This tale is going to be one of the subjects of my session ‘Women in Art’ in November 2021. Attempting to highlight the hypocrisy of the period (and before and after) of the male depiction of women and women’s depiction of women. Scandal and Hypocrisy Paris.
I’ve just read this amazing tale in a book by Julian Barnes ‘The Man in Red’ (Dr Pozzi in the Grande Epoque – Paris 1875 – 1914. More on this later).
The American painter John Singer Sargent …
… eventually managed to paint a portrait of the high socialite, belle and outstanding beauty, Amelie Gautreau after much stalking and much declining on her behalf. This presumably with the consent of her husband Pierre Gautreau, a wealthy merchant.
Unfortunately, his first attempt showed her with one of her dress straps dangling off her shoulder. The strap apparently fell whilst sitting. Quickly, she attempted to readjust it, but Singer Sargent said, “No, mon Cherie. It is perfect as it is.”
Tragedy – Scandal and Hypocrisy Paris
When exhibited in Paris it caused an outrageous scandal, men swore, women fainted. Thus it ruined her precious reputation alleging that rather than a respected aristocratic socialite she was in fact a lady of the night. She had to withdraw from polite society never to return.
Singer Sargent was not allowed to paint until after the exhibition and indeed for some time received no more commissions, after all, who would want their wife or daughter painted so erotically?
He did alter his subject, placing the offending strap back on her shoulder as we know the work today, but it was too late. The offending picture remained in the exhibition, Singer Sargent was not allowed to alter it there and then.
Fleeing to England from Paris, as did so many artistes at the time eg Monet, Zola etc, eventually his career picked up again, but Amélie never recovered.
(Madam X. John Singer Sargent. Metropolitan Museum of Art New York)