"Readers will enjoy this brisk, sometimes breathless account of the creation of the work the artist once called his best...A fascinating commentary on the evanescence of fame and beauty." --Kirkus Reviews
"An entertaining, observant novel about the gorgeous, enigmatic Madame X." --from Bustle.com's roundup of "11 Novels Every Art History-Lover Should Pick Up"
"A stunner about a stunner." —The Philadelphia Inquirer
"The book's pace is lively and its breadth impressive." —Houston Chronicle
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)
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.
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.
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