Charles Saatchi's Great Masterpieces: the dress and figure that were too much for Le Tout Paris

Detail of John Singer Sargent's Madame X (1884)
Detail of John Singer Sargent's Madame X (1884) Credit: Alamy

John sketches quite nicely and has a remarkably quick and correct eye. If we can afford to give him really good lessons, he would soon be quite a little artist.” After Sargent’s mother, herself a painter, wrote this note in 1867, his father agreed to enrol him in the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence during his late teens. Until this point, Sargent (1856-1925) had received little formal education – his parents were convinced that he could obtain all the knowledge necessary in life from visiting museums and churches encountered during the family’s nomadic travels around Europe.

Sargent continued his artistic career in Paris, where he was inspired to avoid preliminary sketching, and work directly on canvas. In 1879, Sargent submitted a portrait of his tutor to the Salon des Indépendants. It won an honourable mention, and his reputation as a portraitist began to grow. Sargent continued to enter a range of works to the Salon, but it was always his portraits that were the most warmly received. Soon, he began receiving regular portrait commissions, and his renown spread.

Sargent was thought to have exceptionally fine manners, a trait that was most helpful to him with patrons. Due to his popularity and his growing circle of clients, he was confident enough to set high portrait fees, and politely reject any unsuitable sitter. Things continued to go well for Sargent until his self-confidence led him to undertake a risky experiment: he exhibited his portrait of Madame Gautreau at the 1884 Salon.

Mme Gautreau was a Parisian socialite known for her elegance and glamour. She was pale-skinned and used lavender-coloured face and body powder to enhance her complexion. Sargent found her intoxicating and was determined to capture Gautreau’s “unpaintable beauty”. She was particularly admired for her hourglass figure – a feature Sargent would emphasise within his painting.

Used to being pursued by his clientele, now Sargent became the pursuer. “I have a great desire to paint her portrait and have reason to think she would allow it and is waiting for someone to propose this homage to her beauty,” he wrote to a mutual acquaintance. “You might tell her that I am a man of prodigious talent.” Madame Gautreau had turned down many such requests, but after two years of pleading from Sargent, she finally agreed.

Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau) by John Singer Sargent Credit: Alamy

Choosing her clothing and arranging it in unconventional ways, he created a bold off-the-shoulder dress, which provided a dramatic contrast to her famously pale skin. Sargent had grown up fascinated by his surgeon father’s anatomical illustrations, particularly of bandaging, and it is thought that this influenced his choice to paint his subject in this tight-fitting gown.

Sargent worked on the portrait for more than a year, struggling to find the right pose. He never employed assistants, handling everything himself. Finally, he opted to have Gautreau facing the viewer, with her head turned to the side and one arm supported on a table.

Mme Gautreau had regularly discussed the painting with her acquaintances, despite never having seen it in finished form, and she firmly believed it would be a triumph. She changed her mind when the picture was finally revealed, on the day of the exhibition opening. First exhibited under the title Portrait of Mme ***, the shockingly low-cut, form-fitting dress caused an immediate scandal. The painting was certainly daringly sensual – challenging the accepted standards of portraiture of the day.

It was considered particularly outrageous because a society figure such as Mme Gautreau (her identity did not remain a secret for long) would never consider serving as a louche model. Gautreau’s mother implored Sargent to remove the painting from the exhibition – a request he denied, stating that he had painted her “exactly as she was dressed, that nothing could be said for the canvas worse than had been said in her appearance”.

Later, for fear of Gautreau’s family destroying the painting, he took it down and returned it to his studio. Pressured by the feverish scandal and in a moment of self-doubt, he opted to alter the straps on the dress so it seemed more securely fastened. He also changed the title to Madame X. It was the only time he ever changed a portrait out of regard to his sitter, or his critics.

The uproar was a disappointment to both the artist and his model. A humiliated Gautreau retired for some time from Parisian society, and Sargent was forced to leave Paris to rebuild his reputation as an artist. He moved to London, taking the painting with him, since, unsurprisingly, he had not been able to sell the portrait to Madame Gautreau, or anybody else.

But even though he made England his permanent home in 1886, he continued to encounter problems overcoming the Madame X scandal. Certain patrons were reluctant to sit for him.

A gallery-goer admires Sargent's painting Carnation, Lily, Lily Rose Credit: Eddie Mulholland

Things changed for the better after he exhibited Carnation, Lily, Lily Rose in 1887, at the Royal Academy in London. This painting so enchanted viewers that Sargent soon had members of the aristocracy and the elite lining up to be painted.

On trips to the US in 1887 he promptly discovered that Americans were not opposed to a sitting either. There, he painted many of the highest members of society including Theodore Roosevelt and John D Rockefeller. The Madame X shadow had faded.

Although Madame X was Sargent’s most controversial work, and despite it almost costing him his artistic career, the picture remained his personal favourite. “I suppose it is the best thing I have done,” he later stated. The painting remained unsold in his studio until 1916, when the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York bought it for £1,000. Today, Madame X is indeed considered his greatest work.

© Charles Saatchi 2018