Monday, July 16, 2007

Madame X in New York

"... Gatsby was overwhelmingly aware of the youth and mystery that wealth imprisons and preserves, of the freshness of many clothes, and of Daisy, gleaming like silver, safe and proud above the hot struggles of the poor." The Great Gatsby, 1925

Sunday July 8, 2007: Day 4 in NYC (continued)

One of my goals in coming to New York was to see the original painting of the portrait of Madame X by John Singer Sargent at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. My interest was piqued again, in the recent past, when I read two books: Strapless: The Rise of John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X by Deborah Davis and I Am Madame X by Gioia Diliberto a few years ago. Both were mediocre, disappointing books about an intriguing subject: Virginie Amélie Gautreau, the infamous Madame X, who still fascinates me with her mystery and scandalous past more than 100 years later. There is a good synopsis of the book Strapless here.

More commonly known by her middle name Amélie, she is not conventionally beautiful but she is elegant with seemingly flawless skin and a beautiful figure. Her black dress is somehow ravishingly modern. I find her endlessly appealing to look at. The 1884 painting by John Singer Sargent still captivates me.

John Singer Sargent met Amélie in Paris in 1881 and immediately attempted to induce her to pose for a portrait "as an homage to her beauty". She was an American born beauty who was already attracting the attentions of the press in Paris, a sort of 19th c. Paris Hilton (with more brains hopefully) who was known for being known and for being beautiful. Initially, the sittings for Sargent appear fruitless. He complains in a letter to a friend that her beauty is "unpaintable" and he is discouraged by her "hopeless laziness". To enhance her pale skin Amélie was said to apply a form of arsenic to whiten her skin. But the portrait was accepted for the prestigious Paris Salon, the official art exhibition of the Academie des Beaux-Arts, despite his reservations. Between 1748-1890 it was considered the greatest annual or biannual art event in the world drawing crowds in the thousands.

The portrait was immediately condemned by the critics and the public as well as Amélie's family. Her family demanded that the painting be removed. Of particular concern was the depiction of a strap on her right shoulder which had fallen, an accident which was considered sexually suggestive. Oddly, her luminously white skin also disturbed and annoyed the viewers of the painting.

The painting was removed from the Salon and Sargent reluctantly agreed to repaint the right shoulder so that it would not appear that the strap had fallen (this is the painting we see most). Amélie was said to have come to hate the portrait and agreed to other portraits by wellknown artists with the hope that the image of Madame X would eventually be effaced. It would never be surpassed by others or forgotten by those that had seen it.

Amelie was a classic example of what Fitzgerald would describe as the type of life that "wealth imprisons and preserves". Eventually Amélie, aware that her beauty was fading after a many years of notoriety, ridicule from the press and unhappy relationships, sought refuge at St. Malo, where, it was said she wrapped herself in veils and frequented the beach only at night. The mirrors of her home were covered with sheets. Beginning her life as a great beauty and celebrity, she ended her life as a recluse. Sargent, of course, after a brief interlude of being out of favour with society, prospered from the notoriety and continued to paint for many years achieving fame and wealth.

So based on my enthusiastic ravings about this painting, this next bit will surely disappoint. At the end of long day I made my way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art with only an hour or so to get to see the painting. The Museum is massive, gorgeous, Neo-Classical and infested with tourists like me. It made the Royal Ontario Museum look like a pioneer schoolhouse.

Unfortunately, I had no idea how large the museum was and started out for the American Gallery which I had read featured the work of Sargent (but did not specifically mention Madame X). The gallery itself is difficult to find and I literally had to ask attendants several times how to get to it, getting perpetually lost. It took at least 20 or 30 minutes of searching to get to the gallery. I couldn't find it in the section I was in which encompassed a number of rooms, oddly situated.

Undone by the heat, crowds and rushing (we are still talking about 40 degree Celsius weather), I gave up and went to sit at the little cafe on the balcony of the Met to recuperate. As I left, when the museum was closing, I asked if the paintings at the museum could be sourced on-line. Yes, when I checked it was there on-line (but don't ask me where in the museum!) when I got home.

I departed, tail firmly tucked between legs, and wandered south on 5th Avenue much as Nick Carraway did after Gatsby died when he encountered Tom Buchanan contemplating the purchase of jewelry for Daisy, perhaps at Tiffany's or Cartier, at the end of The Great Gatsby.

R and J arrived shortly after I did at the hotel that evening. We headed south to Greenwich Village , en famille, which we hadn't had much of a chance to see. It was getting late and the natives were restless. We did manage to find a good Japanese restaurant called Go Japanese at 30 St. Mark's Place at 8th St. and right across the street we found the CBGB store at 19-23 St. Marks Place, between 2nd and 3rd Avenue, which was a bonus for the wannabe punks and little punkettes on this trip.

A nice way to end our next to last day in New York.

Notes on Madame X from:

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