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Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X

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The subject of John Singer Sargent's most famous painting was twenty-three-year-old New Orleans Creole Virginie Gautreau, who moved to Paris and quickly became the "it girl" of her day. A relative unknown at the time, Sargent won the commission to paint her; the two must have recognized in each other a like-minded hunger for fame.

Unveiled at the 1884 Paris Salon, Gautreau's portrait generated the attention she craved-but it led to infamy rather than stardom. Sargent had painted one strap of Gautreau's dress dangling from her shoulder, suggesting either the prelude to or the aftermath of sex. Her reputation irreparably damaged, Gautreau retired from public life, destroying all the mirrors in her home.

Drawing on documents from private collections and other previously unexamined materials, and featuring a cast of characters including Oscar Wilde and Richard Wagner, Strapless is a tale of art and celebrity, obsession and betrayal.

262 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 2003

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Deborah Davis

10 books73 followers

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 465 reviews
Profile Image for Olive Fellows (abookolive).
567 reviews4,594 followers
October 19, 2021
A fascinating story of the famous piece of art that now graces the walls of the Met, Madame X. It is a history of all those characters involved in its creation as well as a portrait of the era of its birth. Deftly told, this is a page-turning piece of nonfiction that will charm the strap off your shoulder even if you aren't an appreciator of art.
Profile Image for Emma.
2,863 reviews351 followers
March 2, 2018
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 have a painting displayed at the time and a good signifier of current or future artistic success) it created an uproar, so scandalous was the pose. Indeed, facing numerous charges of the painting's indecency, Sargent eventually repainted the strap sitting firmly, and properly, on Madame's shoulder.

Pursuing my art history minor in New York City I had the amazing opportunity to see "Madame X" in person at the Metropolitan Museum. The painting has always had a special place in my heart for, if nothing else, the drama associated with its debut. So I was very pleased when a copy of Deborah Davis' book Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X (2004) fell into my lap.

Part historical research, part biography, part social commentary, part feminist text, Deborah Davis handles a lot of material in a relatively small volume (320 pages with font of average size and relevant pictures included). One of the reasons Davis decided to research this particular painting and its subject is because so little information remains about Virginie Amelie Gautreau, her life, or how Sargent came to paint her scandalous portrait.

While "Madame X" eventually catapulted Sargent into the artistic canon and toward immortality, the portrait likely led to Gautreau's ruin and her obscurity. In her book, Davis tries to set the record straight, portraying Gautreau as the powerful, savvy woman she was before a bare shoulder changed her social standing forever.

My library system catalogs this book as a biography of John Singer Sargent, which for a lot of reasons is the logical choice. However, really, most of the book is spent looking at the life of Sargent's subject and patron: Madame Gautreau.

The book traces Gautreau's family history, her migration from New Orleans to Paris (where she became a quasi-celebrity along the lines of Kim Kardashian or Paris Hilton virtually overnight at the tender age of twenty-three), and perhaps most interestingly just how much work went into being a beautiful woman in Paris in the 1880s. No details escapes Davis' examination as she looks at the clothing, finances, indeed the very persona Gautreau had to cultivate to live the decadent lifestyle she became accustomed to.

The strong point in Strapless is when Davis sticks to such facts: how Gautreau lived, why Sargent would want to paint her, what happened at the Salon when "Madame X" debuted. Davis also expertly outlines the tenuous, and often stressful, patron-artisan relationships that Sargent and artists like him had to cultivate in order to eke out a living with their brush.

The momentum flags when Davis veers into the hypothetical wondering if Sargent might have been in love with Gautreau, torn between her and one of his young proteges. While the theory is interesting, it does remain a theory very akin to the conspiracy theories so often found in research on the Titanic.

That aside, Strapless is a remarkably well-done book. The thorough research shows through without dulling the writing. Davis' text is conversational and very accessible--more so, it must be said, than many writings found in the field of art history. An excellent book on art history for enthusiasts and art historians alike.

You can find this review and more on my blog Miss Print
Profile Image for Kalliope.
687 reviews22 followers
August 27, 2022

Sorting out my books, I decided to reread this one. I vaguely remembered how Davis explores how the most striking portrait painted by John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), came about. As the painting continues to fascinate me, and as I had afterwards, watched, and read, an interview of Christopher Wheeldon, my favourite ballet choreographer. He composed a ballet based, not just on the portrait, but on this book.

Unfamiliar as I am of the background of New Orleans during the second half of the nineteenth century, I very much welcomed Davis’s discussion, tracing the fortunes of the Avegnos and the Gautreaus. Once the family, and, in particular Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau (1859-1915) moved to Paris, I was in a much more familiar context. In a way it was too familiar, and in this second reading I skipped sections that narrated how the French art scene, with its Salons etc, functioned at the turn of the century. But the degree of social attention that Amélie earned, due to her beauty, sophistication, and wealth, mingling with the likes of Conte de Montesquiou-Fézensac (1855-1921) and his circles.

The portrait was painted relatively early on in Sargent’s career, in 1885. Sargent had already begun to enjoy commercial and artistic success. As one of the pupils of Carolus-Duran (1837-1917), Sargent exhibited the portrait of his master in the Salon when he was just 23.

When I first read the book, I paid no particular attention to the tracking of Samuel-Jean de Pozzi (1846-1918), the gynaecologist who was also, admirably portrayed by Sargent – a painting that completely captivated me in an exhibition at the March Foundation a few years ago. But between the portrait and the book by Julian Barnes The Man in the Red Coat, this time his position in Davis book clearly stood out for me. .

To Sargent’s despairing surprise, when Amélie’s portrait, contrasting the black velvet of her robe, with her blanched white skin, was shown in the 1884, it caused a very strong rejection. Amélie’s mother wanted to withdraw the painting, even if the identity had been partially disguised as “Portrait de Madame ***”. Sargent refused, conceding only in changing the title as “Madame X”. Later, he also modified the golden shoulder strap. Originally it had been shown falling down her arm, and he corrected it, and this is how it now hangs in the Metropolitan Museum.

Sargent kept ownership of the controversial portrait for a long time, even though he exhibited it in London (with much more success) and in the US. He eventually sold it to the Metropolitan in 1915; Sargent was sixty.

The book continues with the remaining of Sargent’s career, which blossomed, partly thanks to his friendship with Henry James (1843-1916), who introduced him to all the right people both in the UK and indirectly in the US. Sargent’s career as the portraitist of the upper classes was settled. One of his patrons was the wealthy Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840-1924); she was one of his sitters and purchased his “El Jaleo” SPOILER one of the star attractions in her Museum SPOILER. This success turned against him later in the 20th Century. The avantgarde pushed him completely to the side. But by the 1970s he made a comeback. Andy Warhol is quoted as saying:” Oh God, I wish I could paint this good”.

Amélie, even if she felt that her reputation had been damaged by her being the Madame X, she recovered. She also accepted to be portrayed again, by a few more painters. Only the one by Antonio de la Gandara from 1898 seems to me to be worth mentioning. Her straps are in place, her striking profile is again underlined, and her identity is partly hidden.

Profile Image for Sharon Barrow Wilfong.
1,117 reviews3,942 followers
July 18, 2018
I have recently discovered how much I love the paintings of John Singer Sargent (and also his contemporaries like Whistler and William Merritt Chase). My interest was first peaked when I read a book review of Sargent's Women. Learning the background of the artist's subjects make the works more significant.

I realize now that is why some people are not interested in art. I took a trip to Europe with such a friend. I was so excited to see the architecture and famous works of art that I knew so much about. She found it all a bore. But then she did not have any prior knowledge to what she was looking at and it meant nothing to her.

When I taught music in a grade school I learned that in order for a student to understand what you are trying to teach them, you must find out what they already know and build on that. Once you have built a foundation of prior knowledge you can then add new knowledge.

As a teacher this was my goal. I exposed my students to as much music and literature and art as possible in order to inspire an appetite for the wonderful things of this world.

All that to say, Strapless, like Sargent's Women, has given me the prior knowledge I need to truly enjoy Sargent's work.

While Sargent's Women examined the lives of four of Sargent's portrait subjects, Strapless examines the life of one. And not only her but the entire backdrop of 19th century Parisian life, and also, to a lesser extent Americans and their reasons for living in Paris.

The book starts in New Orleans where an old aristocratic family had plantations and wealth; Virginie Amelie Avigno was born into privilege and luxury. After the Civil War, her family deserted the South to reconstruct itself and settled in Paris where an American could easily live like royalty at half the cost and also find eligible husbands for beautiful daughters.

Amelie soon became the belle of Paris, acquired a rich husband and with the freedom being a respectable, married woman afforded her, spent her days at balls, horse races, and every other social occassion Paris had to offer a lovely young woman. She created a stir wherever she went.

Considered the most beautiful woman in Paris, her arrival at any destination caused a stir and was recorded in all the newspapers.

Davis describes the glamorous climate of Paris. With the rise of the bourgeouis, shops were catering to the cosmetic demands of their new clientele. We see all the different tricks and methods women used to look beautiful. Amelie took to powdering herself with a pale, lavender powder she believed set her skin off to its most alluring.

Also in Paris was a, as yet unknown but aspiring artist, John Singer Sargent. His career had been going well and his work had been accepted into the Salons for the last couple of years. He conceived of making a portrait of the most famous woman in Paris as a calculated business move to project his career to the heights he reached for.

In short, things did not go as planned. The Paris public hated it. They felt the portrait was shocking, especially since the original version had Amelie's strap hanging off her shoulder. Her skin was described as "corpse-like". The newspapers had a field day. The woman who had so recently been worshipped was now despised. It was the end of Amelie's reign over Paris.

But the beginning of Sargent's career. The notoriety helped propel his career to world fame while Amelie sunk into ignoble anonimity.

Davis' account is thorough and fascinating. We learn about Parisian life, about an unknown Sargent, and the sad ending to a promising life.

What is mostly sad to me, is that such a scandal would ruin a woman. Her entire life was centered around being adored. Even without the painting, she would have eventually aged out of the "beautiful young thing" stage. Apparently being the focus of attention was her only "rasion d'etre". She became a recluse and ultimately died alone, being estranged by that time from even her husband who only served as a financial vehicle at any rate.

I conclude that Amelie was not only vain, but vapid. There are many beautiful young women who, when they aged, still managed to keep a bright social life, largely because they had the intellect to occupy themselves with worthwhile pursuits and good company, even if it wasn't an adoring company of young, besotted men.

In her thirties, Amelie tried to regain her fame. She had several more portraits made of herself, but none that incurred public interest. Her group of admiring men became older and older until she simply stayed home and out of public life.

That is the greatest tragedy. A person who cannot move out of the past. Youth is so fleeting and Amelie never seemed to realize it. She did not even have the foresight to buy her portrait.

Sargent repainted the strap to a more prim location and kept the painting in his studio for more than thirty years. After Amelie died, he sold it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, where it hangs to this day.

I have seen the painting, when I visited the Museum on many occasions, but I was not interested in American portraiture at the time so barely glanced at it. Now that I have built up my own prior knowledge, I would like to return and see the painting that started a one career and ended another.
Profile Image for Louise.
1,631 reviews285 followers
July 12, 2015
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 had property in Paris, spoke French and was set to find a husband for Amelie away from the turmoil of Reconstruction.

In showing how the match was made, Deborah Davis takes the reader through French society at the dawn of the Third Republic. While there was more than needed on Georges Haussmann’s rebuild of the city and what that meant for retail (the rise of the dept. store), the parts on fashion and society were interesting and essential to the narrative.

There are good observations on the freedom from family that marriage bestowed on the teenaged Amelie and Padro who was twice her age. Amelie pushed the limits with her beauty and was perhaps in over her head in extra-marital affairs. She was both scheming and distracted when she chose and sat for the young John Singer Sargent for her portrait.

Sargent seems to be the Annie Liebowitz of his day. In contrast to his peers who are beautifying their subjects, Sargent dressed and posed his to bring out their personalities. Davis says the famous portrait was a collaboration with Amelie’s full support and approval.

While the important annual show where it made its debut had nudes, this painting (“edgy” for its day), created a stir. The rising prominence of both the painter and the socialite was curtailed. Davis explores the fallout from both a social and artistic perspective; How Sargent, in the long run, prevailed and Amelie, eventually, retreated.

I expect that there is more story to be told about Amelie. While the reaction was harsh, there may have been reasons for paybacks for this American upstart in Parisian life. As a teen, new to society, she surely made social blunders, perhaps of the kind that came back to haunt.

Along the way the reader meets great characters such as Dr. Samuel Jean Pozzi and Sargent’s parents and encounters Henry James with Isabella Stewart Gardner. Most of the paintings referred to are reproduced either in color or b & w (not usually the case in books like this). The Index worked for everything I checked. At the end you learn where these paintings now reside and how they got there and something on the people encountered in the narrative.

Anyone interested in Sargent or Belle Epoque art and society will want to read this engaging book.
Profile Image for Jeanette.
3,211 reviews551 followers
June 27, 2019
This is a fast read and filled with as much gossip and dish as one of 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 be fair, but I just could not round it up. Too much of the associative nuance in many paged listings of lovers and attachments with multiple marriage go rounds to deflate my interest between the bigger spoilers.

What really captured me though were the travel aspects and location variations! Especially Sargent's birth family's story. And their Creole roots gone back to Europe for 33 year long temporary trips. And these were not even the wealthiest of wealthy. Moving huge households season after season- while birthing a new family member or burying another. The entire entitled worldview! And few work at all- majority of the female gender in this salon world do anything that would be described with that word today. Unless you included getting clothes/fashion changed for appropriate reasons up to 8 times per day a definition of work.

Just the misplaced strap and a swan neck as givens! She absolutely had to be one of the best marketing/ P.R. people of her epoch. Enough that all this time later books being written! It was a better ploy than Michael Jackson's glove. But then he had incredible talent for performance. She seems to have had a gift for pleasing and being noticed. And yet with less attention, then becoming a recluse after an "old" age of 40? And these people were supposedly so smart?

Easy and researched read to an explanation of some paintings that are heralded and famous. The paintings themselves, and the photos were 4 to 5 star. Love that "Gust of Wind". So much of the lives of these painters, socialites, displayers- not as much.
Profile Image for Madeline.
771 reviews47k followers
May 21, 2008
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 her left. The left strap of her dress had fallen off her shoulder, while the right one stayed in place. When the Salon visitors saw this painting, displayed among works of art depicting full-frontal nudity, they went absolutely batshit crazy. And not in a good way. Davis's book explores the personal histories of Amelie, Sargent, and their respective families, as well as Sargent's career and Amelie's rise and fall in Parisian society. All of it is fascinating, although admittedly I could've done without the personal histories of Amelie's grandparents and everyone Sargent painted. That being said, they were all fascinating people and I still liked reading about them, although the book would've been just as good without their stories.
Profile Image for Dana Stabenow.
Author 95 books1,884 followers
February 3, 2022
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.
698 reviews
January 14, 2013
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 based in fact, history, etc. I found it much more enjoyable than GWaPE. This book actually dovetails really well with the David McCullough book (THE GREATER JOURNEY: AMERICANS IN PARIS) b/c it talks about the same time period, many of the same characters, and, particularly, on the Americans who were flocking to Paris in the 2nd half of the 19th century. John Singer Sargent was an American (in name; in reality, he grew up as an expat all over Europe) and so was the model of this portrait, Amelie Gautreau, whose family was originally from New Orleans. All in all, if you like history, French, Franco-Prussian War, the Belle Epoque, art history. . or any or all of these. . you may like this one too!

The book is very interdisciplinary and the author will go off on a tangent explaining Wagner, his wife, the castle on the Rhine which inspired a certain song, how John Singer Sargent met Wagner, etc. So I could see this bugging some readers, but I really liked the broad-brush overview of everything and how it ties together a lot of different subjects which are often taught/studied separately (art, history, music, military history) etc and puts them all together so you can see the unifying themes which were all going on at the time and affecting all of these at the same time period in history.

Profile Image for Barbara Backus.
286 reviews12 followers
September 18, 2013
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 researched and interesting to read. At the beginning it appears to be a biography of Virginie Amelie Gautreau, a Creole who lived in Louisiana before moving to Paris. But soon the author takes the reader back more than a century ago to the Paris of wealthy patrons and struggling artists.

The story of the painting known as "Madame X" has intrigued art lovers for years. Davis is so adept at incorporating the details into an interesting story of a woman who sought fame and gained notoriety. Sargent, at one time a heralded artist, was castigated by the Paris Salon and the newspapers of the times for his "indecent" portrait of a society woman.

Today "Madame X" hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I've seen it dozens of times but my next visit will be enhanced by this wonderful book. Whether you are an art lover or not, "Strapless" is a story rich in history and detail and the ways in which public opinion can affect a reputation.
Profile Image for Michelle.
Author 12 books1,340 followers
October 31, 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. Pozzi at Home" work would've caused a much bigger stir. Also interesting is how the portrait of Mme Gautreau eventually developed a cult following just as she was starting to fade from the spotlight (read: she was aging). Ultimately when he sold it to the Met, he erased her name from the title and Madame Gautreau became Madame X, denying her the chance to be forever immortalized, which is all she really ever wanted. Kind of sad, really, especially since she spent so much time and money trying to get new portraits made to replace this one.
Profile Image for Ari.
949 reviews41 followers
May 18, 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 nevertheless I finished the book and assumed that my knowledge of the painting of Madame X would solely be internet-based. Then a few days after I arrived at college, I found this book at the campus book sale. So I naturally had to buy it. I read a chapter here or there periodically (when I had a little free time from schoolwork and extracurriculars) and finally finished it a few months ago. I quite enjoyed Strapless. I was actually surprised that Madame Gautreau was so self-absorbed, I'm not sure how to explain it but before this book I would have thought Sargeant (or any artist for that matter) would want to paint beautiful but also intellectually stimulating people. Or at least people who were actually doing things. And I guess Amelie was doing things, she was the IT Girl in 1880s Paris and as Davis shows it was not an easy job. I liked reading about her ridiculous, looks-obsessed world. And the irony that Gautreau's name is no longer associated with (now) one of the most well-known paintings of all time, she who sought immortality of her beauty, is both sad and funny.

I think this book gives a great introduction to the Belle Epoque and I loved how everything tied back together (meaning the tangents on history and profiles of historical figures). The author explores Amelie and Sargeant's worlds, the other people Sargeant painted, the important figures in Amelie's life, but she never lost sight of the purpose of the book. Everything always came back to Madame X by Sargeant. I never mind when history books get off topic because I don't think its ever possible to truly get off topic when its history-related. This was my first foray into the world of art history and I found it both entertaining and engaging so I hope to re-enter that world, I'm open to recommendations.

An absorbing, accessible glimpse into the history behind one of the most famous paintings and eras (the Belle Epoque) of all time.
Profile Image for Dorothy.
122 reviews14 followers
July 17, 2014
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 from history, the morgue functioned as a museum of sorts. "As many as a million visitors would walk through the viewing rooms each year, horrified or thrilled--or both, but what they saw."

This fascination with "reality" did not pertain to art where classical and virginal nudes were accepted and honored but real "naked" renderings were deplored. "Curiously, anatomical reality in art was apparently a horrifying concept to the same men and women who lined up to see bodies at the morgue."

The real Madame X, Amelie Gautreau may have been the original "It" girl, a "professional beauty", the role model for the Paris Hiltons and Kardashian fame-whores who embarrass our culture today. An individualistic beauty who defied conventions and leveraged alabaster skin, perfect, rounded shoulders with a voluptuous, yet slender carriage "La Belle Gautreau" caused a spectacle and traffic jams when out and about and had a bevy of admirers and followers clamoring to see and be near her. Her creation of herself was her occupation and avocation.

Sargent was the promising new portraitist and star of the Salon.

His painting of her...her arrogance, statuesque pose, pointed noise aloft, the artifice of her, the turn of her arm and dropped strap of her daring dress created a scandal that effectively ended the reign of "La Belle Gautreau." Her efforts to recreate her allure after the scandal failed. And when Madame X earned its place as a remarkable piece of portraiture as social commentary her "physical splendor had totally disappeared" and she retreated into virtual seclusion. "With every exhibition, the portrait was winning new supporters and growing more renowned. Amelie, by contrast, was fading."

The beauty who had once lived for and in front of the mirror to attend to every detail of her carefully crafted appearance had all of her mirrors removed; she could not bear to see herself.

A cautionary tale of the perils of fame built on a foundation of superfice, artifice and cultivated beauty
Profile Image for Laurie.
402 reviews2 followers
May 7, 2019
An elegant little number that delicately walks the line between total froth and deep background. It deals with a painter whose personal life is suggestive but enigmatic and a model who was narcissistic and hedonistic and was totally surprised when a painted strap ruined her life. Davis offers the background we need to understand why a simple fallen strap could cause a scandal in an era when nudity in painting was accepted. Since the two characters are cosmopolitan, we learn a lot about Louisiana after the civil war and about American expatriates like Sargent's parents and Henry James. It's hard to understand the aftermath of Oscar Wilde's imprisonment and the effect it had on gay people of the time. Though it is fairly obvious that Sargent had gay tendencies, his lack of documented sexual partners is a puzzlement for our era. This book sent me to other sources about Sargent, and, more importantly to a site which has images of over seven hundred of his portraits, landscapes, and sketches. The lad had talent, a facility with the brush that may not have assured personal happiness.
43 reviews1 follower
January 17, 2013

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 didn't do them justice. I had read The Greater Journey by David McCullough which gives a good perspective on this period as well as on Sargent, but this book allowed me to focus on a specific band of time more intensively. Sargent remains a bit of a mysterious figure, more defined by his work than his personal life. This one episode was perhaps the only one in his life which deeply challenged his successful veneer and as such it is interesting to see how he responded to it.
Profile Image for Ƹ̴Ӂ̴Ʒ Jenn Ƹ̴Ӂ̴Ʒ Schu.
531 reviews58 followers
April 1, 2017
This is the story of John Singer Sargent, his rise to popularity and the controversial work of Madame X, which saw his brief decline. The book isn't merely about the painting Madame X, but also touches on the life of Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, the subject of the piece of art. What I found fascinating about the story were the details that created a vivid background of the people that shaped Sargent as an artist. The book also included sketches and images of Sargent's work, bringing more life to the story. My constructive criticism for the book is the way the chapters were organized, especially at the end of the book. The book took a linear approach and I thought the book would benefit from a different approach at the conclusion, one that would feature the minor characters earlier in the conclusion and end with Sargent and the painting.
24 reviews
April 3, 2009
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.
Profile Image for Robert Paul Olsen.
106 reviews3 followers
June 9, 2015
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!
Profile Image for C.S..
104 reviews
July 5, 2016
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.
Profile Image for Julie Wilcomb.
6 reviews1 follower
September 30, 2009
I rarely give 5 stars but this book deserves it. It is a nonfiction book about the painter John Singer Sargent. It reads like a novel. I could not put it down.
Profile Image for Caroline.
516 reviews21 followers
November 20, 2013
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 ostentation, non-stop parties and lavish spending. She was known for her alabaster skin and her beauty. The paparazzi of the time followed her every move and reported on them accordingly. She had famously declined invitations from many a painter to sit for them, but she agreed to sit for Sargent. It was a difficult sitting and Sargent faced more challenges with this portrait than he had with others. He actually painted a second portrait of Amelie Gautreau which he thought was better than the original, but didn't finish it, having been persuaded that he should show the original in the Salon, and that it was one of his masterpieces. The original Madame X was not received well at all at the exhibition. Viewers were scathing with their reviews, attacking Sargent for the cadaver-like hue to her skin and that with one strap of her dress hanging off her shoulder, that the painting was pornographic. Ironical considering the nudes also exhibited that year were highly praised. The negative reaction to the painting affected Amelie Gautreau as well. She became reclusive for a spell and then she commissioned more portraits of herself, seeking to undue the damage she perceived she suffered from the Madame X portrait. Alas, none of the subsequent portraits were pleasing, nor did they propel her back up to the pedestal she had fallen from. Amelie was aging and she did not want to accept that.

Sargent's life was somewhat nomadic. His parents traveled across Europe, mainly because his mother did not like to stay in one place for too long, but they were supportive of their son's talent and provided him with opportunities to hone his talent. Sargent's rise as a portraitist was meteoric and coupled with a nice nature, he gained many friends, both among other artists and patrons alike. Up until his Madame X portrait, he had been lauded as a brilliant star and there were many who sought him out to paint portraits of themselves or of their family members. The negative reception to Madame X was devastating. For the longest time, he kept that painting and wouldn't sell it. It seemed to serve as a reminder to him that he had once failed spectacularly. He did recover from that set back and went on to paint many other portraits and landscapes.

What's sad is that while Sargent and Madame X have both remained famous, the sitter of the portrait, Amelie Gautreau, faded into obscurity.
Profile Image for Kitty.
211 reviews80 followers
September 30, 2014
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 subjects. While I would recommend the book to anyone looking to find out more about one of the most infamous painted works in modern art, while I was reading through the text I found myself thinking time and time again that a person who knows a bit more about other artists, painters and musicians of the time will get more out of this. After all, I doubt the average "Joe" on the street will understand what she means when she makes a comparison between the scandals surrounding both Madam X and Manet's Le déjeuner sur l'herbe. However I can't imagine this would hinder anyone's appreciation of the book.

I was very pleased with the amount of research Davis has put into her book and even though I consider myself to be a huge Sargent fan I found even a few tidbits of information that I hadn't known before. For someone who has their background in screen writing she also managed to stay blissfully free of the trap that so many other pop historians fall into - superimposing her own feelings about people onto certain events and situations. Davis does a find job of sticking to facts and even took the time to rereview several of her peers who had previously written on Sargent in order to debunk a few glaring errors in their research.

My only complaint about this book is that she seems to have trouble making it all mesh together. We jump from one story to the next, from one fact to the next without any connective tissue between them to flesh out the body of work. And while Davis obviously did her homework at times it seems that she did it a little too well. An entire passage in the beginning of the book is dedicated to the rise of Paris's first department store with out apparent meaning or connection to the story at hand.

But really when all is said and done Davis does deserve her due and for choosing a subject that would inevitably be scrutinized so closely by so many people, and she has yet to do disservice to her readers. Four stars well earned.
Profile Image for Carolyn.
67 reviews9 followers
April 6, 2008
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 wealthy Pierre Gautreau in Paris. John Singer Sargent, the already famous painter and portraitist, was so captivated by her regal beauty, that he finally convinced her to allow him to paint her. When the painting was exhibited at the famous Paris Salon around 1884 it caused an uproar. It was reported to be scandolous and indecent, and ultimately hurt Sargent's reputation and ruined Madame Gautreau's social standing. It is a magnificent painting showing her standing in a very haughty pose with her head turned to the side, her body erect, her long beautiful neck straining to hold her head high. Her skin is white as alabaster and almost looks translucent against the brown background. Her perfect slim figure is tightly wrapped in a shiny black satin evening dress. Her gorgeous decollete is enhanced by one of the thin jewelled straps falling downn off her shoulder. The fallen strap turned this portrait from merely being sensual to being viewed as pornographic. It signalled that sex had taken place. The portrait from then on was simply known as "Madame X', even after Sargent painted the strap back on her shoulder. The painting now hangs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. This is a wonderful story about fascinating personalities and times.
Profile Image for Antonia.
Author 6 books30 followers
May 13, 2019
I really enjoyed reading this biography, which was at at least as much about John Singer Sargent as about “Madame X,” the painting and the woman whose portrait it is (Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau). I’ve just recently read the historical novel about Madame Gautreau (I Am Madame X by Gioia Diliberto, which I greatly enjoyed, and then discovered that this biography was published just a year later.

Overall, it’s a sad story, a tragedy really. Amélie Gautreau may be faulted for her single-minded pursuit of beauty and adoration, but she had been raised to believe that was her looks were her only asset (though she was an accomplished pianist) and her only path to happiness. But beauty doesn’t last and a woman isn’t desirable for all that long. Besides, fans are as fickle as lovers and reputations rise and fall.

Beyond the stories of Sargent, Gautreau, and many other personalities that touched their lives, the book provides an enthralling look at Belle Époque Paris, roughly 1870 to 1914. I learned a great deal about the artists and art world of those days. A good read!
Profile Image for Jeannette.
127 reviews
June 2, 2019
This is probably my favorite book of the story behind the scenes of great art. I loved everything about this book: the details of John Singer Sargent's childhood as an ex pat. The fabulous story of Virginie Gatreau who, as a child, fled the dying confederacy with her mother only to find herself climbing the social ladder in Paris. Most fascinating of all was how the famous painting of Madame X came about, how and why it scandalized the French salon and how that painting almost brought Sargent to ruin and forced him to flee to England where he was able to resume his career on the basis of his talent for portraiture which overrode the scandal. All in all, a great story including history and art and biography.
Profile Image for Lesley.
71 reviews17 followers
June 27, 2018
All it took was a fallen strap to bring down a woman and her artist.

Virginie Amelie Avegno Gautreau is Madame X. John Singer Sargent is the artist.
A long forgotten French Creole beauty, who married a man double her age, and made his fortune in bat guano, along with an American artist who studied in France and became one of the worlds great portraitists, caused one of the 19th centuries greatest art scandals. And then everyone forgot.

This is a fantastic look at that great scandal, the woman, and the artist.
Profile Image for Amy Hughey.
13 reviews2 followers
March 27, 2019
Interesting and engaging social and historical background on the artist, subject and their relationship as well as the contemporary Parisian scene. I thoroughly enjoyed it and can’t wait for my next revisit to the Met to look at Madame X with fresh and better educated perspective.
Profile Image for Leslie.
34 reviews1 follower
March 1, 2017
One of the most compelling pieces of non-fiction I've read! I loved the backstory of artist and subject and I couldn't wait to see what happened when their paths met.
Profile Image for Chris Munro.
43 reviews2 followers
June 22, 2021
"Madame X" about John Singer Sargent and his famous portrait subject. Its very good, and you can get through it at a brisk pace, but i found there were so many wonderful places, people and objects referred to thati was stopping to google them constantly since the book sadly has few pictures of anything it describes. And my god, a biography of Sargent needs to be written by someone who understand relationships between men, of which there are many kinds, and there are also many, many kinds of sexual relationships. Sargent was gay gay gay gay GAY. This authors reading of Sargent's relationships with both men and women is borderline dimwitted, glossing over the obvious as if she had spent her life in some sheltered convent! It's a naive take on Sargent's personal life and I wondered at times if it was written in the 1960s. No completely heterosexual man ever painted other men like that. The author muses that he may have been very repressed, absolute nonsense, I'm sure he missed out on nothing in the sex and romance department, but was careful not to expose his inner private life at a time when it could have landed him, and many others like him, in jail or out of a job. Sure, the concept of the gay man and his lifesatyle we know today was in its infancy then, but it was most certainly not fantasy nor rare. If only Merchant Ivory were still making those big grand sweeping historical films, this tale is the perfect subject. Everything I love happened in the 1880s, when in my humble opinion, humanity reached its zenith and has just gone downhill ever since. I give the book 5 stars for its subject matter, but not for the very very naive sounding opinions therein.
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