Portrait of Madame X, painted in 1884, is the informal title of a portrait by John Singer Sargent of a young socialite named Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau. Madame Gautreau was an American expatriate who married a French banker, and became notorious in Parisian high society for her beauty and rumored infidelities.

As it was originally painted the portrait caused a scandal because of one shoulder strap that was off the subject’s shoulder. The portrait, which, you must remember, was merely canvas and paint, was the cause of much consternation among Paris society. There were calls for Sargent to remove the painting from the exhibition.

Imagine crowds of young Parisian men gathered around the canvas in breathless anticipation of the moment when gravity does it’s thing and causes Madame X’s dress to fall to the floor. Of the painting one critic wrote: “One more struggle and the lady will be free”. It is sexual titillation at it’s most piquant and it all happens in the mind of the viewer.

Above you see the painting as it was repainted by Sargent with the strap back in its safer position. Here a photo shows the painting as it hung at the salon of ’84 with the strap off her shoulder:

With Sargent repainting the strap, he successfully took much of the sting out of the painting.

To see how the painting might have looked, take a look at an altered image done by Mike Pieczonka:

To me, the whole incident is amazing and shows just how powerful a painting can be. How provocative are these images made up of an arrangement of pigments! In and of itself the object is harmless, yet what it depicts enflames desire or outrage. Whether it is a Sargent portrait or a controversial comic in a French newspaper, images have amazing power.

And yet, as Robert Crumb observed almost 100 years later “It’s only lines on paper, folks!”.

Lines on paper, words on a page, yet so full of power.


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