Are you curious to know the story of Madame X? The story of the dazzling parisienne beauty who was banished from the glamorous Third Republic society into oblivion? Her name was Virginie Amelie Gantreau and she was only 23 years old when John Singer Sargent painted the portrait that would change everything.
Paris in the late 1870’s was filled with sophisticated French beauties whose breathtaking looks were heard of everywhere because that is what they lived off. These “it girls” dominated the social scene, lived for fashion and fascinated young artists who were obsessed with capturing their beauty. In the case of Amelie Gantreau, “every artist wanted to make her in marble or paint,” said Edward Simmons, an American student living in Paris at the time. Born in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1859, Amelie moved to Paris with her mother when she was just 8 years old as her father had died several years before from a wound received in battle during the American Civil War. Soon mother and daughter ascended Paris’ social scene and when Amelie was nineteen she married Pierre Gantreau, a wealthy banker and shipping magnate who was 40 at the time.
Hypnotized by her ivory skin, ripe pink lips and dark eyebrows, the expatriate American artist asked her to sit for a portrait. John Singer Sargent already had a great reputation even though he was only 28 years old at the time; his paintings were highly praised and he had already exhibited his work for six consecutive years in the grand Salon. Paris had been his home for the past ten years and he was looking for the muse that would take his work to the next level.
It was 1883 when Amelie accepted Sargent’s invitation to pose for him. She wore a long, silk, black dress that he chose with a fitted velvet bodice that accentuated her petite waist as two thin, golden straps held the dress from her shoulders. She powdered her face and the rest of her body with a lavender powder that emphasized her pale, delicate skin. She dyed her hair with henna and filled her eyebrows with dark mahogany pencil. Sargent worked quickly to finish the portrait in time for it to be presented in the 1884 exhibition at the Salon in Paris, the most important art show in the world at the time.
The crowds and critics were in shock and disgust. The portrait was scandalous and seen as erotic even though Amelie wasn’t naked. They considered her pose arrogant, the white powder improper and her decollage indecent. Furthermore, one of the golden straps was dangling on her arm and this to them was unacceptable because of what it insinuated. Sargent tried to remove the painting from the exhibition but he was not allowed. But what was all the fuss about? Twenty years before Edouard Manet had painted his famous Olympia, a naked girl assumed to be a prostitute who was depicted reclining on a chaise longue wearing only slippers and making eye contact with the viewers. Maybe this time the public identified with the subject. Amelie was a lady of society who was supposed to cover herself up. People felt that she was a representation of them and that was even more unacceptable.
When the show at the Salon finished, Sargent took the painting back to his studio where he covered the loose strap and repainted it on her shoulder. He kept the painting in his studio and moved to England in search of a fresh start, a new opportunity. Amelie on the other hand was forced out of the spotlight and frowned upon. Her days as the “it” girl quickly disappeared and she vanished from the Parisian society that expelled her. She died forgotten in 1915, the same year that Sargent sold the painting to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for only $1,000, where it now hangs in glory next to the Impressionist and Modern art wings in the permanent collection. The portrait’s name was changed to Madame X because Sargent though it would be a good idea to keep Amelie’s name out of it as a favor to her. Although he was a fantastic artist, when people think of him the first painting that usually comes to mind is ironically Madame X.