Madame X Analysis
- Date of Creation:
- Alternative Names:
- Madame Pierre Gautreau
- Height (cm):
- Length (cm):
- Art Movement:
- Created by:
- Current Location:
- New York, New York
- Displayed at:
- Metropolitan Museum of Art
- Metropolitan Museum of Art
With this canvas John Singer Sargent attempted to capture Madame X's "unpaintable beauty and hopeless laziness" while at the same time wowing critics at the Salon.
At the time, the composition was considered eccentric. The womans' pose - body facing the viewer, head turned into a conscious profile, arm twisted - was both unusual for the time period, and uncomfortable for the sitter. Although the painting was initially considered to be a vulgar display of sexuality, Madame Gautreau shows as much as she retreats.
Her shockingly pale but attractive skin is assertively displayed, but the folds of her dress and the background are mysterious. The strap hangs from her shoulder (in the original,) while the dress covers her. The right arm is drawn boldly forward, while the left one retreats, but at the same time remains on full display.
While a little removed from the viewer, Madame Gautreau nonetheless dominates the center foreground, while the low table on the left-hand side provides a counter-balance without taking attention away from her. The curves and angles of the table subtly continue the effects of Madame Gautreaus' body throughout the composition: the line of the left arm is continued by the table leg below it, the curve of the table top mimics the curve of Madame Gautreas' bodice.
The curve of the table base is the mirror opposite of the curve of her dress hem. The lack of a defined or decorated background draws attention towards the foreground, causing Madame Gautrea to appear as if highlighted.
Except for Madame Gautreaus' skin, the rest of the painting is in dark, muted colors. The folds of the black dress give the portrait an air of mystery and the table and background are in subdued brown tones. In comparison, the plunged neckline seems exceptionally assertive and showy. Madame Gautreau was notorious for her pale skin, which she liked to powder with lavender - an artificial but soft glow that Sargent captured with a mix of lead white, rose madder, vermilion, viridian, and bone black.
Madame X seems bathed by a soft glow that comes from the background, highlighting her without being obvious. Sargents' skillful use of lighting makes the background glow and recede at the same time. The shadows towards the bottom of the painting highlight the mysteriousness and somberness of the bottom half of her dress.
Sargent used the old master technique of chiaroscuro in the foreground. This literally means "light-dark" in Italian and refers to the illumination of the focus of the painting, in this case Madame Gautreau, while the surrounding area, the background, remains dark and heavy. This is a great technique for creating dramatic contrasts.
Sargent also used exaggeration to make Madame Gautreaus' waist seem tinier, while the hips are exaggerated and appear fuller. He did this so that Madame Gautrea would conform to the beauty standards of the time period and appeal more alluring to the viewer.
The background is an abstract color which may or may not be a wall - the lack of a defined setting serves to make the sitter seem both more ethereal and abstract - as if, unable to be pinned down to a setting, she has become even more remote and unattainable.
As is customary for Sargents' realist portraits, this painting had no preparatory sketches or paintings underneath it. This allowed Sargent to paint the final version directly onto the canvas, allowing for more spontaneous and free brush strokes than would have otherwise been the case. The brushwork in this portrait is not as loose as some of Sargents' other works, particularly those of his later years.
The image is relatively close to the viewer, and therefore fairly detailed, especially in the depiction of the folds of the dress and the table leg. Madame Gautreaus' face is slightly less detailed, which, together with the haughty cock of her head, give her the suggestion of being inaccessible to the viewer.
While the perspective in the foreground is conventional, the background is abstract and lacks perspective. It alternately appears to be receding and glowing. Madame Gautreau manages to both almost fade into the background and yet stand apart from it -which gives her an air of uncertainty.
Sargent made the painting slightly larger than life, so as to attract attention from the crowd at the Salon. It was positioned slightly above the viewer in order to make Madame Gautreaus' painting more commanding.