Monday, 1 September 2008

I am Madame X

There are certain paintings that one is drawn to, almost without knowing why, and the one above has long since been a firm favourite of mine. Perhaps it is the swan like grace of the turn of her neck, perhaps it is the simplicity of dress, or maybe it has something to do with the scandal that surrounded the painting when it was first exhibited, for allowing a shoulder strap to hang down provocatively - a touch Sargent felt forced to rectify in the face of severe criticism.

Whatever the reason for it's pull over me, I have known this picture simply by its title 'Portrait of Madame X', and never once felt compelled to find out anything more about the beauty standing seemingly aloof. That is until I happened upon a novel entitled I am Madame X, complete with portrait on the cover.

The novel starts off by claiming the following story is the memoir of Virginie Gautreau, sitter of the famous portrait, given to the curator of the Metropolitan museum for safe keeping until her death. The conceit works well, for as we delve into the colourful world of a New Orleans born beauty, forced to move to Paris at the time of the American civil war, we are thrust back into that other world, where women were looked on as prizes and paint was the means by which to catch them.

It is a beautifully told story - of a woman trapped by her situation. Wanting more than she can have, hoping to push the stays of the corset of society, she ends up in a marriage she doesn't want. But in that seeming awfulness lies the key to her salvation - or at least her fame. Her husband, wanting a portrait of his extraordinarily beautiful wife (who was said to take arsenic to achieve the translucent whiteness of her skin) commissions John Singer Sargent and the rest - as is often said - is history.

Written by first time novelist Gioia Diliberto, the colour of New Orleans and then Paris jumps off the page, as does the process of trying to find the perfect pose to capture the essence of this strong willed and passionate young woman (the book is littered with small sketches of Sargent's early attempts). Diliberto is first and foremost a biographer (her other works all fit into this genre), and this is clear with the detail she puts into the work, but it never cloys the drama, and you are left with a superb double portrait, one in paint and the other in pen.

It is a novel that brings the reader into another world, and one I can't recommend highly enough.

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