1883-4 by John Singer Sargent
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Sargent was one of the leading American portrait painters of his time; Madame X is probably his most notorious work and is said to be the artist’s favourite. Criticised contemporarily, it is what the painting lacked then that causes us to celebrate it now — its restraint. There is no flowery background, props or elaborate dress, as was popular in portraiture; the figure is left literally bare. Clothed in dark and luxurious folds of black, she is left unadorned but for the delicate chain straps that creep sensually across her shoulders. Bringing our eyes downward, these draw us to the voluptuous bosom, the nipped waist; we have little to distract us from Madame X’s figure. Rather than the face, this portrait’s focus is all on the body; it is no wonder that the approach caused a stir. This visual caress of the body is only enhanced by the attention placed on flesh: skin, white juxtaposing black, milky and luminous, glows. Unnaturally white, she is statue-like, chillingly and magically unattainable; tinged pink in the hands and the ear, the contrast is stark, almost vampire like. As elusive as her name, Madame X turns away from us; like Renée on postcard sixty, her arms turn, poised on the brink of movement. Sargent’s background is stark, unashamedly brown, with a table that almost blends in but for its shine and elegant design; less is definitely more. The portrait is mesmerising, commanding, sexual and, thus I suspect, acutely reflective of character.