Wednesday, June 11, 2014

"Strapless:John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X"

The other day, I was at the local used book store trying to find interesting books on art and artists. I came across a book with a single-word title: "Strapless." I thought it was strange title given that it was in the art biographies section. However, when I pulled it from the shelf, the title made sense because the subtitle was: "John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X."

This very well-written biography is about the painter, John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) (archives May, 2012) and his painting of Madame "X."  Deborah Davis is the author. In the story, Davis creates engaging backgrounds on 19th century Paris, the world of art, Sargent and the famous Madame X; otherwise known as Madame Gautreau (1859-1915).

Sargent was recognized as a gifted artist and had reached the pinnacle in Paris. Wealthy people clamored to have him paint their portrait - very important to financial stability for artists at that time. Even the annual Salon allowed Sargent to submit his art directly without being juried.

Madame Gautreau was a young, exceptionally elegant and wealthy woman. She had all the right social connections and her attendance at any event was referenced in all the newspapers. In today's world, she would be regarded as a celebrity with all the attendant press coverage.
She was stylishly chic and wore gowns that showed her figure without all the frippery and fussiness that other women wore.

Sargent and Gautreau each wanted what the other could provide - the prestige of a painting by a famous painter of a famous beauty. What each got was entirely different than their joint expectations. Instead, what they got was scandal.

It would take a while for Sargent to recover from Paris' ridicule of his work. He would find comfort and benefactors by coming to America. Gautreau never recovered her reputation and, like many aging beauties, faded into obscurity.

The book deserves a read. Ms. Davis' research is impeccable. Footnotes and sources are confined to the back of the book. This helps it to read like a novel. I recommend it!

My own little footnote: When I finished reading the story, I thought how much it could be a story of a beautiful woman today and how easily we criticize as she gets heavier, older or resorts to surgery to try and maintain both her expectations and ours. Seems like a "no-win" to me since it's impossible to avoid the aging process - unless death occurs early such as Marilyn Monroe. Only then can she be considered an icon of beauty.