An engaging description of the evolution of a memorable portrait and the two people involved: the brilliant young artist J.S.Sargent, and the beautiful woman he invited to pose for him, Mme.Gautreau, 'Mme.X'.
The information related here about Mme.Gautreau, the wife of a banker, is surprising, and the extraordinary story of this picture has things to say about celebrity, and about the double-standards with which people sometimes look at pictures.
At the Paris Salon in 1884, Sargent's portrait of Mme.Gautreau (labelled 'Portrait of Mme.***') caused a storm, because of the way Sargent so frankly indicated the eroticism in the lady's startling beauty. Eroticism is everywhere: in the assertive angle of the head and torso, the blood-red lips, the tight black dress, and in the thick white geisha-like make-up covering her flesh (except for the glowing ear!)
Mme.Gautreau is irresistibly commanding in her allure. Sargent's brilliant depiction of the twist in Mme.Gautreau's right arm to display the inside of her elbow, is an almost overt invitation -and a masterstroke by the artist. Sargent made Mme.Gautreau a 'star' before the word had been invented.
The crowd at the exhibition cast their eyes over numerous pictures of naked 'slave girls', and unclothed 'concubines' without apparent disapproval. But when confronted by 'Mme.***', the cry was, "O! quel horreur!!!". What sort of woman was this ? The portrait was "a scandal" which filled the news.
Sargent was a painter of breathtaking skill, and also an artist of integrity. He frequently stated, "I paint what I SEE", and his wonderful portrait of Mme.Gautreau said nothing but the truth. Artist and sitter were well-matched. Sargent (who was possibly gay) intuitively conveys the lady's reality, and gives us one of the most astounding and unforgettable women in art.
However Mme.Gautreau was herself mortified by the public reaction at the Paris exhibition. Partly as a result of the scandal Sargent eventually decided to continue his career elsewhere.
The book is an eye-opener. The incredible profile of Mme.Gautreau is unlike any other, and Sargent always said it was the best thing he ever did. He kept the picture until he died.