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Strapless: John Singer Sargent And The Fall Of Madame X

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3.86  ·  Rating Details ·  3,509 Ratings  ·  325 Reviews
The story behind the legendary John Singer Sargent painting that propelled the artist to international renown but condemned his subject to a life of public ridicule.

John Singer Sargent's Madame X is one of the world's best-known portraits. As the Metropolitan's most frequently requested painting for loans, it travels to museums around the globe. The image of "Madame X" dec
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Hardcover, 262 pages
Published April 1st 2004 by History Press (SC) (first published 2003)
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Deborah Davis Deborah Davis is the author of The Trip: Andy Warhol's Plastic Fantastic Cross-Country Adventure, Fabritius and the Goldfinch: A True Story of Art,…moreDeborah Davis is the author of The Trip: Andy Warhol's Plastic Fantastic Cross-Country Adventure, Fabritius and the Goldfinch: A True Story of Art, Tragedy, and Immortality; Guest of Honor: Booker T. Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, and the White House Dinner That Shocked a Nation; Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X; Party of the Century: The Fabulous Story of Truman Capote and His Black and White Ball; Gilded: How Newport Became the Richest Resort in America, and The Oprah Winfrey Show: Reflections on an American Legacy.
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Community Reviews

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Emma
Feb 11, 2009 Emma rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I read this book in August 2008 and have been meaning to review it ever since. For shame.

Most people know John Singer Sargent's infamous painting "Madame X" even if they don't know the name and have never heard of the artist because this painting has quite the sensational story attached to it.

According to surrounding lore, Sargent initially painted "Madame X" with the right strap of her black gown slipping off of her shoulder.When the painting debuted at the 1884 Salon in Paris ( the place to ha
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Louise
This topical book grabbed my attention because of the famous attention grabbing portrait on the cover. My attention was held as I learned more about John Singer Sargent and the Belle Epoque art world.

The book begins with background on Virginie Amelie Avegno Gautreau, the “Strapless”, “Madame X”. From their Louisiana plantation, Amelie and her mother went to Paris after the Civil War. Her father had died at Shiloh. Without him and their slaves the fate of the plantation was uncertain. The family
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Madeline
May 21, 2008 Madeline rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I was expecting this book to be historical fiction, and was pleasantly surprised to find it a well-researched, completely factual account of John Singer Sargent, the woman known as Madame X, and the scandal caused by a fallen strap.
In the late 1800s, John Singer Sargent submitted a portrait of Amelie Gautreau, a beautiful Parisian socialite, to the annual Paris Salon, which was a yearly exhibition of art. The painting showed Amelie standing at a table wearing a slinky black dress and looking to
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Agatha
Jan 14, 2013 Agatha rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Another piece of nonfiction by the same author as GUEST OF HONOR(the Booker T. Washington book) above. In this one, author investigates the background, history, and life of the woman who posed for this well-known John Singer Sargent portrait.

You might think, “Oh, so this is kind of like ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’!” (One coworker who I was talking do said this.) I would have to say, “Not really.” GWaPE is definitely historical nonfiction but this one is definitely nonfiction and a lot more base
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Jeanette
This is a fast read and filled with as much gossip and dish as one those Entertainment Tonight or current media celeb track t.v. programs. Our Amelie is Beyoncé and Adele combined to/for the erudite, salon, wealthy socialite "everybody who counts" crowd. The world of the Belle Epoque.

This would be 4 star for all of those readers more interested than I in art history and patterns of social popularity and perception held during this late 19th century European period. For me, 3.5 star at least to
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Dorothy
Jul 17, 2014 Dorothy rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This was a very enjoyable little book about the mystery woman who is Sargent's Madame X. It is not a great biography but it is a good read. It is particularly resonant as there is much to compare the flamboyance of the Belle Époque to that of today and the ostentation of the 1% and its wannabes. A darker side to the Belle Époque was the fascination with "true spectacle" and the grim underside. In addition to sensational newspaper headlines, a wax museum diorama of the most spectacular headlines ...more
Ari
May 17, 2013 Ari rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: france, read-in-2013
This book entered my life on pure chance. I had read The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris last summer (2012) and LOVED it for its in-depth portrayal of Americans in Paris during the Belle Epoque (and a little before and after that time as well). One of the most fascinating aspects of the book (for me) was the tidbit about the portrait of Madame X by John Singer Sargeant. McCullough talks about the controversy of the painting but did not go into as much detail as I would have liked but nevert ...more
Barbara Backus
Sep 18, 2013 Barbara Backus rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The actual title of this fascinating book is "Strapless - John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X." After I purchased it at a museum book store, I noticed the back cover had it listed as a "history," not a "biography." And that is exactly what it is - a history of the 1880s Parisienne lifestyle and its artists and patrons.

There are several books out there about the American painter, one of them historical fiction. I am glad I chose Deborah Davis's book because it is extremely well research
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Michelle
Oct 31, 2010 Michelle rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2010
Fascinating book about the John Singer Sargent portrait "Madame X" and the woman behind it, Amelie Gautreau ("the unpaintable beauty and hopeless laziness of Madame Gautreau"). Not only is the time period fascinating (love the Belle Epoque) but the cast of characters seem more from fiction than non-fiction. It's mind-boggling that this portrait caused so much scandal with its loose strap when Parisians had infidelity hours (4-5 - get your affairs on!) Not to mention, I'd think Sargent's "Dr. Poz ...more
Caroline
Nov 19, 2013 Caroline rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography
Viewing the amazing watercolors by John S. Sargent gave me the nudge I needed to read this autobiography of both the artist, John Singer Sargent, and the person captured in the famous Madame X portrait. Virginie Amelie Gautreau was an American expatriate living in Paris at the time Jon Sargent was gaining prominence as a portraitist, having had successive impressive showings at the annual Salon in Paris. Amelie Gautreau was the 'It' girl of Parisian society in the late 1800s and lived for ostent ...more
Carolyn
Apr 05, 2008 Carolyn rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: art & social historians
Recommended to Carolyn by: Washington Post Book World
This book is about the famous painting of Madame Virgnie Amelie Avango Gautreau painted by John Singer Sargent in the 1880's in Paris. She,a beauty of French ethenticity, was deemed to be the epitome of true French beauty in her figure, fashion and her grand style. Madame Gautreau was born in Louissana and lived a spoiled life on the family's plantation. Her father's death changed her financial circumstances and she fled to Paris to make her way in French high society. At nineteen she married we ...more
Susy
Jul 26, 2012 Susy rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
A friend whose taste in books I trust offered me this book; she said it was "the darling of book groups everywhere." I can see why. This isn't a novel about a painting a la Girl with the Pearl Earring, it's a well researched but highly readable story about the woman & the artist who created the portrait of Madame X. What I know about art history is minimal at best, but I know John Singer Sargent is best known at a portrait artist. Did I see this painting when I took Art 10? I don't remember ...more
Catherine Siemann
A nineteenth-century Parisian society beauty is shallow? How surprising! And yet John Singer Sargent's amazing portrait of Madame X (Virginie Amelie Avegno Gautreau) portrays her in such an enigmatic, intriguing light, I somehow hoped to hear she was something more than that. That is, of course, not the fault of Deborah Davis's 2004 book about the painting, its subject, and the artist, but it may have colored my reception. The book is popular biography, filled with fairly basic analyses of backg ...more
Kitty
I'm going easy on this review partly because it was a very entertaining read and made my lunch break at work more enjoyable and partly because I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that Davis's writing wasn't half as vacant as I expected it to be from her bio on the back.

Strapless is not, as others have commented, a particularly deep or scholarly work. It's a light, entertaining read for those already familiar with Sargent's works who wish to know a little more about one of his most famous sub
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Marie
Jan 17, 2011 Marie rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I'd put this more between a 3 and 4 star. The narrative quality of Davis' writing style doesn't get in the way, by that I mean it doesn't come off as a historical fiction novel. I hate those. The amount of research Davis was able to do is very impressive, and she does a good job of reconstructing both Sargent and Amelie Gautreau with such little concrete information on their personal lives and feelings. The time she spends on Sargent's development as a painter is of particular interest. Davis al ...more
Susan Weinberg
Jan 17, 2013 Susan Weinberg rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition


Excellent book which explores the life of John Singer Sargent and his model Amelie Gautreau who was the subject of the infamous Madame X portrait. The book captures the flavor of Paris during the time of the Belle Époque. I was very pleasantly surprised by this book and found it both informative and interesting. I read it electronically and found myself frequently searching for images of the paintings they referenced. The black and white poor quality images that accompanied the book certainly d
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Chantel
Jul 05, 2016 Chantel rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I loved this book. I picked it up randomly at a used book shop because I love John Singer Sargent and I enjoy history. I thought it was very well written and extensively researched. The story was very enjoyable and didn't feel like nonfiction history. I'd recommend it for anyone who loves art, Paris, John Singer Sargent or history.
Ellin
Jun 14, 2012 Ellin rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I loved this book! It was fascinating to learn about both the background of the portrait and sitter along with the painting's reception. Hard to imagine exhibiting a painting and being faced with reviews that described it as "hideous" and "nauseating" and calling her skin tones "Corpse-ish" and "moldy". Besides reading about the scandal associated with Madame X, the book is packed with lots of interesting tidbits about life and society during Sargent's lifetime. For instance Sargent's portrait o ...more
Bo Olsen
Jun 08, 2015 Bo Olsen rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book just grew and grew into an interesting enjoyment of the lives of the subject, and painter, the damnation of the painting, the down hill slide of Madame X and the rise of John Singer Sargent as America's greatest Artist to date. the story just unfolds so graciously with a cast of every important personality in the field of art on both sides of the Atlantic coming together into the grip of one great work of art that is still admired today. I did love it!
Michelle
Mar 29, 2016 Michelle rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I feel like this book would have been better written as an Historical Fiction piece. I felt the author made some pretty wild claims, especially with regard to lovers and affairs, and used quite a lot of flowery language to describe the scenes that would have been better placed in fiction, rather than stated as fact. That being said, the art history nerd in me loved reading the story behind the famous painting; I just think the story the author tells would have been further developed and romantic ...more
Brian DiMattia
The book itself could have used some better editing, as the author has trouble weaving together two different life stories as well as the necessary cultural background.

But the stories themselves are fascinating, especially to fans of late 1800s art. This tells the tale of an artist, a society woman, and the role art played in 19th century French society. It, of course, includes rivalries, vanities, and great supporting characters like famous authors, overbearing mothers, and a lothario doctor th
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Meg
Jul 14, 2016 Meg rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Great book about John Singer Sargent and his painting Madame X
Rick
Dec 19, 2015 Rick rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
This was an impulse purchase from the crowded gift shop outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Sargent exhibit on its closing weekend. It is an easy and quick read but I am sure there are better books on Sargent and I know there are better books on single works of art. Davis is a competent writer but not a remarkable one. Nor is she an insightful critic. She synthesizes well from secondary sources, builds background in broad strokes, inhabits the minds of Sargent and Madame Gautreau (the subje ...more
Dana Stabenow
May 25, 2014 Dana Stabenow rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: book-club
In la Belle Epoque Paris people lined up for art exhibitions the way we do today for blockbuster movies. In this case John Singer Sergeant caused a scandal by painting something that was much more than just a portrait of a beautiful woman, and Paris didn't like it. It almost ruined him, it did ruin his model, and I still want to ask him why he put the strap back up. Go here to see the portrait and then go read the book.
Elizabeth
Feb 24, 2014 Elizabeth rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: fans of old timey french sex, drugs and art
Shelves: 2014
Historical non-fiction that reads like fiction, nothing wrong with that. Admittedly, my previous knowledge of John Singer Sargent was limited to knowing that he was an old master style portrait painter, I think. Any more than that and I would have struggled. I am happy to report that is no longer the case. Deborah Davis does a very good job of keeping things moving and entertaining. It's a gossipy read set in the late 1800s involving artists, intellectuals and socialites. Not only was it interes ...more
Kristi
Apr 02, 2009 Kristi rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Strapless is the story of Amelie Gautreau, John Singer Sargent and the painting known to the world as Madame X. The book is so well written you feel like you are right there in the salons and art studios of Paris watching events unfold instead of reading them in a book. The detailed research provides insight into all the factors that led to the portrait of Amelie causing such scandal among the art community and the aristocracy, but never turns into a lecture of facts devoid of emotion.
Charles
Feb 11, 2010 Charles rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An excellent book about a masterpiece of painting and the real lives behind and around it. I'd always loved Sargent's portrait of "Madame X", but this book gave me a stronger sense of the painter's milieu and the subject's biography. Also broadened my understanding of life in Paris in the latter half of the 19th century. And it has sent me scurrying for books and websites that feature other of Sargent's pictures.
Tracey
Sep 01, 2012 Tracey rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2012
nonfiction; art history/history/biography (john singer sargent and madame gautreau). Kind of interesting, esp. if you are interested in the time period (1880s-1910s), but a lot of the tangents were less so (and there were a LOT of tangents). Kinda reminds me of one of those artsy films with lots of details, where you just want to hit the fast forward button all the time (then again, I'm like that with most movies).
Janee
May 30, 2016 Janee rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I picked this up in the gift shop at the Isabella Gardner Museum in Boston. I was there a few weeks ago with a friend and fellow sew-ist who was visiting from Austin, and we had just enjoyed our visit sharing thoughts on the art from our mutual and unique perspective. Some of my favorite observations are "You can just tell that's satin!" referring to the dancer's dress in El Jaleo by Sargent. We both were very curious about the relationship between John Singer Sargent and Isabella. My friend bou ...more
Kamila Forson
Mar 03, 2013 Kamila Forson rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
John Singer Sargent is one of my favorite painters, so this book caught my eye. I found it to be an interesting and well-researched insight into who he was as a person and as an artist. My enjoyment of his work continues, with a more nuanced view of the person behind the work. I'd highly recommend it to anyone interested in the intersection of psychology and history/art history.
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“When he was very excited, [John Singer] Sargent would rush at his canvas with his brush poised for attack, yelling, 'Demons, demons, demons!' When he was particularly angry or frustrated, he expressed these feelings with 'Damn,' the only curse he allowed himself. He once had the expletive inscribed on a rubber stamp so he could have the satisfaction of pounding it on a piece of paper.” 2 likes
“If there was a volcano under their feet, a Vesuvius that could erupt and bury this modern-day Pompeii at any moment, the best thing to do was dance on it. ” 1 likes
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