Friday, January 18, 2013

"Portrait of Madame X"

There are many painters for whom John Singer Sargent's "Portrait of Madame X" is the ultimate in sophisticated society portraiture. Shown at the 1884 Paris Salon it created a sensation in its day and notoriety for its subject.

The story is well known.
I have just finished a book however, a novel called

"I am Madame X" by Gioia Diliberto published by Scribner in 2003 which presents a fictionalised account of the story from the point of view of the painting's subject -  American beauty Virginie Gautreau. The amazing and very clever thing about the book is that you truly forget you are reading a novel. It seems rather that  this is Virginie's own true account of events. and you are lulled into believing you are reading facts.

For artists and art lovers the book can be devoured for its descriptions of the Paris of the Belle epoque and the details of fashionable salons and artists' ateliers. There are characterisations of several real people, Sargent of course and Carolus Duran his teacher and Dr Pozzi who was also immortalised by Sargent in paint. Also a couple of female artists are included. Filomena Seguette is loosely based on the artist Rosa Bonheur, although she reminded me of an painter version of novelist George Sand with her male attire.

Diliberto has apparently used the sketchy facts of Gautreau's life as a blueprint but the whole thing is just so believable.

I enjoyed the sections about the Salon itself about works "on the line" or being "skied" with work hung so high it was barely visible. These anecdotes provide authenticity and I simply soak up anything about the daily lives of artists from that period.

Just for interest I have taken these photos from my other Sargent book by Carter Ratcliffe which shows some of the preliminary drawings Sargent did of Virginie.

This one juxtaposes the two finished paintings. The one on the right with the wine glass is a bravura piece of painting and the novel weaves the circumstances of its creation cleverly into the story.

I highly recommend  the book for fellow artists.

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