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The Marvelous “Madame X”

The ever-chic Virginie Gautreau never fails to fascinate—even on an enamel pin

A tour de force of Belle Époque portraiture, John Singer Sargent‘s painting of Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau is among The Met’s most famous. The artist “captured the unique glamour of his sitter in this iconic portrait,” says Stephanie L. Herdrich of The Met’s American Wing. “Her sharp profile, distinctive cosmetics, and iconic black dress have become hallmarks of her chic personal style.” Yet the painting scandalized rather than captivated Parisian audiences upon its debut.

Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau) (detail). John Singer Sargent (American, 1856–1925). Oil on canvas, 82 1/8 x 43 1/4 in., 1883–84. Arthur Hoppock Hearn Fund, 1916 (16.53)

 

Working without a commission, Sargent captured the daring vivacity of this Parisian socialite—and shocked the Salon of 1884 by portraying the strap of his subject’s gown slipping down her right shoulder. He later repainted that passage of the canvas, before selling the work directly to The Met some 30 years after he painted it. He requested that the Museum keep his sitter’s identity anonymous—and the work has been known as Madame X ever since.

Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau). John Singer Sargent (American, 1856–1925). Graphite on off-white wove paper, 9 3/4 x 13 3/16 in., 1883–84. Purchase, Charles and Anita Blatt Gift, John Wilmerding Gift and Rogers Fund, 1970 (1970.47)

 

In preparation for painting her portrait, Sargent produced numerous sketches of his subject—reportedly more than of any other of the many subjects he painted over his long and prolific career. Sargent’s different takes on Gautreau reveal how this virtuoso of line honed his approach to depicting her angular nose, her upswept hair, and (of course) that famous dress. “While many of his contemporaries found the unconventional portrait bizarre and unflattering,” says Herdrich, “Sargent considered it the best thing he ever did.”

Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau) (detail). John Singer Sargent (American, 1856–1925). Graphite on off-white wove paper, 12 9/16 x 8 1/4 in., 1883–84. Gift of Mrs. Francis Ormond and Miss Emily Sargent, 1931 (31.43.3)

 

This season, The Met Store celebrates this Franco-American original with a range of new products that showcase her unmistakable presence. A fabulous new addition to our popular line of collectible accessories, our enamel pin offers an artful way to dress up a tote bag, a jean jacket, a hat, or even a pair of sneakers.

 

It took a large amount of work to get this small pin just right. Since Sargent’s rich palette of ochres and grays is sumptuous on a large-format canvas yet too subtle for a small enamel surface, our designers set out to enliven the background color, experimenting with oranges and olives before landing on just the right yellow tone. While green at first seemed like a promising accent color with which to depict the folds of her gown, we went with black on black as a way to convey Gautreau’s singular style—which comes through loud and clear no matter the format or scale.

 

Shop enamel pins and other Madame X–inspired accessories at store.metmuseum.org.

More Madame X (from left): Sargent Madame X Coin Purse, $28; Zip Wallet, $78; and Patch, $10

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