In this occasional series, Fine Art Today delves into the world of portraiture, highlighting historical and contemporary examples of superb quality and skill. This week we consider a famous portrait of an infamous seductress.

Traditional three-quarter and full-length portraits of the elite highlight the career of 19th-century American painter John Singer Sargent (1856-1925). However, when the artist was not creating his lifelike visions of paying patrons, he often found himself crafting exploratory portraits of his closest friends and confrères.

“Portrait of Madame X” is as notorious a portrait as the subject was in person. Unveiled at the Paris Salon in 1884, the painting was greeted with immediate scandal and controversy over the sitter’s identity and suggestive clothing (the upper strap of the dress was originally shown having fallen off her shoulder — giving the work erotic undertones). A young Parisian socialite, Virginie Amélie Avegno was a model and American expatriate who became notorious among the bourgeois for her beauty and rumored infidelities. Scholars have suggested that the poor reception of the painting in Paris solidified Sargent’s departure from France; he had been struggling to find audience there.

After the Paris Salon of 1884, Sargent reworked the dress strap and renamed the painting “Madame X,” which undoubtedly imbues the work with a sense of mystery, drama, and seduction. In 1916, Sargent sold the painting to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it remains on display today. After the sale, Sargent remarked to the museum’s director, “I suppose it is the best thing I have ever done.”

This article was featured in Fine Art Today, a weekly e-newsletter from Fine Art Connoisseur magazine. To start receiving Fine Art Today for free, click here.

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Andrew Webster is the former Editor of Fine Art Today and worked as an editorial and creative marketing assistant for Streamline Publishing. Andrew graduated from The University of North Carolina at Asheville with a B.A. in Art History and Ceramics. He then moved on to the University of Oregon, where he completed an M.A. in Art History. Studying under scholar Kathleen Nicholson, he completed a thesis project that investigated the peculiar practice of embedded self-portraiture within Christian imagery during the 15th and early 16th centuries in Italy.


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