The Inspirational Portrait of Madame X

My fascination for John Singer Sargent, the 19th century American portraitist, started in the fall of 2018, on a rainy day. The Manhattan gloomy sky and the chilly temperatures were the perfect excuse to meander the galleries of the Metropolitan Museum. Upon arrival, I checked the docent guided tours on offer that day and opted for the American wing, that I didn’t know well. The guide, a charming older lady, took our small group to an empty gallery and stopped in front of the portrait of Madame X, painted by Sargent in 1884.

I had seen that painting before but our guide’s explanations piqued my interest. At the end of the tour, she recommended the book “Strapless” by Deborah Davis, that I borrowed at the nearby library the very same day. I was soon immersed in the mesmerizing story of the painting. The scandal it provoked, how it almost cost Sargent’s reputation and career. The beautiful young model, Virginie Amelie Avegno Gautreau, an American expat living in Paris, just like Sargent.

I became fascinated by the portraitist. I went to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, to the Isabella Gardner Museum and to the Boston Public Library. I marveled at his portraits, landscape paintings and extraordinary murals. I wanted to know more. About Sargent’s creative and prolific art. About him as a person. I read, I did some research. Then one day, I sat down and wrote the story Back in Time, on Sargent’s Footsteps.

So, imagine my surprise the other day, when I went back to the Met after months of closure due to Covid-19, to visit the exhibit Making of the Met, 1870-2020. As I was going from one gallery to the next, I suddenly saw the gorgeous painting, right there, in front of me. I stopped and stared. Here she was, Madame X. I called my husband and asked him to take a photo of us. The beautiful socialite in her black dress and me, wearing a mask, as one does. It felt like we had gone full circle and were finally reunited after months of lockdown.

Madame X by John Singer Sargent

The story Back in Time is part of Vignettes of Life, by Evelyne Fallows, published in July 2020.

Yours,

Evelyne

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