Debauched: Atypical Depictions of Female Agency and Gender Roles in Madame X
by Khali Coulter
This article examines the reasons behind the scandal caused by John Singer Sargent’s painting Madame X, and uses public and critical reactions to Sargent’s most famous painting in order to explore gender roles, agency, and misogyny in fine art.
19th Century
John Singer Sargent
Feminist Art History
Debuted at the Paris Salon of 1884, John Singer Sargent’s Madame X was immediately controversial (fig. 1).1
John Singer Sargent, Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau) (1883-1884), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, oil on canvas, 208.6 x 109.9cm. Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
At first glance the portrait of socialite Madame Pierre Gautreau does not seem particularly scandalous, and yet the painting’s public debut left Gautreau’s reputation in the mud, saw her mother complain, “All Paris mocks my daughter. She is ruined,”2 and left the future of Sargent’s career in such a questionable state that he was forced to abandon Paris for London.3 When viewed in a modern context, it seems absurd that a single woman could cause such a scandal. This outcry was not a reaction to Gautreau herself, however, but rather to the challenge that this particular representation of Gautreau issued to traditional gender roles in art.
Born in Florence to American parents in January of 1856, John Singer Sargent was primarily raised in Italy and Germany.4 Sargent trained in Italy at the Accademia delle Belle Arti in the early 1870’s and in France with Parisian portraitist Carolus-Duran beginning in 1874,5 and his painting style was greatly influenced by Velazquez’s contrast of bright lights and dark shadows.6 Regardless of the traditional method in which Sargent was trained, the nature of the art world was in a flux as the young artist began his professional career and he capitalized on these changing times. The rise of an educated middle class with money to spend on luxuries meant that collecting art was no longer limited to the elite upper class.7 With a lesser need to cater to the tastes of the aristocracy and prestigious but restrictive academies came a wider range of subjects and genres for artists to render on canvas. Portraiture remained a consistent way for artists to make a living but young artists found ways to revolutionize even this long-established genre.
Sargent was very much a modern artist in his time; he blended genre painting with traditional portraiture and his works were often criticized for their eccentric use of color and lack of composition.8  Viewers, accustomed to historical allegories and references to classical myths in the paintings they viewed, did not quite know what to make of his works. One such critic labeled Sargent’s paintings “…four corners and a void.”9 Despite this, Sargent’s career was almost immediately successful; within the first two years of officially beginning his career Sargent had showed paintings at two Salons, a World’s Fair, and the Society of American Artists in New York.10 He continued to gain international recognition, exhibiting paintings, often portraits, in Boston, Philadelphia, Brussels, Dublin, Geneva, and Paris.11 This immediate and pronounced success, punctuated with only moderate criticism, did not prepare Sargent for the scandal that was to follow the debut of his portrait of Madame Gautreau.
Upon her father’s death during the American Civil War, Virginie Gautreau, born Virginie Avegno, and her mother left Louisiana to return to her mother’s home country of France.12 Here, Gautreau dared to challenge 19th century decorum ‒which dictated that women ought to use makeup to achieve an enhanced but “natural” look ‒ and became notorious for her avant-garde beauty regimen.13 She frequently powdered her skin with lavender powder, darkened her hair and eyebrows with henna, and reddened her lips before attending evening events.
Though the sitter secretly hoped that her portrait, painted by the increasingly well-known Sargent, would improve her social standing, Madame X was not a commission. It was Sargent who sought out Gautreau, enlisting the help of their mutual friend Ben Castillo, in the hope that he might be able to persuade her to sit for a portrait.14 Sargent’s quest proved successful; his completed portrait of Gautreau depicts the young woman standing alone, using an arm to support her weight on a small end table. Her body faces the viewer but she is looking away with her face completely in profile.The peculiar makeup techniques that Gautreau was known for are clearly visible in the painting. Her dark auburn hair, dark brows, and deep red lips offset the blue-purple hue of her lavender painted skin. Although her presence is commanding, upon closer inspection it is clear that Gautreau’s pose is neither natural nor comfortable. Her right arm is wrenched behind her and her hand visibly thrusts against the table rather than resting gently on top of it. A tendon in her neck is clearly visible, betraying the effort she has to make in order to show off her profile.15 Gautreau is not merely conscious that she is on display; she is intentionally presenting herself and has chosen to pose in a manner that mimics her carefully constructed public image, that of style over comfort.
The idea of artifice permeates Madame X, from the sitter’s painted features to her contrived posture. While Sargent applied paint to canvas to create his works, Gautreau was her own canvas, using powder, henna, and lip paints to carefully construct her own image. It was perhaps this attention to self-fashioning and desire to control her image down to every last detail that drew Sargent to Gautreau in the first place. He was well known for demanding complete creative control over his portraits, commissioned or not, including the sitter’s dress, pose, and surroundings.16 Sargent, however, was to have trouble painting the woman who had already painted herself; the artist struggled to capture Gautreau’s likeness in a way that satisfied him. He referred to Gautreau as an “unpaintable beauty” in one letter, created hundreds of sketches, and even abandoned his nearly finished first attempt to repaint the portrait on a new canvas.17 This struggle for dominance plays out in the final painting, leaving the viewer wondering who was really in control: the painter or the painted? What can easily be interpreted as an artist losing control over his subject may in fact be just the opposite. It is, of course, possible that Sargent struggled to control his depiction of his sitter’s likeness, but it is far more likely that the artist recognized Gautreau’s ability to manipulate her own appearance and the struggle was, in fact, the attempt to represent this agency on canvas.
Gautreau’s famously pale skin is by far the brightest portion of the painting; Sargent even repainted the originally rosy background in dull browns and ochers so that his sitter’s pallor would command the viewer’s eye.18   The deep black of her dress, the dullness of the background, and the redness of her ear ‒ the only portion of her skin with any natural looking color ‒ all serve to further offset the color of her skin.19 The suggestion of blood, and therefore life, in the redness of Gautreau's ear calls additional attention to the corpse-like paleness of the majority of her skin. Gautreau is portrayed as a young woman but her deathly pale skin challenges the artistic convention of linking beauty to immortality, contradicting her immortalization on canvas.20 This denies viewers, especially male viewers, the opportunity to objectify Gautreau. Rather than an image of a woman they might fantasize about possessing, she becomes something beyond possession. In death, she is not an image of what the viewer might obtain but a reminder of something they are too late to enjoy.
Sargent’s depiction of Gautreau was not only controversial because viewers did not feel as they were looking at a living woman but because some viewers did not feel as if they were looking at a woman at all. It is not her physical appearance but rather Gautreau’s pose and manner that is far more traditionally masculine than feminine,21 although it is interesting to note that in early sketches Gautreau’s face bears a dramatic resemblance to sketches of Sargent’s friend and mentee Albert de Belleroche.22 Sketches of a figures’ head, originally thought to be Gautreau, show signs in the underdrawing of an earlier resemblance to Belleroche in the nose, ears and lips.23 These features were later subtly changed to more closely imitate Gautreau.
An image of the archetypal nineteenth century woman ought to be standing or sitting passively, resting a hand gently on the table, and submissively accepting that the viewer observes her (figs. 2-3). Completely disregarding conventional depictions of women, Sargent has painted Gautreau in a traditionally masculine fashion. Nothing in Gautreau’s body language speaks of the easy flowing grace that is associated with female beauty. While her arms should reveal soft lines, instead her right arm reaches awkwardly behind her to push off against the table bending her wrist at an unseemly angle.24  Gautreau’s body language hints at the inevitability of activity as well. Her entire figure looks as if it is coiled and ready to move, with or without the viewer’s permission. Although she stands still, there is tension in her body, from her awkwardly twisted thumb on the table, to the fan gripped tightly in the other hand, to the tendon protruding from her neck. The viewer feels as if Gautreau might decide, at any moment, that she has tired of the viewer’s scrutiny and simply walk away from the table, leaving the viewer alone in her wake.
When Madame X originally debuted, Gautreau’s right sleeve had been painted as having slipped down her arm, threatening to expose her breasts. Though this emphasizes the fact that she is indeed a woman, Sargent portrayed Gautreau’s sexuality with a bluntness that was nearly always reserved for men.25 The original painting, showing Gautreau’s falling strap, teases the revelation of even more of her skin, yet the viewer knows that this skin will be the same unappealing mottled blue-ivory as what is already visible.26 The viewer is left with the paradoxical desire for Gautreau to both reveal and cover her skin. Her fan, an undeniably feminine accessory used often to conceal the face, instead directs the eye to her genitalia.27 Yet her heavy, stiff dress performs the task that the closed fan does not, concealing it from view and reminding the viewer that her body is hers alone to possess. This refusal to conform to traditional gender roles and conventional beauty standards certainly enraged some critics. Albert Boime refers to Gautreau as “resplendent in her own useless beauty” someone to be “approached with mingled fear, disgust and desire.”28 By depicting
Gustave Courtois, Madame Gautreau (1891), Musée d'Orsay, Paris, oil on canvas, 62.01 x 58.5cm. Photo: Public Domain.
Gautreau in a revealing dress and the garish makeup she chose to apply, Sargent has painted a woman in control of her own beauty and sexuality therefore rendering her beauty “useless” to men who seek, and consequently fail, to possess it. A woman confident in creating and displaying her own beauty did not need men to do it for her and was something to be feared.
Interestingly, the one aspect of Sargent’s painting that he did revise due to the public cries of indecency ‒ Gautreau’s falling shoulder strap ‒ was likely only so condemned because it was painted in conjunction with Gautreau’s sexual agency. The problem was not that the dress was too revealing but rather that exposing herself was Gautreau’s intent rather than Sargent’s. Seven years after the debut of Madame X, Gautreau sat for another portrait, this time for French artist Gustave Courtois (fig. 4).
Gustave Courtois, Madame Gautreau (1891), Musée d'Orsay, Paris, oil on canvas, 62.01 x 58.5cm. Photo: Public Domain.
Much like Sargent, Courtois depicted Gautreau with her face in profile and one strap of her dress falling off of her shoulder. However, while Sargent’s Madame X promotes Gautreau’s unique sense of style and inappropriately masculine depiction of confidence, Courtois’ Portrait of Madame Gautreau emphasizes her femininity.The Gautreau in Courtois’ portrait looks softly into the distance while wearing a white, gauzy, almost virginal dress that seems to float around her, and has a distinctly Romanesque nose.29  Courtois’ portrait was met with praise both by the public and the Gautreau family. There was nothing scandalous about a passive woman with classical looks whose dress strap had happened to slip down her shoulder.
The passivity with which women were often painted in the nineteenth century, and throughout history, had reduced images of women to nothing more than objects to be beheld both by the men that viewed these portraits and the male artists that painted them. Men were able to literally own women by commissioning or purchasing these paintings.Yet, in Madame X, Gautreau looks defiantly away and denies the viewer possession.30 She is aware that she is on display yet she refuses to acknowledge the viewer; she does not allow them the opportunity to appreciate the face that so proudly exhibits its body.31 The viewer is invited, even commanded, to look at Gautreau and yet, due to her assertive masculine energy and deathly pallor, is very clearly not afforded that same invitation to touch.32 After refusing to remove the painting from the Paris Salon during its debut, Sargent kept the work in private for the rest of Gautreau’s life, refraining from selling it until after her death. Despite the controversy surrounding the debut of Madame X, Sargent later admitted of the painting, “I suppose it is the best thing I have done.”33  This is undoubtedly because Sargent’s Gautreau claims her right to be portrayed on her own terms and does not seek approval or acceptance from viewer or artist.
1 Trevor J. Fairbrother, John Singer Sargent: The Sensualist (Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 2000), 74.
2 Susan Sidlauskas, "Painting Skin: John Singer Sargent's Madame X." American Art 15.3 (2001): 29.
3 Dorothy Mahon and Silvia Centeno, “A Technical Study of John Singer Sargent's Portrait of Madame Pierre Gautreau,” Metropolitan Museum Journal 40 (2005): 123.
4 Ibid., 32.
5 Simpson, Uncanny Spectacle: The Public Career of the Young John Singer Sargent (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 5.
6 Ibid., 2.
7 Ibid., 32.
8 Ibid., 59.
9 "The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit,"Museum of Fine Arts Boston. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Apr. 2014.
10 Simpson, Uncanny Spectacle, 39-40.
11 Ibid., 33.
12 Dorothy Moss, "John Singer Sargent, Madame X and Baby Millbank,"The Burlington Magazine143.1178 (2001): 270.
13 Sidlauskas, “Painting Skin,” 21.
14 Moss, “Madame X and Baby Millbank,"270.
15 Sidlauskas, “Painting Skin,” 10.
16 Ibid., 18.
17 Mahon and Centeno, “A Technical Study,” 123.
18 Ibid., 127.
19 Sidlauskas, “Painting Skin,” 10.
20 Ibid.,24.
21 Sidlauskas, “Painting Skin,” 27.
22 Moss, “Madame X and Baby Millbank,"275.
23 Ibid., 269.
24 Ibid., 10.
25 Mahon and Centeno, “A Technical Study,” 124.
26 Sidlauskas, “Painting Skin,” 28.
27 Ibid.
28 Cited in ibid., 20.
29 Moss, “Madame X and Baby Millbank,” 271.
30 Sidlauskas, “Painting Skin,” 27.
31 Ibid., 10.
32 Ibid., 27.
33 Simpson, Uncanny Spectacle, 121.
Fairbrother, Trevor J. John Singer Sargent: The Sensualist. Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 2000.
Mahon, Dorothy and Silvia Centeno. “A Technical Study of John Singer Sargent's Portrait of Madame Pierre Gautreau.” Metropolitan Museum Journal 40 (2005):121-129.
Moss, Dorothy. "John Singer Sargent, Madame X and Baby Millbank."The Burlington Magazine143.1178 (2001): 268-275.
Sidlauskas, Susan. "Painting Skin: John Singer Sargent's Madame X." American Art 15.3 (2001): 8-33.
Simpson, Marc. Uncanny Spectacle: The Public Career of the Young John Singer Sargent. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997.
"The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit."Museum of Fine Arts Boston. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Apr. 2014.
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