Anyone who tries to capture the likeness of a client–for hire–should read Deborah Davis’s book Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X. Actually, it’s a great read for any artist.
It’s the account of Sargent’s growth as an artist and his famous (infamous) portrait of Amélie Gautreau (Madame X), which debuted at the Salon in 1884. Davis weaves the story of Amélie, a famous Cajun beauty who took Paris by storm in her youth, with Sargent’s passions.
There are still numerous unanswered questions, but the book provides insight into the artist’s working life and the things he struggled with: not only composition and subject, but tastes, conventions, and making a living. I was particularly interested in how the subject used the fame of the portrait for her own benefit–when she needed it. I also enjoyed the story of Sargent insisting that, with his partial gift to the Metropolitan, the official title of the painting not include the name of the famous woman in it. (Read the book to find out why.)
Photo credit: John Singer Sargent
X (Madame Pierre Gautreau), 1883–84, Arthur Hoppock Hearn Fund, 1916 (16.53). Collection Metropolitan Museum of Art.