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Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X

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3.90  ·  Rating details ·  4,472 ratings  ·  409 reviews
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,
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Paperback, 262 pages
Published May 3rd 2004 by Tarcherperigee (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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Olive
Mar 08, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites-2019, own, art
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.
Emma
Aug 17, 2008 rated it liked it
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
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Sharon Barrow Wilfong
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
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Louise
Jul 12, 2015 rated it it was amazing
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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Jeanette
Dec 18, 2015 rated it liked it
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
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Madeline
May 21, 2008 rated it really liked it
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 rated it it was amazing
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
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Barbara Backus
Apr 28, 2013 rated it it was amazing
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
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Dorothy
Jul 15, 2014 rated it really liked it
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
Michelle
Oct 31, 2010 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. ...more
 Ƹ̴Ӂ̴Ʒ Jenn Ƹ̴Ӂ̴Ʒ Schu
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 ...more
Ari
May 17, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: read-in-2013, france
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 ...more
Carolyn
Apr 05, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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 ...more
Laurie
May 07, 2019 rated it really liked it
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 ...more
Susan Weinberg
Jan 16, 2013 rated it it was amazing


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
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Dana Stabenow
Oct 10, 2008 rated it really liked it
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.
Bo Olsen
May 13, 2015 rated it it was amazing
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!
Kristi
Apr 02, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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.
C.S.
Jun 28, 2016 rated it it was amazing
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.
Julie Wilcomb
Sep 29, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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.
Antonia
May 12, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: read-in-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
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Lesley
Jun 27, 2018 rated it it was amazing
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
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Jeannette
May 30, 2019 rated it it was amazing
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 ...more
Leslie
Mar 01, 2017 rated it really liked it
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.
Amy Hughey
Mar 27, 2019 rated it really liked it
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.
Caroline
Nov 12, 2013 rated it really liked it
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 ...more
Kitty
Oct 21, 2010 rated it really liked it
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
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Joanne
Nov 06, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2019-challenge
This was a fascinating account of the painting of Madame X, the famous portrait of the woman in the black dress with one dropped jeweled strap which caused a furor in Paris in 1884. The book covers the lives of John Singer Sargent, whose career accended after the scandal, and Amelie Gautreau, she of the slipped strap, whose life as a professional beauty never recovered from Parisians' outrage at that small wardrobe malfunction. Along the way, life in Belle Epoque Paris is also recreated and its ...more
Catherine Siemann
Jun 20, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: victorians
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 ...more
Susy
Jul 26, 2012 rated it liked it
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
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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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