Monday, July 09, 2007

Book: Strapless

John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X by Deborah Davis (2003).

Madame X is one of my favorite paintings, but until I heard about this book a few years ago, I never knew there was the story of a scandal behind it.

Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, called Amélie by her friends, originally appeared in the portrait with one strap of her luscious black dress hanging off her shoulder. When exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1884, it shocked and offended the fickle French. Both painter and model were disparaged in major news sources.

Davis tells the story of Amélie and Sargent, the history of the painting, and what happened at the end of it all. She evokes late 19th century Paris with style and grace, making the book a compelling read. And yet, little actually happened. No lives were ruined, only hampered briefly.

Still, it's refreshing to read this story, which was lost to history until rather recently. Sargent repainted the strap to sit demurely on her shoulder, and only a photograph and an engraving of the painting as originally displayed survive today. Davis does well to leave out any feminist implications, instead letting her work of uncovering Amélie's history speak for itself.

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