“Every time I paint a portrait, I lose a friend.” John Singer Sargent
As I dove with curiosity into the history of John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) and his scandalous portrait, Madame X, I found more than I expected, and I wandered into irresistible tangents both foreign and familiar.
Although born abroad, Sargent claimed his American heritage from his parents, defining his background by his roots, lest their nomadic lifestyle leave him homeless. Rather than formal schooling, his parents raised him with an education in the eclectic experiences that come from travel, settling nowhere for more than a few months. Sargent was in his early twenties when he visited America for the first time.
I expected to find a Louisiana connection within the background of Sargent’s most famous subject, Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, who lived as a child both at Parlange Plantation (b. 1750) in New Roads and at 927 Toulouse Street in the French Quarter. And I looked forward to a story about lovers, about an artist and his muse (an unsubstantiated rumor, it turns out).
Instead, a more personal analogy distracted me almost from the start. I learned that the American Sargent first caught the art world’s attention when he won an Honorable Mention at the Salon in Paris in 1879 for his portrait of his mentor, artist Carolus-Duran, a rare honor for an American, even today.
I am familiar with this award, because it hangs on the wall of my husband’s studio. He tells the story of his friend Jean Pierre Serrier, a Frenchman who entered the Salon (est. 1725) with his own artwork for twenty years without success. Rodrigue rolled the painting of his mother’s 1924 Mount Carmel Academy (New Iberia) graduating class in a tube and shipped it to Paris, where Serrier followed the long-established rules for entry. He stood in line for his friend with the now framed canvas, just as Sargent did years before, with hopes that the judges would accept it as one of several thousand paintings for exhibition.
Although the Parisian elite expected nudes, they related them to allegorical figures, mentally separating these subjects from their sexual allure. It was Edouard Manet who broke this bias with his portrait of a prostitute, accepted into the Salon in 1865.
Sargent’s faux pas proved just as scandalous, yet his subject wore clothes, specifically an evening gown. It was the thin strap falling from French society’s darling Amelie Gautreau’s shoulder that offended the viewers, as though she were undressing for the public. This caused her such humiliation that she spent the rest of her life trying to quiet the gossip and upstage the memory, posing for several unmemorable portraits with hopes of once again enchanting French society.
Here in New Orleans we have an elegant portrait of Mrs. Asher B. Wertheimer, a typical Sargent patron, hanging in our Metropolitan, the New Orleans Museum of Art, which purchased it from a dealer in 1980.** This year, in celebration of the museum’s centennial, the painting joins other masterpieces from NOMA’s collection and tours Louisiana, visiting museums in Shreveport, Alexandria, Lafayette, and Baton Rouge.
“Such grave and distinguished portraits as those by Sargent strive, like the heads of medieval statuary, to read a soul into the human visage, and appear not merely to offer a depiction of their subjects but to render a judgment upon them.” (John Updike, Still Looking, 2005, Alfred A. Knopf)
Wendy Rodrigue (a.k.a. Dolores Pepper)
*Strapless by Deborah Davis, 2003, Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin
**The New Orleans Museum of Art: The First Seventy-Five Years by Prescott N. Dunbar, 1990, Louisiana State University Press
***For a related post, see “The Muse”