’s studies leading up to this painting. This pose accentuates the general curves and contours of the body, making her appear more relaxed and natural.
There is a pleasing balance between the positive and negative space, with the positive space being the subject and the table, and the negative space being the solid, brown background. The positive space takes up less area in the painting, but it has more impact than the background.
There is also an interesting link between the positive and negative space (or the foreground and background) as the black dress melts into the shadows on the ground.
Finally, on the topic of composition, notice the strong use of outlining around the subject. There is a very strong edge which separates the soft, skin tones from the solid, brown background. This edge is stronger on the right-hand side, suggesting the main light source is also positioned on that side. On the subject’s skin itself, there are hardly any hard edges or outlines, other than the delicate facial features. This further accentuates her soft and pale complexion.
As a whole, the brushwork in this painting is careful and formal. Even the background lacks any playful and relaxed brushwork, with Sargent opting for a more formal, solid background.
Here are some other brief observations about Sargent’s brushwork in this painting:
- The subject’s face and upper body are carefully rendered, with a smooth transition between light and shadow. It lacks the visible brushwork which you can see in many of Sargent’s other paintings.
- The painting jumps between large areas of simple brushwork (the background, top of the table, floor, and most of her upper body) and small areas of intricate brushwork (facial features, parts of the dress, hands, parts of the table).
- For the highlights on the table, Sargent appears to have dragged a light color over a dark foundation (a technique known as scumbling).
- Notice how the Sargent did not attempt to paint the individual strands of hair. He painted the general color shapes, along with a few accents.
Here are some of the key takeaways from this painting:
- Use studies to help prepare for more important works. Sargent completed numerous studies in the leadup to this portrait, exploring different mediums, poses, and compositions.
- Do not worry too much about the fickle opinions of others. Even the great Sargent was heavily criticized for what he considered to be one of his best portraits.
- If you want to make a strong statement at an exhibition, then submit a large painting. Just be aware the statement may be for better or worse (in Sargent’s case, it was for worse).
- Sargent demonstrates what is possible with such a dull and limited range of hues. He relied mostly on value contrast in this painting.
- With portrait painting, try to emphasize the curves and contours of the body. This will make your painting appear much more natural and realistic than if you used rigid shapes and lines.
Want to Learn More?
You might be interested in my Painting Academy course. I’ll walk you through the time-tested fundamentals of painting. It’s perfect for absolute beginner to intermediate painters.
Thanks for Reading!
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