Strapless: Madame X and the Scandal That Shocked Bell Epoque Paris

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Overview

In the Early 1880s, Parisian gossip columns were bursting with news of twenty-three-year-old Virginie Amelie Gautreau, whose stunning looks and unconventional behavior had made her the city's hottest "it girl." The fame-hungry Gautreau soon met John Singer Sargent, an up-and-coming artist eager to collaborate on a portrait that would catapult them both to the pinnacle of society. Sargent's painting of Gautreau was shown at the 1884 Paris Salon. But while Sargent, the American son of vagabond parents, rose to ...
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Strapless

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Overview

In the Early 1880s, Parisian gossip columns were bursting with news of twenty-three-year-old Virginie Amelie Gautreau, whose stunning looks and unconventional behavior had made her the city's hottest "it girl." The fame-hungry Gautreau soon met John Singer Sargent, an up-and-coming artist eager to collaborate on a portrait that would catapult them both to the pinnacle of society. Sargent's painting of Gautreau was shown at the 1884 Paris Salon. But while Sargent, the American son of vagabond parents, rose to lasting stardom, Gautreau -- cultivated since childhood to be admired and envied -- was ridiculed, then utterly forgotten. How did their destinies come to be so sharply overturned? The answer, Deborah Davis reveals in Strapless, lies in Sargent's portrait. Madame X, as it hangs today in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, depicts Gautreau in a black gown with two jeweled shoulder straps. But in the original painting, one strap fell from Gautreau's upper arm in an intimation of sex -- igniting a critical frenzy that shattered Gautreau's reputation and sent Sargent in flight to England.

Drawing on previously unexamined family papers and documents discovered in libraries and private collections, Davis explores the tantalizing mysteries at the heart of Madame X. Why did Sargent paint his subject in such a deliberately provocative manner, and why did Gautreau acquiesce? Could they have anticipated that a fallen strap would shock even decadent Belle Epoque Paris -- and agreed that celebrity would be worth the scandal? If so, what later moved Sargent to repaint Gautreau's strap to sit chastely on her shoulder? With its revelations about Gautreau's identity and an eyebrow-raising cast of characters including Richard Wagner, Henry James, Sarah Bernhardt, and Dr. Samuel Pozzi, Gautreau's notorious gynecologist/lover, this enthralling account exposes the Dorian Gray-like tale of beauty and infatuation, obsession and betrayal, that lies behind Sargent and Gautreau's masterpiece.

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Editorial Reviews

The New Yorker
Belle Époque Paris may have greeted John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Madame X with derision, but the luminously pale model he captured has become an icon. Deborah Davis sets out to revive the woman behind the image in Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X. She depicts Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, “Paris’s hottest ‘it’ girl,” as a narcissistic socialite whose greatest fear was to be ignored. Davis speculates that Sargent, as a result of his infatuation and sexual confusion, conflated Gautreau’s profile and that of a young artist, Albert de Belleroche, into a single object of desire in sketches and paintings. Though the portrait’s poor reception at the 1884 Salon proved only a temporary setback for the artist’s career, Gautreau’s social reputation never recovered from her association with the painting, and she was further obscured by its anonymous title. “Was Sargent trying to punish Amélie in some way?” wonders Davis. “By removing her name from ‘Madame X,’ he robbed her of a claim to immortality.”

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)

Publishers Weekly
John Singer Sargent's portrait Madame X has hung in the Metropolitan Museum of Art for decades, following its scandalous debut in the Paris Salon in 1884, and subsequent retouching of the work to restore the dangling dress strap to the figure's impossibly white bare shoulder. Davis has worked as a story editor and analyst for most of the big film companies, and here seeks the woman behind Sargent's most celebrated, enigmatic profile. Born to Creole New Orleans aristocrats in 1859, Virginie Amelie Gautreau moved to Paris with her family following her father's death, married an older man made rich by the fertilizer trade and cultivated a beauty that, even in fashion-frenzied Paris, earned her widespread fame. She met young John Singer Sargent, a "fellow upstart American," who imagined that, by painting Paris's "most original... most fascinating woman," he would secure his artistic acclaim. After months of laboring, Sargent produced the racier version of Madame X. By Davis's compelling report, the artist worked to deflect the ensuing scandal (partially by painting a glowing icon of flowering innocence), while Amelie slid into social obscurity. "Tyrannized" by the portrait that mocked her fast-fading form, the model obsessively avoided mirrors until her death in 1915. Because historical record will not substantiate a longed-for romance between Sargent and Gautreau, Davis stiffly imports tangential figures such as the seductive gynecologist Samuel-Jean Pozzi to deliver lusty intrigue. Regrettably, her diligent research yields scarcely a word from Amelie; thus, the model remains a strangely weightless heroine, gliding amid this cast of characters like a silent sphinx. (Aug.) FYI: Other X-iana include Gioia Diliberto's fictional I Am Madame X, published by Scribner in March, and an exhibition of Sargent's women planned to open at New York's Adelson Galleries in November. Davis will make a national author tour. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Not quite the "little black dress," the strapless dress in question here is a flowing column of elegance, curving into the body as the strong-featured face looks away. John Singer Sargent had envisioned his famous portrait, Madame X, as an advertisement of his skill in female portraiture, but instead it became a scandal at its 1884 Paris salon debut. Using information gathered from papers and documents in private hands, veteran film executive Davis here offers a fully realized image of the sitter, Virginie "Am lie" Gautreau, and takes the reader into her extreme lifestyle in late 19th-century Paris, culminating in the portrait that resulted in ridicule and despair for the remaining years of her life. A society that both condemned and fed upon scandal is brought to life, and the cast of characters is enormously varied, from Sarah Bernhardt to Henry James, Richard Wagner to Oscar Wilde. With its intriguing set of circumstances, lively writing, and an eye for detail and nuance, the book offers art history, social commentary, and gossip. Recommended for large public libraries, as well as art collections. [Diliberto Gioia explores the same topic in the recent novel, I Am Madame X.-Ed.]-Paula Frosch, Metropolitan Museum of Art Lib., New York Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
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, andhis 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) Agent: Wendy Silbert/Scott Waxman Agency
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780641698002
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 7/28/2003
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.26 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Deborah Davis is the author of Party of the Century: The Fabulous Story of Truman Capote and his Black and White Ball (Wiley, April 2006), and Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X (Tarcher/Putnam, 2003). Her most recent book is The Secret Lives Of Frames: One Hundred Years of Art and Artistry (Filapacchi, 2007).

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Table of Contents

Introduction 1
La Louisiane 7
City of Light 25
A Professional Beauty 47
The Pupil 61
A Smashing Start 75
Brilliant Creatures 99
Heat and Light 111
His Masterpiece 123
The Flying Dutchman 137
Finishing Touches 147
Dancing on a Volcano 155
Le Scandale 177
Calculated Moves 187
A Woman of a Certain Age 203
A Man of Prodigious Talent 219
Twilight of the Gods 237
Afterword 257
Notes 263
Bibliography 283
Index 295
Acknowledgments 307
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 19 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 19 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 25, 2005

    Great Book for Sargent Fans and Others

    I've long been a fan of John Singer Sargent and wanted to know more about him. Stanley Olsen's 'JSS- His Portrait' is atrocious - dry and boring as all heck - but Davis' book was fantastic. First time author? Can't wait for more.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 10, 2003

    Sensational! I felt I was right there in Paris watching it all happen.

    Madame X will always be a little mysterious-that's part of her charm. But this book does a great job of bringing the woman and her world to life. I was fascinated by all the details about life in Paris and I thought Davis did a great job of making all that art interesting and understandable. I loved it!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 15, 2003

    The Magnificent Sargeant and his Amelie

    Highly lucid and packed with juicy tidbits set into their proper historical context, this is a wonderfully readable tale of a vain woman (the inevitable product of her times)and an amazingly talented painter. Ms Davis puts us there with them. The beautiful reproductions add immeasurably to our understanding of the paintings. A gift for anyone interested in art, or for lovers of historical fiction, as it reads like the best of that genre. I put it in a class with Anna Karenina, Portrait of a Lady and the Red and the Black for describing the upper class Europeans' lives at different points in history.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 1, 2013

    Recommended for art lovers and historians

    This history is a wonderful recount of social mores,in addition to being an enticing account of the background behind John Singer Sargent's chef-d'œuvre. Truly a font for book-club discussion, we can marvel over life as it was, while questioning our progress in modern times.

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  • Posted February 27, 2012

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    According to surrounding lore, Sargent initially painted "Madame X" with the right strap of her black gown slipping off of her shoulder.When the painting debuted at the 1884 Salon in Paris ( the place to have a painting displayed at the time and a good signifier of current or future artistic success) it created an uproar, so scandalous was the pose. Indeed, facing numerous charges of the painting's indecency, Sargent eventually repainted the strap sitting firmly, and properly, on Madame's shoulder.

    Pursuing my art history minor in New York City I had the amazing opportunity to see "Madame X" in person at the Metropolitan Museum. The painting has always had a special place in my heart for, if nothing else, the drama associated with its debut. So I was very pleased when a copy of Deborah Davis' book Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X (2004) fell into my lap.

    Part historical research, part biography, part social commentary, part feminist text, Deborah Davis handles a lot of material in a relatively small volume (320 pages with font of average size and relevant pictures included). One of the reasons Davis decided to research this particular painting and its subject is because so little information remains about Virginie Amelie Gautreau, her life, or how Sargent came to paint her scandalous portrait.

    While "Madame X" eventually catapulted Sargent into the artistic canon and toward immortality, the portrait likely led to Gautreau's ruin and her obscurity. In her book, Davis tries to set the record straight, portraying Gautreau as the powerful, savvy woman she was before a bare shoulder changed her social standing forever.

    My library system catalogs this book as a biography of John Singer Sargent, which for a lot of reasons is the logical choice. However, really, most of the book is spent looking at the life of Sargent's subject and patron: Madame Gautreau.

    The book traces Gautreau's family history, her migration from New Orleans to Paris (where she became a quasi-celebrity along the lines of Kim Kardashian or Paris Hilton virtually overnight at the tender age of twenty-three), and perhaps most interestingly just how much work went into being a beautiful woman in Paris in the 1880s. No details escapes Davis' examination as she looks at the clothing, finances, indeed the very persona Gautreau had to cultivate to live the decadent lifestyle she became accustomed to.

    The strong point in Strapless is when Davis sticks to such facts: how Gautreau lived, why Sargent would want to paint her, what happened at the Salon when "Madame X" debuted. Davis also expertly outlines the tenuous, and often stressful, patron-artisan relationships that Sargent and artists like him had to cultivate in order to eke out a living with their brush.

    The momentum flags when Davis veers into the hypothetical wondering if Sargent might have been in love with Gautreau, torn between her and one of his young proteges. While the theory is interesting, it does remain a theory very akin to the conspiracy theories so often found in research on the Titanic.

    That aside, Strapless is a remarkably well-done book. The thorough research shows through without dulling the writing. Davis' text is conversational and very accessible--more so, it must be said, than many writings found in the field of art history. An excellent book on art history for enthusiasts and art historians alike.

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  • Posted January 12, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    Intersting and Well Written -- Easy Read

    I'm taking a class in American Art History so this was an interesting adjunct to my studies. The book has an easy-to-read style and the story is fascinating. About the collision of two people: the artist and the sitter and how their lives were impacted and diverged by the portrait. And you don't have to be an art history aficionado to enjoy it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 7, 2004

    A Wonderful Book

    I'm not a lover of non-fiction, but Strapless reads like a novel -- better than a novel because it is all true. It was so interesting to learn the details of life in Paris and to get acquainted with Sargent's amazing painting.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 7, 2003

    Magnificent Artist; Poor Author

    This was a very disappointing book! Thankfully the author gives credit to her researchers,which pretty much leaves her with credit for nothing. What an opportunity lost! Sargent was a magnificent talent! Madam X was certainlly an interesting story, with big names and scandals enough for a soap opera. Yet the author wrote neither a good novel nor a good biography. The writng is so bad it is irritating to read. The organization and structure is even worse. The book does not even inlude a list of illustrations! Size information is available for only the color prints, and this information is tucked away in the back of the book. Framing is only referred to once--the missing original frame for Madam X which apparently disappeared after the painting was removed from it for shipping to California. All the way around, this lady needs to restrict her writing to Hollywood, leaving the art world alone--if this is her best effort.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 22, 2003

    Surprisingly good and beautiful to look at!

    I thought Strapless would be an art book, so I was surprised to read a colorful account of a really interesting scandal. The characters are fascinating and very much like people today. The book also has gorgeous reproductions of Sargent's works.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 21, 2003

    I loved it

    I found Strapless to be smart,informative and full of colorful anecdotes. I never thought about this painting before, but now I won't stop thinking about it. Hats off to Davis for a great book

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 15, 2003

    A Head of Its Time

    Strapless is a wonderful book, well-written and just the cup of tea for art lovers and information junkies alike. With a deft hand, Davis fills us in on the lives of John Singer Sargent and his prize subject, Virginie Amelie Gautreau; and moves on to color in the many friends and acquaintances of each of them the way an artist fills in his/her palette. Extraordinarily well researched, Strapless is an enjoyable read; and when it's over, we have gained invaluable insight into the chiaroscura of an Age.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 10, 2003

    I wish someone else had written it!

    Such a good story, but I am sorry that it was put forth by this author, who lacks so much of the insight and scholarship needed. It was interesting to note in the author's bio that she is a former movie exec and story analyst, professions known for skimming over big topics and a strained, lackluster imagination. Sadly, I think this applies to the book's writing as well.

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    Posted March 14, 2013

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