Infrared reflectogram of John Singer Sargent’s Madame X (1883 - 84), details of proper right arm revealing jeweled shoulder strap painted out by the artist in two states.
[...] On the first day of the exhibition, crowds gathered ridiculing the image and impugning the character of the sitter. Paul Curtis, a friend of Sargent’s and a fellow painted, describes the events in a letter to his parents. “There was a grand tapage before it all day. In a few minutes I found him [Sargent] dodging behind doors to avoid friends who looked grave. By the corridors her took me to see it. I was disappointed in the color. She looks decomposed. All the women jeer. 'Ah voilà ‘la belle?’ ‘Oh quell [sic] horreur!’ etc…. All the a.m. it was one series of bon mots, mauvaises plaisanteries and fierce discussions. John, poor boy, was navré.”
One reviewer emphasized the social significance of capturing the psychology of a professional beauty, considering the portrait the ultimate depiction of a social stereotype. All individuality has been suppressed, and the subject had been condemned by society to play a role based solely on her appearance.
The dark shadow on the proper right shoulder in the X-radiograph reveals the artist’s intention, at an early stage, to place the strap over the shoulder. Adjustments were made to the décolletage, which was more extreme originally.
John Singer Sargent’s notorious portrait continues to captivate Museum visitors today because of its commanding presence. It is a testament to the artist’s creativity as well as to his sound technique that despite extensive alterations and subsequent natural changes, Madame X remains a powerful and essentially well-preserved image and one of his most important social and artistic statements.
Excerpts from Dorothy Mahon, and Silvia Centen, "A Technical Study of John Singer Sargent's Portrait of Madame Pierre Gautreau," Metropolitan Museum Journal 40.1 (2008): 121-130.
Full text available here.
Julia Sherman mines folk traditions, canonical art history, feminist theory and a range of personal anxieties to create tableaus of fantasy, philosophy and interrogation. She is the founder of workspace in LA and has apprenticed with a weaver, a wig-maker and a cobbler. She is an alumnae of the Mountain School of Art and recently received her MFA from Columbia University. She is a contributing artist/writer to Triple Canopy, White Zinfandel, Cabinet Magazine and The Highlights art journal. In her most recent work she examines the 1968 Miss America Pageant and the Women’s Liberation intervention of the event, in an effort to consider the legacy and contemporary state of the American feminist movement. Using her research as raw material, Sherman collaborates with individuals in the wide web of this story to reenact and re-imagine these seminal, but little known events, that seem to be an allegorical foreshadowing of times to come. This methodology results in symbolic objects, documentation and narrative that speak to the story of their making more than the sanctity of objects themselves.