Compelling backstory of the painting that scandalized the 1884 Paris Salon.
Debut author Davis, a former film executive and story analyst, says that her curiosity was piqued about Sargent’s painting when she wore a dress like the one pictured in the artist’s once notorious and now priceless Portrait of Madame X. Whatever the idea’s genesis, readers will enjoy this brisk, sometimes breathless account of the creation of the work the artist once called his best. Although not an art historian, the author relentlessly pursued the story in museums, archives, and libraries. The model for Sargent’s painting was Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, born in 1859 into Louisiana’s French Creole high society. The family moved to France when she was 8 (the Civil War had damaged their American holdings), and in 1878 the strikingly beautiful 19-year-old married a wealthy older man. Although little is known about her daily life, Davis effectively paints the social and cultural context in which Gautreau became “the bold era’s bold new ideal of female beauty.” The author gives us as well the parallel story of Sargent, an American born in 1856 in Italy, and his rise to prominence in the European art world. After his work was first accepted for display at the prestigious Paris Salon in 1877 and received excellent reviews, the artist slowly began to win impressive commissions; he also became the friend of Oscar Wilde and Henry James. In 1883, Gautreau agreed to sit for Sargent, who chose to depict her in profile, standing in a simple black dress with one strap slipping seductively from a shoulder. Parisian society was shocked by the image’s frank sexuality. The artist received the worst reviews of his career, and his subject’s reputation never recovered. Gautreau died in 1915, an unhappy recluse. Sargent weathered the storm to become both prosperous and revered.
A fascinating commentary on the evanescence of fame and beauty. (b&w photos throughout; 8 pp. color photos, not seen)