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I Am Madame X: A Novel Paperback – 1 May 2004

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Product details

  • Paperback: 274 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner; New edition edition (1 May 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0743456807
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743456807
  • Product Dimensions: 13.3 x 2 x 20.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,106,503 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


"Los Angeles Times" Diliberto fills in the blanks of Virginie's life with vivid brush strokes. What ensues is a complex and often incredibly fun portrait...[a] handsomely imagined story.

About the Author

Gioia Diliber to has written biographies of Jane Addams, Hadley Hemingway, and Brenda Frazier. She lives in Chicago with her husband, Richard Babcock, and their son, Joe. This is her first novel.

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First Sentence
Perhaps you've heard her name, Virginie Gautreau. Read the first page
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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Donald Mitchell HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on 1 May 2004
Format: Hardcover
I Am Madame X is a rare cross between historical fiction and interesting surmises about a famous portrait model. The book succeeded nicely with its interesting surmises, and seemed disconnected and irrelevant as a historical novel. Nonetheless, I am glad that Ms. Diliberto has taken the time to flesh out some of the mystery behind Madame X.
Like many art enthusiasts, John Singer Sargent's portrait of Madame X is a required must on every trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. I find myself lingering, and then returning to linger some more to the mesmerizing portrait.
Knowing a little of French society at the time, I'm always amazed by her gown, the pose and why she would have agreed to be portrayed this way. At the same time, I'm intrigued by Sargent's sense of the woman that led her to want to portray her this way. Clearly, there had to be a good story behind it all.
Now, I know a little more of the story, thanks to the author's fine note at the end of the book. Madame X was Virginie Amelie Avegno Gautreau, an American-born Louisiana expatriate who alternately enthralled and shocked Paris society of the time. Little is know about her except for the bare facts of when and where she was born and lived, whom she married, and what gossip columnists had to say about her. From that little, Ms. Diliberto chose to add an earlier birth date so that Ms. Gautreau could have remembered the Civil War in the United States. I didn't care for that change, nor for the addition of characters that create totally fictional speculation about her.
Naturally, I wanted to read about the creation of the painting, and was disappointed when its story did not begin until page 172 of 245 pages in the main body of the book.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Gail Cooke TOP 500 REVIEWER on 23 Mar 2003
Format: Hardcover
Few portraits capture the eye as arrestingly as John Singer Sargent's Madame X. And, at an unveiling, few portraits cause the stir and affect lives as greatly as did this full-length study of a beautiful woman in a chic black gown.
With the skill of a consummate dramatist biographer Gioia Diliberto has penned her first novel by drawing upon the few facts known about Singer's mysterious subject. The result is a fully realized, fascinating story rich in period detail.
As was known to the Paris Salon in 1884 and as we know today when Madame X hangs in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art the haughty yet beguiling woman is Virginie Gautreau.
Born in New Orleans and raised on her grandmother's Louisiana sugar plantation, Virginie, her mother, and younger sister, Valentine, sought refuge in France as tides began to turn in the Civil War. Her most vivid memory of life at Parlange, as the plantation was called, is of her Aunt Julie's wedding day. In an attempt to escape an unwanted marriage 28-year-old Julie, an aspiring artist, threw herself from a second floor gallery breaking both legs.
"Men are bothersome beings," Julie had said. "I don't want to spend my days worrying about one."
Then 6-year-old Virginie may have heeded her aunt's words, as she seldom worried about the well being of men but used them to her advantage.
Upon arriving in Paris Virginie is sent to a dreaded convent school where she meets her first friend, Aurelie. Unbeknownst to Virginie her friend is "passing for white," and is expelled from the school when an outraged letter is received from Virginie's mother.
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Format: Paperback
John Singer Sargent's submission to the Paris Salon of 1884 was a full length portrait of the American beauty, Virginie Avegno Gautreau. Today, the portrait, showing the young woman in a black evening dress, might not seem to be problematic, and its reception at the Salon is hard to understand especially when paintings of nudes were regularly hung there. However, to critics and the public alike, the painting was regarded as scandalously erotic and vulgar, certainly not what was expected in a portrait of a woman of social standing.

The artist considered the portrait to be one of his finest works but refused to tell the public the sitter's name. Today, the portrait is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and is still called Madame X, previously it had the title Madame XXX. The bad publicity was sufficient for Sargent, who had arranged a visit to London, to decide to leave Paris and stay there for the rest of his life. The author has based this story on the life of Mme Gautreau in Louisiana and France, her dealings with Sargent and other historical characters of the time, the artist's struggle with the portrait and the outrage that followed its public display.

This is Diliberto's first novel and, rather surprisingly for a writer who has published 3 biographies, she has adopted a very cavalier attitude to the biographical details of her central character. It is true that the author has had to do a great deal of writing to link up the fragmentary information about Virginie's life and her activities and involvements in Paris. She also points out very clearly in her Author's Note the nature of biographical gaps, and is to be applauded for this.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 43 reviews
15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
Pretty As a Picture 21 Oct 2003
By Kelley M. Frankovitch - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
What do you do if you are a biographer who falls in love with a painting but can't find enough historical evidence to write the life story of the painting's subject? You make something up! That is precisely what Ms. Diliberto has done in this enjoyable, albeit romanticized, fictional adaptation of the life of Virginie Amelie Avegno Gautreau, the subject of John Singer Sargent's 1884 painting, Madame X.
Ms. Diliberto saw Sargent's masterpiece in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and knew immediately that she wanted to do a biography on the enigmatic woman depicted in the painting. Unfortunately, when she undertook the project, she could not find enough information on the subject. As a result, she took the information she had managed to collect and used Madame X as the subject of her first fictional work. The novel is similar to other recent works of historical fiction, such as The Girl with the Pearl Earring and The Other Boleyn Girl.
The novel itself is a quick and enjoyable read. The main character is well-developed, though I cannot say the same for most of the supporting characters. It is hard to say whether or not their lack of depth is a failing on the author's part or a deliberate attempt to emphasize the superficial nature of the main character. Everyone's appearance is vividly described, as is the environment in which they live, so I would venture to say that the lack of insight into their intellect is deliberate. Virginie lives a life dictated by appearances.
There are instances where the dissemination of the historical fact seems a bit heavy-handed. Those instances are probably a result of Ms. Diliberto's background as a biographer. I was impressed with her descriptive abilities and her flair for social melodrama. This novel felt similar to the works I have read by Jane Austin, particularly Emma. The colorful world that unfolds in I Am Madame X successfully captures a few of the romantic possibilities inspired by Sargent's portrait.
On a side note, I also enjoyed the Author's Note given at the end, where she gives the reader insight into what was fact and what was fiction. She even points out factual elements that she altered a bit to improve her story. I thought giving that information was a nice touch.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
A quick, entertaining read 21 April 2003
By Romantic Anna - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
This novel is about a woman whose portrait at the Metropolitan has fascinated me to such a degree that I considerate it my favorite portrait. Therefore, I was intrigued by the idea of a novel about this mysterious creature. The pseudo-autobiography is quite breezy- indeed, I finished the book in hours. I enjoyed the parts of Virginie's story prior to posing for Sargent, especially the scenes in Louisiana, which breathe with life and detail. The rest of the novel definitely falls flat and there is no conclusion, but rather an abrupt end. Still, if you are facinated by the topic, it is a worthy addition to the Madame X library.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Simply awful 26 Feb 2008
By R. Shields - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
As an art historian, I approached this book with a degree of trepidation. In the vein of The Da Vinci Code, so many works of historical fiction run so contrary to what is known about art that they are laughably unrealistic. I realize that these books are fiction, but the best historical fiction is written with an eye to the known facts, in an attempt to make the story more plausible. I'm not looking for, "We don't know what happened, so I can make anything up." I'm looking for, "Given what we do know, this story could very well have been possible, even though we'll never know for certain." (Tracy Chevalier excells at this.)

Diliberto so ignores the facts of art history that this book is virtually impossible to choke down. Virginie Gautreau, for one thing, typically went by her middle name, Amelie. She even signed letters this way. It wouldn't have taken Diliberto, an already established biographer, an inordinate amount of research to figure this out. This mistake at the beginning of the book was a harbinger of the boring, unresearched story to come.

I could forgive a lack of research, however, had the book been well written, but it was, quite simply, awful. The flatly drawn characters utter melodramatic phrases, one after the other, creating a work that reads more like a soap opera script than a novel. While Gautreau's life certainly did read like a tabloid at times, Diliberto's dialogue is completely unrealistic, oscillating between unintentionally comical and downright grating on the nerves.

I have to suggest that anyone intrigued by this painting read Deborah Davis's Strapless instead. Though not a work of fiction, it is written in a style that is more conversational than academic, and it's an easy and rewarding read. Davis also put quite a lot of effort into her research, and it shows. Too bad Diliberto didn't bother.
13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
Marvelous Fiction 17 Aug 2004
By HeyJudy - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Sometimes, one must wonder about the synchronicity of energy in the universe. First, STRAPLESS, a joint biography of artist John Singer Sargent and his most famous subject, Virginie Gautreau, is published. Virtually on the heels of STRAPLESS comes I AM MADAME X, a fictionalized biography of the same Virginie Gautreau.

To be sure, I AM MADAME X is the easier of these two books to read, and it tells a marvelous tale. Still, since it openly is fiction, it is difficult to discern where historic fact ends and author Gioia Diliberto's fertile imagination has taken over the purportedly first-person report. Though Diliberto's scholarship seems excellent, there is no doubt that she has fabricated backstories to explain some of the recognized events in Virginie's life.

There is her detailed explanation of Virginie's strange marriage, and a subplot about an American black woman who has moved to Paris and is trying to pass as white. How true any of these anecdotes may be are impossible for the reader to know.

Too, the author's conclusion as to the pleasure that Virginie and her family derived from Sargent's famous painting is in direct contradiction to the details offered in the non-fictional biography.

Nonetheless, I AM MADAME X provides one of the best "contemporaneous" accounts of the Paris Commune of 1870, and of the emergence of the Belle Epoque period.

Taken together, STRAPLESS and I AM MADAME X offer wonderful insight into the late 19th Century Parisian social set.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
A Richly Imaginative Recreation 22 Mar 2003
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
I read the book following rave reviews from my wife and 15 year old daughter, both of whom were riveted by it. We all then made a trip to the Metropolitan Museum in New York to behold the marvelous portrait. We then spent a lunch in museum discussing I am Madame X and how alive she seemed to us in both the painted and written portraits, both of which are worthy of one another. The unanimous verdict in our household is that the author has done a spectacular job recreating the beguiling, exotic world of Madame X and the fascinating French and American personalities around her. We can only hope that a second volume will explain further the mystery of the rouged ears!
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