John Singer Sargent’s 1884 portrait of Madame X, has to be one of the most famous profiles in the history of art. Perhaps second to the bust of Nefertiti (attributed to the sculptor Thutmose), but that’s sculpture, not a painting of course.
Madame X was actually Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, an American expat and socialite, wife of one Pierre Gautreau, a Parisian Banker. Sargent did not paint her portrait as a commission – he pursued her somewhat for the opportunity. While the work was in progress, Virginie was enthusiastic, but then quickly changed her tune when the painting first appeared at the Paris Salon, the preeminent exhibition of the day. Although we find no difficulty today, for those times it was a bit risqué, as a portrait, anyway. People were shocked and scandalized. Sargent maintained however, that he had painted her “exactly as she was dressed, that nothing worse could be said of the canvas than had been said in print of her appearance”.
Interestingly, other portraits of Mme. Gautreau have quite a different feel and nothing like the drama and impact of the Sargent masterpiece. Contemporary photographs of her certainly don’t show a glimmer of the painting. We cannot see what Sargent saw: the attitude, the facade, the forced show. Madame X is not a very sympathetic painting, perhaps a bit too clever and contrived, but you notice it. This painting could never have been conceived as anything other than a profile.
A profile with attitude.