John Singer Sargent, Madame X (1883-84)

John Singer Sargent, Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau) (1883–84). Oil on canvas, 82 1/8 x 43 1/4 in. Metropolitan Museum, New York.

This famous painting of a woman in the original LBD (little black dress) has been an enigmatic and controversial subject since its execution in 1883-84. A society portrait of a wealthy banker's wife, the Grand Manner style of the work was utilized to help Sargent launch a career as the portrait painter of upper-class Parisian society. The controversy caused by the work would make that impossible, but the work itself is a testament to some of John Singer Sargent's ((1856–1925) most beautiful techniques.

The subject of the painting, far from being an unknown model, is Virginie Avegno Gautreau (1859–1915). Though born in Louisiana to a distinguished family, Virginie grew up in Paris with her mother and sister. Stunning beautiful with very pale skin and delicate features, Virigine grew up to become one of the most celebrated beauties in Paris. She married the Parisian banker, Pierre Gautreau but became notorious for seeking other company. Her infidelities did little to stunt her reputation for being one of the chicest and elegant women in society. Her distinctive looks attracted many artists' eye and she was constantly asked to model for them. Though Sargent's work is the most famous, she also sat for Gustave Courtois and Antonio de La Gandara.

Sargent wrote to Virginie in 1882 and was invited to the Gautreau summer home in Brittany in 1883 to execute the work. The original composition of the work was very different, and it took the artist numerous tries to get the pose and overall composition to fit. After completing the work, Sargent chose it to exhibit at the Paris Salon of 1884 for its large size and subject. Sargent hoped that with this work he would become the next great society painter of Paris.

The work was received as scandalous and barely decent. The painting was originally exhibited with the left shoulder strap falling down onto her arm. The paleness of her skin, dark expanse of her dress and the sensuous and artificial pose all spoke of sexual suggestiveness to the Salon audience. Though the work was exhibited under the title of Portrait de Mme *** the subject was easily identifiable and an article was published linking Virginie to the work. Though her mother asked Sargent to withdraw the portrait, he refused. Virginie was humiliated in society and she quickly withdraw from social circles for an extended period. Sargent did not fare much better, he moved to London soon after and continued to paint there, never achieving the fame in Paris he had hoped for.

The work was sold in 1916 to the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art and at the time Sargent still stood by the work, even calling it the best he ever did.


  1. This is so interesting. A copy of this painting is hanging in a restaurant where I worked in Prescott (129 1/2). I stared at it constantly and always thought her arm looked so strange and uncomfortable. It never occurred to me that it would have been considered scandalous or suggestive, however, now I can see it. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I saw it at the Met in September, and was disappointed in the way it was displayed, without a frame, behind glass, alongside lots of other paintings. I was led to believe it was hanging at the top of a staircase in the museum.
    Shame that such a fascinating picture is just grouped alongside many ordinary pictures. PS This was supposed to be the highlight of my visit from the UK