Art & History

Portrait of Madame X | [HR] Painting & Facts

Portrait of Madame X | [HR] Painting & Facts

Madame X or Portrait of Madame X is the informal title of a portrait painting by John Singer Sargent of a young socialite named Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, wife of Pierre Gautreau.

The model was an American expatriate who married a French banker, and became notorious in Parisian high society for her beauty and rumored infidelities. She wore lavender powder and prided herself on her appearance.

Portrait of Madame X

Facts About Painting

  • MADAME X HAD A BIZARRE, POTENTIALLY DANGEROUS BEAUTY REGIMEN.

    To achieve the pale complexion one art critic later derided as “cadaverish,” Gautreau is rumored to have eaten arsenic wafers (modern researchers have determined it more likely to be rice powder) and used a lavender-colored face powder. As a clever contrast, she rouged her ears and dyed her hair red with henna. 

  • AN INCOMPLETE COPY LIVES IN LONDON.  

    During the tortuous creation of Portrait of Madame X, Sargent worked on a copy, which today is on display at the Tate Britain.

  • THE PAINTING IS LARGER THAN LIFE.

    The piece measures in at  82 inches by 43.25 inches, or nearly 7 feet by 4 feet.

  • EVEN DECADES LATER, SARGENT STILL WORRIED ABOUT HIS MODEL’S REPUTATION.

    A condition of the sale to the Met was that the museum “disguise the sitter’s name.” 

  • SARGENT BEGGED HIS MODEL TO POSE FOR THIS PORTRAIT.

    Madame X was actually Madame Virginie Gautreau, an American expat whose beauty was much admired in her adopted French homeland. Gautreau gained such renown for her beauty that she received frequent overtures from awestruck artists in search of a muse, and she routinely rejected them. 

  • HE ANCIENT WORLD INFLUENCED HER STYLING. 

    The way Madame X wears her hair is a nod to the styles of the bygone Hellenic era. Her tiara, with a dazzling diamond crescent, is an allusion to Diana, goddess of the hunt and the moon. Combined, these could be considered clues to this lady’s nighttime hobbies. 

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