Madame X by John Singer Sargent 1884

Study of Madame X by Carol Zink

X marks the Scandal

In today’s world with Victoria’s secret models flaunting their nearly naked bodies all over the place it is hard to believe that a painting of a fully clothed woman could be so scandalous, oh but it was. Back in the day, the day being late 1800’s, Madame Gautreau found herself in the middle of a scandal. One that changed the course of her life, some say even ruined it.

What is all this about?

The artist John Singer Sargent painted this portrait of Madame Gautreau. Sargent was Born in Italy to American parents in 1856. He studied painting in Italy and France. The portrait of Madame Gautreau was shown in the Salon, Paris in 1884. Sargent was a well know artist in Paris and sort of a golden-child of portrait painting. He had been through other Salon showings with huge successes. The woman, Madame Gautreau otherwise known as Madame X, was at the top of Parisian society. She was the “it girl’ of her time. Gautreau, born in New Orleans, USA was an expatriate and a true Parisian beauty. Newly married and always on the forefront of fashion and style. Gautreau was bored with the natural beauty look. Her skin was snowy-white and she made sure it was white as white can be. Her makeup was more daring and bold. Her maquillage and white skin gave her a dramatic look. It truly set her apart from other women in Paris at the time.

Parisian society was dazzled and seduced by her individual style and grace. She was on everyone’s guest list with invitations to parties, balls and charity events. She became a celebrity. Her peers noticed and watched her. But she was also creating problems on the street. While traveling from one place to the next, crowds would push and shove on the boulevards just to get a glimpse of her.

When the painting of Madame Gautreau debuted in Paris in 1884 the painting was instantly damned. The public itself set the scandal and the critics followed. It was the sexual suggestion of her pose and the pale color of her skin that people didn’t like. The original painting was of Gautreau with the strap of her dress falling off her shoulder which was suggesting a possible tryst with the painter himself! After the showing Sargent modified the painting by moving the strap up onto the shoulder.

A photo of the original painting with the strap off her shoulder.

Sargent left Paris after the scandal and never fully recovered from the disaster, in Paris at least. He did however become a very successful painter in other parts of the world. He painted somewhere near 900 oil paintings and more than 2000 watercolor paintings. Later in life his paintings were solely for himself. He would journal his travels with landscape paintings and sketches. They are overflowing with color and emotion. You can see (or feel) the pleasure he had while doing them.

As for Madame Gautreau her life never was the same. She hid herself from the rest of the world hoping people would forget about the scandal. When she tried to comeback they forgot about her but not the scandal. She tried to regain popularity by having other portraits painted of her by other artists. No one noticed, she even had herself painted with her strap off her shoulder again but no one cared. Eventually, she became a recluse and sadly lived in a self-imposed prison only venturing out under at night.

I am reading the book called Strapless by Deborah Davis. It is a fantastic well researched novel about the scandal of Madame X. I highly recommend it if you have any interest at all in this story. you can view this provocative painting at the Metropolitan Art Museum in New York City.

John Singer Sargent was an amazing artist. I plan on showcasing him again soon. He is mostly known for his portrait work but I found his watercolors to be touching and real. A series of paintings of Venice stirs up emotions and sensations from a time we were there. The colors are simply beautiful. His style is seamless and flawless. I want to jump right in the painting. To sit on the steps along the canal and watch the Venetians as they go about their day.




I hope you enjoyed the blog today. I did paint a copy of Madame X. Mine of course is just a study but it was fun to do.


Links and information.


John Singer Sargent the complete works.

John Singer Sargent virtual gallery.

Metropolitan Museum of Art.