Monday, January 2, 2012
Recently I had the opportunity to attend a lecture by Art Historian Mary Alexander, “who has lectured extensively in museums, the Open University, and Christies as well as arts, heritage and antiquarian societies. She also has been a museum curator at Platt Hall, and the Gallery of Costume, Manchester. She has a BA in History and History of Art and a MA with distinction in History of Art from University College London.” The lecture was sponsored by The Decorative and Fine Arts Society of The Hague and was entitled “Scandal in Paris: John Singer Sargent’s Mysterious Portrait of Madame X.” In her lecture, Ms. Alexander intended to tell why Sargent was run out of Paris after exhibiting the painting we now know as “Madame X,” but I remain unconvinced of her premise, and suggest she has all the pieces of the puzzle, but has not assembled them completely.
In her lecture, Ms. Alexander began by describing Mme. X as a real person, a well known society matron and hostess, whose pale beauty attracted the young Sargent, and who only agreed to sit for him after many attempts and connivings. The speaker showed us some of Sargent’s previous paintings, which he no doubt would have shown Mme. X as he made his case to have her sit for him. Sargent would also most likely have shown her his recently completely masterpiece, “El Jaleo,” now in the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum in Boston, as a sample of his virtuosity and ability to paint a dramatic portrait of the pale Parisian beauty.
“Mme. X” was never actually a commission. Sargent pursued the sitter until she relented and allowed him to paint her, but he retained the work until after her death. Notice the similarities of the poses and the aristocratic, even haughty bearing of the women in both paintings.
Also among the early works he may have shown her was a portrait he exhibited in the Salon of 1881 and whose subject she no doubt knew, as she was allegedly involved in an affair of the heart with him. That portrait, called “Dr. Pozzi at Home” is now in the Armand Hammer Museum and is quite a dramatic and flattering portrait: a symphony of red and black and a study of heat and cold.
Like “El Jaleo,” and modeled after El Greco’s “Portrait of a Man” in El Prado, Madrid, Dr. Pozzi is portrayed in the unusual full length format in a glowing red robe, the toe of his bejeweled Moroccan slipper peeking from the hem. The canvas is a symphony of reds and browns and blacks, as “Jaleo’s” is a symphony of browns, ochres and blacks. Sargent is a master of tone on tone backgrounds, creating objects in the murky, dark corners which appear almost ghostlike, yet very real. Dr. Pozzi appears from behind his barely rendered, but distinctly velvet curtain, hand fiddling with the neckline of his dressing gown, and looking distractedly away from us, almost as if trying to avoid our gaze, not looking off to the side with intent, like the dancer in “El Jaleo,” summoning someone to join her in her dance, or with a squinting leer but glancing away as if to look back in a moment. That squinting, intent gaze he reserved for Madame X. She gazes off the canvas luridly.
So what did cause such a scandal with Mme. X that Sargent could no longer find commissions and soon had to move to London? According to Mary Alexander, it was the strap and the jewels. Let me explain. Sargent has portrayed Mme. X in the notorious black dress with jeweled straps. She shows off her wedding ring by displaying it against her black satin skirt. She also wears the tiniest of tiaras, barely there, in the shape of a crescent moon: the symbol of Diana, the Goddess of the Hunt. In the 1880’s no one would wear evening dress without jewelry, earrings, bracelets, brooches and necklaces. The fact that Mme. X has only her wedding ring and tiara on, suggests that she is home from an evening out and has removed her outer wrap and jewelry. The wedding ring is, however, intentionally prominent. When Sargent originally showed the work in 1884, Mme X’s right strap was painted so that it had fallen off her shoulder, baring her chest suggestively. As Ms. Alexander pointed out, while these standards would change completely within the next couple of years, in 1884, the only contemporary works showing women in such states of undress, were Toulouse Lautrec’s paintings and drawings of prostitutes. Showing Mme. X in such a state lacked the propriety one should expect in a society portrait. Simple as that, according to Ms. Alexander.
Through letters between Mme X and Sargent, Ms. Alexander proved that initially the sitter was pleased with the portrait, though she found the process of posing for it tedious, so we know her initial reaction to the work was not the reason for its infamy. Ms. Alexander says that because it showed the Parisian society matron in a state of undress and posed as Diana “the Huntress,” with her haughty, aristocratic bearing, it lacked the dignity that Parisians expected of society portraits. Though there was a long tradition in French portraiture of portraying aristocrats as classical heroes or goddesses, this was not Mme. X as a Goddess. Her tiara and its reference to Diana allude to her as a huntress/seductress, not the embodiment of a classical goddess, and the strap, fallen off her shoulder and pressing into her arm reinforced the sexual power of the image, but all that seemed acceptable even to the sitter, until the picture was shown in the Salon of 1884.
That’s when all hell broke loose for John Singer Sargent. Critics hated the painting. Cartoons of it appeared in the papers mocking it and portraying Mme. X as a wolf with her strap fallen and leering lustfully. Perhaps that’s what all the ruckus was about. In Ms. Alexander’s view, all the pieces are there: Dr. Pozzi as Sargent’s previous work, the strap, the lack of jewelry, the reference to the goddess of the hunt, the provocative bold pose, the mysterious dark background. But I think she missed one crucial piece.
The canvases of Mme. X and Dr. Pozzi are exactly the same size. They are pendants, yet never intended to hang together.
The full length portrait was a format usually reserved for royal or historical subjects. For these two portraits to be full length is, first of all, a statement of ostentation. For them to be exactly the same size begs that we consider them as a pair. “Dr. Pozzi at Home” was exhibited at the Salon of 1882 and “Mme. X” in the Salon of 1884, so Parisians would have remembered the bold red canvas of the hot young artist, exhibited just 2 years before when they first saw “Mme. X” with her strap falling off her provocatively cool, bare, white shoulder. They would have remembered his dramatic pose and the reference to El Greco. Now, they were confronted with its pendant or companion in its polar opposite. Parisian society was confronted with the affair between two leading socialites in a thoroughly unambiguous way.
Though the two were not displayed together, the sophisticated Parisians of the 1880’s would have recognized that Sargent had painted Dr. Pozzi and Mme. X in the same format, facing one another and in what appears to be a conversation, she confronting seductively and he responding furtively. Add to this equation that Dr. Pozzi was alleged to have been Mme. X’s lover in a time when having a lover was acceptable but indiscretion was not, and that Sargent did not paint Mssr. X, and I think you have the real reason John Singer Sargent’s Madame X caused such a sensation at the Salon of 1884: he dared to create a pair of unforgettable and undeniably beautiful portraits which alluded to the sitters’ affair in a way Parisians would have understood, and which scared them away from the artist for fear of their own reputations. Certainly, despite having seen Dr. Pozzi’s portrait and approving her own, Mme. X could not have anticipated the firestorm of criticism the portrait launched, nor what a perfect companion her portrait was to Dr. Pozzi’s. His is a study in reds: vermillion, cerise, bold orange and crimson.
The counterpoint to all these hot reds is the Doctor’s averted, cool, misty, seductive, teal green eyes. As green is the compliment to red, his eyes become the mesmerizing cool focal point in the giant glowing hot canvas. Mme. X is a study in browns and blacks with her dramatic lavender-white skin shimmering: a study in cool, almost frigid, but with her pink ear and lips offering a hint of the heat within. The two portraits are completely complimentary: her leer and his self awareness, her hot cool and his cool heat, her beseeching and his granting. I think Parisians would have noticed!
As soon as the reviews were written, Sargent tried to remove the painting and repaint the strap, as that was nominally the critics’ chief objection, but the director of the Salon refused to allow it to be moved until the close o the exhibition. A photo of the artist in his studio shows that by 1885, a year later, he had repainted the fallen strap and tried to ameliorate the damage.
Sargent titled the portrait “Mme. X” when he sold it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York after the subject’s death, saying it ought not be called by her name “on account of the row I had with the lady.” Though no records exist of the exact nature of the row, one is tempted to infer that it had something to do with the painting. It seems that later, the sitter wrote to Sargent requesting that he loan it to her in Germany, but he never did. He exhibited it several times in his lifetime and called it “the best thing I have done” when sending it to the Met in 1915. As a single work, no doubt he was right - it certainly is among his best. However, when viewed as a pair of portraits, “Mme. X” and “Dr. Pozzi” create a conversation unlike any in portraiture, more dramatic, flirtatious, sensual, realistic, more human than any before or since. I think the Parisians of 1884 recognized that conversation and the scandal it caused forced the young Sargent to London, gave us perhaps the greatest pair of pendant portraits ever painted not to hang together, and set a standard of psychological portraiture unrecognized in its brilliance even today. I think Mary Alexander had all the pieces in her lecture about Sargent, but I think the artist’s brilliance is exactly the subtlety she missed.