At the height of his life, John Singer Sargent was the most celebrated portrait artist of his time. Born of American parents in Florence, Italy, he spent most of his life in Europe, particularly in London where he died in 1925. Between 1877 and 1925 Sargent painted over 3000 works, including two American Presidents, the aristocracy of Europe, and the financial tycoons of his time period. His mentor and teacher was the French portraitist, Carolus-Duran. Sargent's style of painting was also influenced by the Impressionist movement as well as the Dutch Master Frans Hals and the Spanish Velazquez.
I am Madame X written by Gioia Diliberto is the fictional account of Sargent's most famous yet controversial portrait and its subject. Madame Gautreau, nee Virginie Avegno, the daughter of two prominent Creole families was born in New Orleans in 1859. She fled with her mother to Paris during the Civil War after the death of her father at the battle of Shiloh. The young Virginie developed into a striking beauty and combined her appearance with a character that challenged the conventional proprieties of Parisan society. By 1879, she had married Pierre Gautreau, a wealthy Paris banker. In spite of the birth of a daughter, both Pierre and Virginie continued their promiscuous lifestyles. During the summer of 1882 Sargent had become captivated with Madame Gautreau and greatly desired to do a portrait of her. When the finished painting appeared at the Salon in 1884 it was listed in the catalogue as Portrait de Mme***. It depicts Madame Gautreau in profile wearing a black satin and velvet evening dress with a cuirass bodice. The portrait emphasizes the subject's translucent white skin. In the original portrait, one strap of the gown is hanging off Madame Gautreau's shoulder. Critics and public alike considered the portrait to be erotic and bizarre. The reaction to the portrait was one of the factors that led to Sargent leaving Paris to live in London. For a number of years afterward, Madame Gautreau herself was also forced to bear the rejection associated with Sargent's painting. With time however, the portrait achieved the acclaim that was hoped for in the beginning. Sargent called it "the best thing I have done" and Gautreau's reputation rose with its distinction.
I am Madame X attracted my attention because of my familiarity with John Singer Sargent due to my wife's respect for his talent. It was also the first novel that I had seen devoted to a work of art. For more than half of the book, I found it a struggle to stay interested and questioned whether I wanted to finish it. Persistence did pay off and I found the ending to be worthwhile. The author's notes proved extremely informational and showed the depth of research the book required.
Some of the information for this review is taken from John Singer Sargent: The Early Portraits by Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray. This volume along with Portraits of the 1890s, represent the definitive catalogue of Sargent's works.
The NON FICTION list of books this month represents just some of the new art books that the library has recently purchased with proceeds from the St. Patrick's Book sale.
Children: In the Time of Drums; My Rows and Piles of Coins; Running the Road to ABC; Her Stories, Afreican American Folktales, Fairy Tales, and True Tales; Hunter and the Crocodile; Faithful Friend; Minty; Brown Honey in the Broomwheat Tea; Neeny Coming, Neeny Going; My Brother Martin
Fiction: Story of my Father; Adventures of Flash Jackson; Sunday Wife; Home Song; Cities of Gold; Last Summer; Pasadena; Bone Mountain; Angry Housewives; Chase; I Am Madame X
Nonfiction: John Singer Sargent: The Early Portaits; John Singer Sargent: Portraits of the 1890s; Vermeer and the Delft School; The Impressionists; Peggy Guggenheim Collection of Modern Art; Winslow Homer: Artist and Angler; Cezanne; Painters and the American West; Magic of M.C. Escher; Wolf Kahn; Matisse Portraits