Biographer Diliberto makes a credible fiction debut with the “memoir” of the woman whose portrait by John Singer Sargent scandalized the 1884 Paris Salon.
Virginie Avegno Gautreau actually existed but left behind too little documentary material for a biography, says Diliberto (A Useful Woman: The Early Life of Jane Addams, 1999, etc.). So she took the scant sources and fleshed them out into a plausible self-portrait of the Louisiana-born beauty immortalized by Sargent in a formfitting black dress with jeweled straps, her self-possession and pale skin suggesting a sexuality both overt and aloof. Diliberto’s heroine is the child of a Civil War widow who flees to Paris in 1862, when Virginie is seven, and begins using her daughter’s looks to gain entry into high society before she’s even hit puberty. In 1871, the 16-year-old is seduced and made pregnant by a handsome doctor. She enters a platonic marriage with wealthy Pierre Gautreau and takes a number of lovers, though now she distrusts all men. Her real job, she informs us, is “professional beauty. . . I learned the art of making a grand entrance [and] never went anywhere without full makeup and an impeccable toilette.” After the Parisian scandal sheets have made her famous, Sargent is drawn to her beauty and notoriety. But the boldness of Gautreau’s sexuality and of Sargent’s technique in Portrait of Madame X outrage both the bourgeois public and the art critics; the painting’s exhibition is both the apotheosis of Virginie’s celebrity and the beginning of its degradation. Diliberto offers nothing terribly exciting in her readable narrative, though she does provide insight into the artistic process (the preliminary sketches “reflect my personality far better than the formal portrait,” Virginie notes. “But Sargent wasn’t interested in that. He wanted something else, a cooler, more iconic image”).
Agreeable entertainment along the lines of Girl with a Pearl Earring and The Passion of Artemesia.