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“Portrait of Madame X” by John Singer Sargent

Madame X John Singer Sargent,

“Portrait of Madame X” by John Singer Sargent

“Portrait of Madame X” by John Singer Sargent shows a socialite named Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, an American expatriate who was married to a French banker. The portrait shows a woman posing in a black satin dress with jewelled straps. The pale flesh tone of the subject contrast against a dark coloured dress and background. The model was who became notorious in Parisian high society for her beauty and rumoured infidelities. Her beauty made her an object of fascination for artists.

This painting was not commissioned but was at Sargent’s request. Sargent wrote to a friend:

“I have a great desire to paint her portrait and have reason to think she would allow it and is waiting for someone to propose this homage to her beauty.” 

This painting resulted in a scandal following the painting’s controversial reception at the Paris Salon of 1884 as people were shocked and scandalised. The attempt to preserve the subject’s anonymity by calling the picture “Portrait de Mme ***” was unsuccessful, and the sitter’s mother requested that Sargent withdraw the painting from the exhibition. Sargent refused, but later, he overpainted the shoulder strap to raise it up and make it look more securely fastened. Initially as exhibited, the right strap on the dress was painted as having slipped off the shoulder. He also changed the title to “Madame X”, a name more dramatic and mysterious and to give the illusion of the woman archetype.

John Singer Sargent is considered one of the leading portrait painters and is known for his evocations of the luxury of his era. He created over 900 oil paintings and more than 2,000 watercolours, as well as multiple sketches and drawings. He also travelled extensively across Europe, the Middle East and the United States.

Many of John Singer Sargent portraits which can be found in museums across the world, depict society’s leading lights and the opulence of their time.

Exploring John Singer Sargent

Facts About John Singer Sargent’s Portrait of Madame X

  • Madame X was a twenty-three-year-old American expat whose beauty was much admired in France, her new home.
  • John Singer Sargent had to beg for two years before the glamorous sociality agreed to sit for her portrait.
  • To achieve her pale complexion, Madame X used a lavender-coloured face powder. For contrast, she rouged her ears and dyed her hair red.
  • Madame X’s hair is in the Ancient Greek era style plus with her diamond crescent tiara, the symbol of Diana, goddess of the hunt and the moon.
  • The exhibition of the Portrait of Madame X at the Paris Salon of 1884, had the Critics scandalised with the nearly bare shoulders and cleavage.
  • The gown’s plunging neckline was considered too provocative for the times.
  • Initially as exhibited, the right strap on the dress was painted as having slipped off the shoulder.
  • Sargent had to repaint it in its proper position to appease outraged viewers and Gautreau’s own family.
  • Madame X’s mother, Marie Virginie de Ternant, screamed at Sargent, “All Paris is making fun of my daughter. She is ruined … She’ll die of chagrin.”
  • Sargent did eventually withdraw the painting and did not exhibit the picture again for years.
  • The French scandal prompted Sargent to moved to London before settling in New York. When he began exhibiting the piece again in 1905, he became highly sought for commissioned work.
  • Gautreau, the real Madame X, did shy away from the spotlight for a time, but in 1891, she had another portrait exhibited, of her in a dress a strap falling down, but it failed to generate the same notoriety.
  • Madame X was the young socialite, Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, wife of the French banker Pierre Gautreau. Originally from New Orleans, America.
  • After keeping the portrait in his personal collection for over 30 years, he sold it to the Metropolitan Museum in 1916.
  • John Singer Sargent eventually considered it his most significant work, stating, “I suppose it is the best thing I have done.”


  • What is it about a John Singer Sargent portrait that makes them immediately identifiable as one of his works?
  • Is Madame X’s beauty timeless or of the period’s fashion?
  • Initially, the shoulder strap was showing, slipping off the shoulder. Why was it changed?

Portrait of Madame X

  • Title:              Portrait of Madame X
  • Artist:            John Singer Sargent
  • Year:              1884
  • Medium:       Oil on canvas
  • Dimensions:  234.95 cm × 109.86 cm (92.5 in × 43.25 in)
  • Museum:      Metropolitan Museum of Art – MET

John Singer Sargent

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Photo Credit: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons