I picked John Singer Sargent’s “Madame X” for this collection because I was bowled over, not entirely for its art, but for its story. The young-It-girl-by-celebrity-portraitist formula seemed fool-proof at the Salon of 1884. But judges and critics alike dished out scathing remarks and derogatory comments, in between gasps of disgust and politically-correct affirmations-of-the-moment.
You see, in 1884, Paris was in the midst of a sea-change...
"Rendezvous by Night"
And with economic boom comes retail therapy. The concept of the department store was borne. Yes, the French invented Shopping. And although everything was “prim and proper”, this was also the age of clandestine affairs and widespread infidelity. Parisians were feeling pretty invincible.
By 1884, the “Belle Epoque” was shutting down. And who would feel it most would be the rich and the cultured. The nonchalance, the pride, the self-satisfied notions were wearing down with economic and social decline.
And this was when “Madame X”, unfortunately, presented to the public. Needless to say, it took the brunt of society’s bad mood. All of a sudden, the dress was too skimpy (when nudes had been exhibited with success), her skin was too sickly (when a paler-than-pale complexion had been The Look), and the composition and technique of a reigning master questioned inside out, because Parisians were losing their patience with expatriates.
With all the dastardly brouhaha, both John Singer Sargent and his muse, Madame Gautreau, withdrew from society. He escaped to England where her recouped with fellow artists, before returning to America to continue his successful career. Madame Gautreau, on the other hand, tried to step back into the limelight after it had all died down.
But famed cannot be sustainable where there is no real talent. By then, younger and fresher faces had appeared on the socialite scene. Madame Gautreau never really got her groove back, and lived out her life pretty much a recluse.
"Papillon", in black and pink
(also available in blue and lavender)
As such, I marvel at how much art can be at the mercy of social and economic climates. Fair enough, as far as one is part of a society, there is bound to be boundaries and norms. But the tearing down of “Madame X” was pretty much overnight, which left both artist and subject reeling in shock. Madame Gautreau because she had worked so hard at being the “it” girl, and Sargent because he is known to have said, “I do not judge. I only chronicle.”
Unfortunately, at the Salon of 1884, he, his muse, and his work, were judged. And judged based on a “norm” that changed while the painting was being painted.