Who was Madame X?

At the height of her popularity in the 1880s, the beautiful Madame X was practically mobbed wherever she appeared; people stood on chairs to catch a glimpse of her. But she was also the subject of a portrait painted by the American artist John Singer Sargent that was furiously criticized. The public’s hatred of the painting was so intense that Sargent eventually left Paris, because nobody in Paris wanted a portrait by the man who had painted That Picture of That Woman.

That Woman, Madame X, was an American heiress born in New Orleans, who had been brought to Paris as a salable item on the Paris marriage market. She had been duly married off at the age of 19 to the highest bidder, a 40-year-old banker and dealer in fertilizer (bat guano, to be precise). As the eye-catching young wife of a dull older man, she became celebrated in Paris society.

Her real name was Amélie Avegno Gautreau. She was striking, rather than beautiful, but in Paris, striking was probably more marketable than beautiful. The city was full of beautiful women, but Amélie was a one-off. She had white skin, red hair, a long nose and an hourglass figure. She used lavender-colored powder to make her pale complexion even paler and chose dramatic dresses that accentuated her curves.

Amélie was a professional beauty. Her life was devoted to her image (what today we would call her “brand”). She used her clothes and her makeup to make an unforgettable impression, and strategically decided which invitations to accept and which to ignore, so she would be seen to her best advantage.

When the American painter and man-about-town John Singer Sargent saw her, he decided he had to paint her portrait. He figured it would make his reputation. It did, but not in the way he expected.

He started work in 1883. Amélie was 24. He reviewed her wardrobe and chose a dramatic black dress that set off her hourglass figure, her pale skin, her red hair. He experimented with different poses. She was not easy to paint—she was restless and hated standing still. Eventually, Sargent decided to do a full-length, almost life-size portrait of her, with her faced turned away to show her distinctive profile and her pale skin accentuated against a dark background.

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