I Am Madame Xby Gioia Diliberto
Madame X caused an immediate furor when Sargent unveiled it at the 1884 Paris Salon. The subject's bold pose, provocative dress, and decadent pallor shocked the public, and the critics panned the picture, smashing Sargent's dream of a Paris career. The artist soon relocated to England, where he established himself as the favorite portrait painter of the wealthy.
In this remarkable novel, Gioia Diliberto tells Virginie's story, drawing on the sketchy facts of Virginie's life to re-create her tempestuous personality and the captivating milieu of nineteenth-century Paris. Born in New Orleans to two of Louisiana's prominent Creole families and raised at Parlange, her grandmother's lush plantation, Virginie fled to France with her mother and sister during the Civil War. The family settled in Paris among other expatriate Southerners and hoped, through their French ancestry, to insinuate themselves into high society. They soon were absorbed into the fascinating and wealthy world of grand ballrooms, dressmakers' salons, luxurious country estates, and artists' ateliers. Because of Virginie's striking appearance and vivid character, her mother pinned the family's hopes for social acceptance on her daughter, who became a "professional beauty" and married a French banker. Even before Sargent painted her portrait, Virginie's reputation for promiscuity and showy self-display made her the subject of vicious Paris gossip.
I Am Madame X is a compulsively readable immersion in Belle Epoque Paris. It is also the story of a great work of art, illuminating the struggle between Virginie and Sargent as they fought to control the outcome of a painting that changed theirlives and affected the course of art history.
In Gioia Diliberto’s novel, I Am Madame X, Gautreau reasserts her place in history, recounting her days as a celebrated beauty, fawned over by society columnists and coveted by men. Her provocative sartorial choices—including the famous black dress—and brazen love affairs earned her a prominent position in the scandal sheets. But in Diliberto’s imagination, it is Gautreau’s devotion to her daughter that produced the unusual posture of the portrait: “I heard Louise crying. . . . I turned quickly, pushing off with my hand from a round Empire table, and twisting and stretching my neck. One of my dress straps slid off my shoulder. . . . ‘Hold that pose!’ he shouted.” (Andrea Thompson)
The New Orleans Times-Picayune Diliberto does not make the mistake of imagining a coherent biographical trajectory for her protagonist, but instead presents the messiness and difficulty of real life. In other words, her novelistic portrait of a real person turns out to have more psychological truth than many a biography.
Booklist Lively and provocative...Diliberto has created a heroine who is as capricious and vain and as compelling and seductive as [Sargent's] portrait suggests.
Chicago Tribune a Chicago Tribune Best Book of 2003 A romping good read.
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Read an Excerpt
New York, 1915
Perhaps you've heard her name, Virginie Gautreau. You recall it like an old melody echoing yet from a long-ago party, or as a kind of epithet whispered harshly under the breath. Maybe you've even seen her picture -- seen the picture. God knows, there are a few out there who truly have, though once all Paris claimed to have viewed it and recoiled at the insolence, the vulgarity, the unmuted sex. "Monstrous," one critic said. "A singular failure," sniffed another. John Singer Sargent's career nearly derailed, though he's famous now, living in England and making a fortune painting bored aristocrats.
He kept the picture in his studio for twenty years, exhibiting it only a handful of times, always in small shows in Europe. Until last year, I thought no one in America would ever see it. Then I heard that Sargent was sending the picture to San Francisco for the Panama-Pacific International Exhibition. I was in Paris on business, so I called Virginie with the news.
We had first met at a party in 1880, when I was a junior curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and traveled frequently to Paris. For several years, we dined together whenever I was in town; then we lost touch. When I reached Virginie on the telephone, she seemed delighted to hear from me, and she invited me to tea the next day at 123, rue la Cour, where she was living alone in a grand eighteenth-century apartment.
I arrived at four, as a soft afternoon light filtered through the tops of the chestnut trees. A young maid answered the bell and showed me into a huge parlor with tall windows facing the street. Several groupings of settees and chairs were arranged on an immense Turkish carpet, and four sparkling crystal chandeliers illuminated the room.
Virginie kept me waiting, as she always used to. She appeared after twenty minutes, wearing a green silk dress that matched her eyes, and her auburn hair -- the same exact shade of burnished copper it had always been -- was twisted into a long roll at the back of her head, her signature style. Though her figure had become matronly, her finely lined faced was still beautiful.
As she made her entrance, walking gracefully on high heels, whiffs of perfume preceding her, I was studying a picture on the wall -- a sketch Sargent had made of her in the gorgeous black gown she had worn for her notorious portrait.
"Richard, my dear," she said. She embraced me with long white arms and kissed me quickly and chastely on both cheeks. She had noticed me staring at the sketch, and she tilted her head toward it. "I don't think I've seen you since -- then."
I'm sure she was thinking back, as I was, to 1884 and the jeering crowds at the Palais de l'Industrie. It was the opening of the Paris Fine Arts Salon, an annual exhibition that was the premier social event of the era. To have a portrait championed at the Salon usually meant instant success for the artist and overnight fame for the sitter. Sargent, an American who had been raised abroad, had begun to establish a name for himself in Parisian art circles, and he had high hopes that his painting of Virginie would push him to the top.
At the time, she was one of the most famous women in Paris. A favorite ornament of the scandal sheets, Virginie flaunted her sexuality through exotic makeup, hennaed hair, and revealing clothes. She penciled her eyebrows, rouged her ears, and dusted her skin with blanc de perle powder. To whiten it further, people murmured, she ingested arsenic.
Sargent's portrait brilliantly captured her wanton sensuality. But it was too far in advance of its time. Instead of admiring the artist's achievement, the public was appalled by it. The portrait seemed to confirm French prejudices against Americans, proved that we were pushy, overeager, lacking any limits or refinement.
Like Sargent, Virginie was widely known to be American. She had been born in New Orleans to two of Louisiana's finest Creole families. During the Civil War, her mother had fled Louisiana, taking Virginie, who was a child, and her baby sister. The family settled in Paris in a Right Bank enclave of expatriate Southerners. Trading on their French ancestry and knowledge of French culture, they hoped to insinuate themselves into French society.
Virginie's looks and charm were her tickets into the haut monde. She was trained from the cradle to make a brilliant marriage. She preferred to make a brilliant show, and she never lost her ardor for dangerous liaisons. The day I had tea with her, she was expecting a new lover, a married lawyer named Henri Beauquesne, whom she had recently met on a train. He was handsome and rich, she told me, and nearly twenty years her junior.
I still think Sargent's portrait of Virginie was his best painting, and I told her so that day. "You know, I'd love to have it for the Metropolitan, Mimi," I said, using her nickname.
"Make Sargent a generous offer, and maybe you can," she said brightly as a maid wheeled in a cart holding a silver tea service and a plate of small fruit tarts. Virginie poured our tea into two gold-rimmed Limoges cups.
"Darling," I told her, "Edward Robinson, the head of the Met, has been after it for years, ever since he worked at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. But so far, Sargent has refused to sell. He's hardly let it out of his house. When he does exhibit it, he never identifies you. He still calls it Portrait of Madame ***, just as it was titled at the Salon, or simply, Portrait. And he always requests that your name not be communicated to the newspapers. Isn't that amusing?"
Virginie wasn't amused at all. In fact, she was furious. "Don't I have a name?" she cried, rising out of her chair. She strode across the room to a wall of windows and pivoted to face me. "If Sargent had any honor, he would call my picture Portrait of Virginie Avegno Gautreau. After all, it is my picture as much as his."
She stared fiercely at me. "This was not a commissioned work," she continued, more composed. "Sargent begged me to sit for him. He stalked me like a hunter does a deer, staring at me at parties and getting his friends to pester me -- 'Please, Madame Gautreau, let John pay this homage to your great beauty.' And so on. That so-called artist Ralph Curtis came to see me, then bombarded me with letters. I saved one."
She marched to an antique secretary, rummaged through a drawer, and pulled out a blue envelope. "My dear Madame Gautreau," she read from the letter inside. "We both know John is a genius. But the work he's done so far is somehow lacking in completeness and depth. He needs a great subject to unleash the full power of his brilliance. He needs you."
She folded the letter and returned it to the envelope. "I was the one who sat for hours on end, giving up an entire summer. I was the one who provided the magnificent profile, the willowy body, the white marble skin that 'unleashed his brilliance.' I was the inspiration for Sargent's masterpiece -- the only one he's got." She tossed her head dismissively, provocatively, the way I had seen her do so many years ago. "Just compare my portrait with his stuffy pictures of horsey Englishwomen. Or that midget Mrs. Carl Meyer or that washed-out blonde, Mrs. George Swinton. I've seen their portraits and plenty of others over the years. I've kept my eye on Sargent's exhibits, and I want to ask you: Where are the bold lines in those pictures? Where is the mystery, the tension, the allure?" She dropped into a chair covered with cream damask and folded her arms across her chest. "Of course, I know exactly why Sargent won't attach my name to the portrait. He's a cowardly fussbudget, and he's still livid about the ruckus my mother made."
Obviously, the trauma of the Salon debacle still pained her. Seeing her now, her beauty turning brittle, her natural hauteur hardened into a lonely defensiveness, I could see how she had mourned the loss of her renown, and I felt shamed that I had stopped calling on her so many years before.
We chatted for several more hours, and the golden light outside the tall French windows fell to darkness. At eight, I rose to leave, but Virginie urged me to stay. "Please have dinner with Henri and me," she said, her eyes shining. I was curious to meet Beauquesne, her new young lover, but I had already made plans with friends.
"Mimi, it's been wonderful to see you again; now I must run," I said. She showed me to the door and kissed me again on both cheeks. "Good-bye, Richard, my dear. You've brought back so many memories."
I heard nothing from her for months. Then one day she sent me a package containing several hundred typed pages. Inspired by my visit, she had dictated a memoir to one of her maids. She wanted history to remember who Madame X was.
Two weeks later, before I had done more than glance at the manuscript, I got a transatlantic cable from Beauquesne. Virginie had died in her sleep. He hoped that I still had her memoir, as it was the only copy, and he wondered if I would help him find a publisher for it.
Thus, I make her story available here, in my own translation from the original French. As you read it, you will be lifted back to a time before this terrible war, a time when painting was a powerful indice of reality, and Virginie Gautreau was, as Le Figaro once put it, "a living work of art."
I can still see her as she looked then, on the night I first met her. She was tall and slim, her green eyes glittering in that porcelain face, and her silvery laughter floating across the table as she reached for a champagne flute with a long, shapely arm.
How could anyone forget?
Curator of American Painting
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
New York, 1915
Copyright © 2003 by Gioia Diliberto
Meet the Author
Gioia Diliberto has written biographies of Jane Addams, Hadley Hemingway, and Brenda Frazier, as well as the critically acclaimed novel I Am Madame X, based on the life of Virginie Gautreau. She lives in Chicago with her husband and son.
- Chicago, Illinois
- Date of Birth:
- June 7, 1950
- Place of Birth:
- Washington, D.C.
- B.A., DePauw University, 1972; M.A., University of Maryland, 1974
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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While, I loved the writing style, the character development, and the factual details, I was constantly disturbed by one minor point. Before I delve into that, let me explain. I was born and raised in South Louisiana, and so, naturally, I know a thing or two about my native state. Ms. Diliberto constantly refers to Virginie Avegno's "Creole" heritage. And, although the author did a lot of research in New Orleans and New Roads, she missed a huge cultural fact. The Creoles are mulattos-Native American, African, and French. The Creoles inhabit New Orleans mostly and are world-renowned for their voodoo and tomato-based cuisine. It is impossible that Virginie Avegno was a Creole, especially since she had translucent skin and flaming red hair. She would have been Cajun. Yes, there is an exceedingly large difference between Creoles and Cajuns, the only thing we share in common is a bit of French blood. The Cajuns speak French, a very bastardized dialect, but French nonetheless and cook more with spices like garlic and red pepper. I am making this point because I have noticed that whenever Louisiana is mentioned in a book, any book, authors who live anywhere but Louisiana expound on the Creole culture. I wish they would do their research. Most of Louisiana is Cajun-Acadian, and Creole is in the minority. Maybe I am being nit-picky, and I'm sorry. I did think it was a great novel, especially for art admirers of John Singer Sargent.
As a Sargent enthusiast, I was really disappointed in this novel. Diliberto's writing style is very technical, but not at all flowery and there are some factual mistakes and errors throughout the book. In real life, the title character, Virginie Amelie Gautreau was rarely called by her first name and was referred to as Amelie. Also, her husband, Pierre Gautreau, was almost always called Pedro, in connection with his business in South America. The author spent too much time on Amelie's childhood and didn't really capture the essence of her notorious personality. Amelie was vain, sensual, proud, and difficult, which isn't really brought into Diliberto's character who is placid and sappy. I highly recommend 'Strapless' by Deborah Davis, which gives a more accurate portrait of Belle Epoque Paris, the controversy surrounding Madame X, and of the actual people while being just as engrossing as a novel.
I thoroughly enjoyed Madame X - a wonderful piece of fiction with factual bits thrown in. Much like 'Girl with a Peal Earring', this is a novel surrounding a painting... this one is a work by John Sargent, Madame X. You will fall in love with the characters and you see the painting come to life.
It was interesting to scurry around in the world of Madame X and John Singer Sargent, and I look forward to personally seeing the painting. I certainly stopped reading more than once to look at Madame X on the book cover. Nice historical novel...
i loved this book. i read it in 2 days. the setting of paris and the oppulent lifestyles of the rich is most entertaining. i hope this author writes more fiction books
I just finished reading the remainder of this novel last night while in bed. This is the third time in my life that any book has kept me turning pages to the point where I would forfeit a decent night's sleep because of it. At this writing, I still have not gone to bed. I just wanted to express to anyone who might read this how wonderful a novel 'I Am Madame X' truly is. What first attracted the novel to me was the cover, which seemed so striking to me. But then again, a ghostly white woman contrasted against a dark background and pitch black dress has a strong tendency to attract someone's attention at first glance, you know? Plus, I happen to be quite a fan of historical novels, especially ones set in the 1800's like this beautiful novel is. This novel is full of subjects that range from intimacy and passion to war and destruction. But the one theme of the novel that I enjoyed the most was its theme of maturing and growing up, as well as the struggles between a mother and daughter to understand and relate to one another. While reading this novel, what blew me away was how so much of Virginie's life and personality mirrored my own in many ways, especially when it concerned her encounters with men. While reading 'I Am Madame X', I could only grimace in utter disgust over her relationship with the charismatic doctor, bringing to mind the 'Sam Pozzi's' of my own past who I would rather forget. As a female, I could not help but relate and connect to the character of Virginie and her many exploits and emotions, which is why I think this novel was so enjoyable to me. It truly is a 'chick's book' that was written beautifully, and I recommend it to anyone in the mood to read about an intriguing and tasteful 19th century woman
I have been on an art kick lately and found this book. I really enjoyed it from start to finish, I just didn't want to put it down. I even found myself reading the author's notes in the back. I thought her notes shed some light on the true facts of the subject and where she took creative license. It is a very interesting look at a woman immortilized on canvas and it is beautifully written.
Few portraits capture the eye as arrestingly as John Singer Sargent's Madame X. And, at an unveiling, few portraits cause the stir and affect lives as greatly as did this full-length study of a beautiful woman in a chic black gown. With the skill of a consummate dramatist biographer Gioia Diliberto has penned her first novel by drawing upon the few facts known about Singer's mysterious subject. The result is a fully realized, fascinating story rich in period detail. As was known to the Paris Salon in 1884 and as we know today when Madame X hangs in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art the haughty yet beguiling woman is Virginie Gautreau. Born in New Orleans and raised on her grandmother's Louisiana sugar plantation, Virginie, her mother, and younger sister, Valentine, sought refuge in France as tides began to turn in the Civil War. Her most vivid memory of life at Parlange, as the plantation was called, is of her Aunt Julie's wedding day. In an attempt to escape an unwanted marriage 28-year-old Julie, an aspiring artist, threw herself from a second floor gallery breaking both legs. 'Men are bothersome beings,' Julie had said. 'I don't want to spend my days worrying about one.' Then 6-year-old Virginie may have heeded her aunt's words, as she seldom worried about the well being of men but used them to her advantage. Upon arriving in Paris Virginie is sent to a dreaded convent school where she meets her first friend, Aurelie. Unbeknownst to Virginie her friend is 'passing for white,' and is expelled from the school when an outraged letter is received from Virginie's mother. The loss of her friend and confidant is devastating to Virginie, and is one of many attempts by her mother to manage the young girl's life in order to use her as an entree to the higher echelons of Parisian society. But Virginie is not easily managed. She is soon recognized as a unique beauty and comes to expect the tributes she receives as her right. At the age of 15 she begins an affair with the handsome, unscrupulous Dr.Pozzi, ignoring her mother's shrieked warning: 'He has a heart like an artichoke - a leaf for everyone, as the old Creoles used to say.' When she becomes pregnant Pozzi refuses to marry her, and insists upon an abortion. Heartbroken and fearful, the young Virginie accepts the proposal of Pierre Gautreau, an older banker who suggests a 'marriage blanc,' in which he will have no husbandly rights and they will lead separate lives. Following a miscarriage Virginie devoted every waking hour to her appearance, turning her hair to a 'deep, rich mahogany,' whitening her skin, and rouging her ears. She embraced the dictum, 'A woman's first duty is to be beautiful.' The gowns she chose were daring for their bareness, accentuating her porcelain shoulders, and making her the focal point of every gathering. She soon was noted for her boldness as well as her beauty, and began an affair with political leader Leon Gambetta. When Sargent initially approached Virginie about painting her portrait she was reluctant. But later became convinced that his success as a painter and acceptance by the Salon were credentials enough. Surely, she thought, his portrait of her and its introduction at the Salon would make her known throughout the European world. As history relates the debut of her portrait had the opposite effect. Viewed as scandalous and shocking it was greeted with derisive jeers from the crowd. Infuriated by this response Virginie's mother lashed out at Sargent whose career was now in shambles. The artist fled to England where he was to gain fame and make a handsome living. And, the painting rather than turning Virginie into the pariah that her mother feared later made her an international celebrity. It was so admired that King Louis II of Bavaria visited Paris just to see her, and Empress Elizabeth of Austria requested an introduction. To this day the famous portrait of Ma
This book kept my interest from the beginning. It was totally entertaining without being trite or contrived and it was a perfect glimpse into the time period. I also loved learning about the process of a John Singer Sargeant painting (my favorite artist)
This book was amazing. I have not been so enthralled with a book in a long time. The book, like the painting, comes to life. You can imagine being Virginie in Paris. I love this book. So much history yet still personal. I cannot say enough how much I liked this novel.