John Singer Sargent (Florence 1856–1925 London)
Virginie Amélie Avegno, Madame Gautreau (Madame X), ca. 1884
Graphite on cream wove paper
12 3/8 × 8 7/8 in. (314.3 × 225.4 mm)
Promised Gift from the Collection of Elizabeth and Jean-Marie Eveillard
Photo Joseph Coscia Jr.
Sargent was the most highly sought-after society portraitist in Britain and the United States in his time. This drawing is one of about ten studies he made of the society figure to prepare the scandalous portrait known as Madame X (The Metropolitan Museum of Art). Exhibited in Paris in 1884, the painting prompted such scathing criticism for its sensuality and style that Sargent quit Paris for London. Decades later, he sold it to the Metropolitan Museum, noting, “I suppose it is the best thing I have ever done.” Unlike the other studies, which explore her sharp profile, in the present sheet Sargent turns her head away, focusing on the contours of her head, neck, back, and arms, down to the fingers of her left hand. The crossed ankles and heeled shoes seen from behind suggest the experimentation of this moment, as such a pose would not suit a formal portrait. It anticipates the uprightness of the painting, in which her silhouette is characterized by the hourglass shape of her waist, tilted hips, and ample bust and skirt. During their sittings, Sargent complained about her “hopeless laziness,” but he marveled to friends that “she has the most beautiful lines.”
Curator's Personal Reflection
Speaker: Aimee Ng, Curator
I’m particularly drawn to this study—related to John Singer Sargent’s most famous painting, Madame X—because it shows the artist trying to understand his model in three dimensions. Of course, in the end he would paint her standing up tall, with her body facing forward and her face turned in profile, but here he seems mesmerized by how she moves in space, how she fits in the domestic setting around her. How and why did she get into this position, in this fitted dress, kneeling with ankles crossed behind her? It could not have been comfortable. She seems to be looking out the window, her famous profile lost to us—her, lost in thought. To me it’s one of the most human of his many renderings of Madame Gautreau. He complained about her “hopeless laziness,” but here she seems dynamic and full of spirit.