Crossing Boundaries: Madame X

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John Singer Sargent, Madame X, 1884
Crossing Boundaries
By Emma Shapiro

Amelie Gautreau, the subject of Sargent's Madame X, was a well-established Parisian socialite, best known for her beauty. Although Amelie was born in the United States in New Orleans, she moved to Paris at a young age with her mother and grew up in a life of French nobility. She later enhanced her popularity by marrying a wealthy banker twice her age. Due to this high social standing she had many painters paint portraits of her. John Singer Sargent aimed to become one of those lucky painters.

Sargent vied to paint Madame Gautreau because he believed that doing so would elevate his status as a painter. One of Amelie Gautreau's most defining characteristics was her soft white skin, and Sargent wanted to emulate that skin on canvas. When Sargent had the chance to paint Amelie Gautreau he tried to show her skin, grace, and beauty, but also emphasize her daring attitude and individuality. By portraying her personality though portraiture Sargent thought he would receive praise for his skill and also his uniqueness. To do this, Sargent painted the right strap of Gautreau's gown slipping down her shoulder. But, Sargent's attempt at being innovative failed him.

The painting was first displayed at the 1884 Salon. Sargent had won an award at the salon the previous year which forced the Academie to give him a spot on the wall in 1884. Yet, his painting at the 1884 salon received much more ridicule than praise. People were offended by Sargent's portrayal of one of Paris' elites as coquettish. 19th century society could not believe that Sargent would paint something which condoned adultery. Madame Gautreau's mother requested that Sargent remove the painting from the salon and change the name of the portrait from Portrait of Madame Gautreau to Portrait of Madame X. She wanted the identity of her daughter hidden, because this painting crossed the line.

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