|I just finished an interesting book based on the life of the famous John Singer Sargent portrait Madame X. The story is based on the life of the woman who posed for the picture in the late 1800’s.
The genre is a literary device I usually avoid, a supposed autobiography of the lady who was a celebrated beauty living in France at the time she was painted by the equally celebrated artist.
Both Sargent and his subject were Americans. He was born to American parents and spent his childhood and youth moving around Europe. She was born to French Creole parents in New Orleans. Her father was wounded and died while fighting in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. Following his death and the death of her 5 year old sister, she and her mother moved to France where she lived until she died at the age of 56.
The portrait caused an uproar when it was first shown and Sargent had to move to England to escape the vilification and loss of patronage for portraiture. The painting was denounced as being shocking, even though the lady is fully clothed. She is wearing a black evening gown, which fits her admirable figure like a glove. Obviously, there are no corsets underneath the wasp waist is her own. The neckline is very modern, especially by today’s standards. My gosh, think of how those people would react to today’s celebrities on TV or in the movies? Everything Madame X has is covered, even though the sweetheart neckline is a bit low, and held up by two slim diamond studded straps.
In the original painting one strap had slipped down off her shoulder. Sargent later painted it back up into its proper place. The lady is not wearing opera gloves, nor does she have one piece of jewelry. Her glorious auburn hair is swept up in a French roll. Her neck is long and graceful, as are her arms. Her skin is startlingly white. Her face is turned to the side. She stands straight and tall she was 5’6”, and her ear is rouged. She read about Cleopatra doing this to her ears and she was the only Parisian beauty to do the same. When the fuss finally died down she was highly admired, as was Sargent, who remained in England doing many more famous portraits.
The painting ended up in the metropolitan Museum of Art in 1905, which is where it is today, and where I first saw it when a little girl. I have never forgotten how much I loved it at first sight, and how much I still do. It is a beautiful work of art. When I was about 10 years old I found a book in our attic, called A Dream of Fair Ladies. It contained poems by Tennyson accompanied by paintings of various beauties. Madame X wasn’t in it, but my mother was, as I learned from the inscription on the flyleaf. Mama had been a 5’6” auburn haired willowy beauty when she was young and had modeled for some of the pictures in the book.
Reading about John Singer Sargent reminded me of a portrait he did of a young man, which I saw, not in the museum, but in the home of an artist I interviewed right here in Maine.
In the days when I wrote articles as well as a column for my paper, I had a chance to meet and write about some interesting people, including two gentlemen who lived on the lake. One of them had opened an antique shop. The other was an artist. I went to their home for an interview. It was one of the happiest times of my life.
Both were charming. The antique shop owner had been city librarian for a large Connecticut city. He had retired, and he and his friend had moved into the house his mother had owned as a summer place. They had done some wonderful renovations after buying the house next door. Both homes were connected by a series of Japanese decks and gardens. They lived in the original house, the other was converted into a residential art school where the artist taught adult students from Texas, where he had taught art. They came up and stayed for a couple of weeks to study and enjoy the green beauties of Maine.
Everything in the home was beautiful, not the least being a collection of paintings. Some were done by the artist in residence, some were not. Among those was a huge, life sized portrait of a young man, signed by Sargent. It was stunning. I never mentioned it in the article. I was afraid they might be robbed by someone who would know its great value.
We three became fast friends. At the time I was a devotee of Brazilian movies and was delighted to learn that the artist had been responsible for all the various art forms in my two favorite films.
I was also pleased when I was having tea on their Japanese deck and was told that I reminded them of a best friend a woman affiliated with the metropolitan Opera. It would have been nice if she had been a diva, but I think our resemblance had to do with senses of humor and hearty laughs.
I enjoyed the book and the memories it inspired. If you ever get the chance to view Madame X, do so. You won’t regret the meeting.