Modern day starlets know all too well the dangers of going braless or stepping out of a limo in indecorous fashion. And while the Belle Époque didn’t have paparazzi it still had its gossips, its Perez Hiltons and TMZs (Marcel Proust being one of the most famous).
I’ve said it before: I am grateful they didn’t have Facebook when I was in college. Oh the things that could’ve gone online, imprinted onto the Internet for future bosses and children and spouses. Parisians of the late 19th/early 20th centuries didn’t have to contend with Instagram or Twitter either but a few of them had it worse. It’s one thing to have an ill-conceived braless romp on a frat house pool table plastered on the Internet for thirty seconds (until the next braless drunk girl shows up) but quite another to be memorialized in your humiliation in portrait…in a museum.
Meet Madame X. She is my favorite in all of the Met. Gorgeous, isn’t she? Her real name was Amelie Gautreau and she was an “It” girl of her day but one of those moderately insufferable “Its” (“the unpaintable beauty and hopeless laziness of Madame Gautreau”). Born in New Orleans, Amelie married a wealthy Frenchman (much to her mother’s delight) and embarked on a career as a “professional beauty.” In other words, “her sole purpose in life is to demonstrate by her skills in contriving incredible outfits which shape her and exhibit her and which she can carry off with bravado.”
A reportedly flagrant philanderer, Madame Gautreau craved fame but did little to earn it. (Just like some of our favorite modern-day It Girls). Reportedly enraptured of her, John Singer Sargent sought to paint the lovely woman. Unlike his usual fare, this was not a commissioned portrait. Madame Gautreau was doing him a favor. He later unveiled the portrait at the 1884 Paris Salon. It looked a little different from the one you’d see today in the Frick Collection.
In the original, one strap is dangled ever-so-slightly off Madame Gautreau’s shoulder. In an exposition filled with nudes all of Paris erupted in horror at the gall of this woman. Had she…was it…why, yes she was clearly about to have sex, or she only just did! Maybe both! Magnifique d’audace! (The magnificent audacity!) And it wasn’t only Paris who came to criticize. The New York Times said: “the pose of the figure is absurd, and the bluish coloring atrocious.” (Madame Gautreau wore lavender powder).
Her reputation was irreparably damaged, even after Sargent painted the strap back into a more appropriate place. It was too late. Madame Gautreau retreated from the public eye, but not before first smashing all the mirrors in her home.
The artist fled Paris (eventually Giovanni Boldini took over his studio). When Sargent sold the portrait to the Met for $1,000 he erased her name from the title and Madame Gautreau became Madame X, denying her the chance to be forever immortalized, which is all she really ever wanted.
Strapless by Deborah Davis is a fantastic book on the subject.
For more about Americans in Paris during the time period check out The Greater Journey by David McCullough.
Madame Gautreau was not the only person to fall from grace after having her portrait painted by one of the masters. In a future post I’ll talk about my favorite dandy, Robert de Montesquiou. He, “the most laborious sayer of nothing,” plays a role in my novel. I adore his ridiculousness (jewel-encrusted turtles! Pistachio-colored velvet suits!) I mean, who doesn’t love a person who considers himself a professional dandy? And if Montesquiou cared what others thought, he too would’ve been brought down by his own portrait, aka The Affair of the Cane (another Boldini masterpiece).