Unseen Sargent: The Boredom Of Madame X

I wanted to share a little gem – well, a few gems – that I stumbled across the other day, while watching a lecture on American painter John Singer Sargent (1856-1925). You’re probably familiar with Sargent’s justly famous “Madame X” (1883-84) now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as it’s become one of the most iconic images in art history; Sargent himself once referred to it as probably “the best thing I have done.” There’s a bit of irony regarding its status as a great American work of art, since Sargent spent the bulk of his time working in Europe, the portrait was painted in Paris, and its subject was a young American social climber who had married a French banker and emigrated to France.

Be that as it may, this image of the statuesque and sultry Madame X, or Madame Pierre Gautreau to give her proper name, has influenced artists, advertisers, and designers for generations. The composition is a deceptively simple one: a young woman in a black evening gown is shown standing next to a small table, whose top she is grasping and slightly leaning upon. It’s become so familiar that we can’t imagine seeing it any other way. What’s interesting to think about however, is that Sargent began with the idea of portraying Madame X sitting down.

By all accounts model and artist at first got on well, since they saw the creation of this painting as a way for both of them as ex-patriate Americans to move up in Parisian high society. Unfortunately for Sargent, his model had rather a short attention span, and it was difficult for him to get to her pose or pay attention to what he wanted for very long. Perhaps this is why he seemed to linger over the idea of portraying her sitting rather than standing, and we have a number of images of her sitting, with or without a book as a prop. Take a look at these sketches, which show some of the ideas that Sargent toyed with when creating this painting (I particularly like this first one):

Seeing these is a bit like seeing a photograph from a movie set during a break in the filming, where Han Solo and Chewbacca are still in costume, but they’re having a chat with George Lucas. We recognize the elements of Sargent’s finished painting – the face with its pointed nose and highly arched brows, the upswept hair, the black mermaid dress with the plunging neckline and the jeweled shoulder straps – but we see them in preparation, not in their final configuration.

I’m reminded a bit in that first sketch of a painting by fellow American ex-pat artist Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), painted a few years before Sargent’s work, which is now in the National Gallery here in Washington. “Little Girl In A Blue Armchair” (1878) displays the kind of languor on the part of the sitter that perhaps Sargent was struggling to capture in his initial design phase. Here, the model has given up all pretense of cooperating. Her puppy has curled up in the next chair, in anticipation of its mistress being told that she now may go out and play. Like Madame X, this little girl has pretty much had it with the whole art thing by this point.

Fortunately for those of us who love his work, Sargent left a wealth of sketches to admire and study, which tell us a great deal about how his technique, and how he came up with the ideas which he later translated into paint. Yet I think these sketches in particular, for arguably his most famous (or infamous) painting are revealing in a different way. They show us not only a great mind at work, but they also show us how, even a century and a half ago, people just could not sit still and pay attention for very long. 

One can only speculate how much time Madame X would have spent on Instagram.

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