100 Days of Art History Jinjins


Portrait of Madame X

This painting is very famous, and you can probably see why just by looking at it. The lady looks so elegant, beautiful, and mysterious.

It turned out to be a real headache for the artist, John Singer Sargent. He got obsessed with the model, Madame Gautreau. She was known for being a hot lady about town and maybe a little bit promiscuous (even though she was married), maybe a Kim Kardashian equivalent. Sargent thought that a painting of her would make his name in Paris. She was actually also, like him, an American expat trying to raise her profile in French society, so she agreed.

It didn't go exactly as he'd hoped--she was not the best model and didn't like to sit still for long periods of time. Sargent complained of the "unpaintable beauty and hopeless laziness of Madame Gautreau." Then the reception of the painting wasn't good. He'd originally painted her with the strap of her gown falling off her shoulder, and everyone was scandalized. They also found her pose slutty. He eventually painted over the strap and raised it up. But in the end, the reception was so terrible that he left Paris and moved permanently to London.

When he sold this painting to the Met 30+ years later, he called it "the best thing I have ever done." I think it's definitely up there. Without the context of the original sitter (who was apparently seen as trashy), the lady becomes an archetype of feminine glamour.

Some notes on my personal experience with this copy: This painting really highlights this woman's pale skin. I tried to keep it just as luminous when I changed it to my darker skin tone, and I'm pretty happy with how it came out. One other challenge was translating the tall form factor into an Instagram-friendly square. It's definitely worse in the square format. And finally, I remember this painting feeling incredibly easy and fast after I'd just done the torturously detailed Millais in the previous entry.

My last 10 entries were redos of paintings I'd attempted at the beginning so that I could compare progress and give the original artworks their proper due. You can see my first swing at Madame X at entry 6.

Reference image from Wikipeda. This painting now hangs at the Met.

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