Monday, June 04, 2007

Strapless by Deborah Davis

[ review ]

Title: Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X

Author: Deborah Davis

Copyright: 2003, Tarcher Penguin, member of Penguin (USA) Inc., New York, ISBN 1-58542-221-5

Length: 310 pages (including notes and bibliography)

Genre: Social History

Summary: The subtitle of the book identifies the two personalities documented in this book -- John Singer Sargent, one of the foremost American portraitists of the late nineteenth century, and Amelie Gautreau, an New Orleans-born socialite and celebrated beauty of her day. She was the subject of his famous Portrait of Madame X, a work first shown at the Paris Salon of 1884. The two were both in their late twenties at the time. Sargent was a rising artist of 28 and Gautreau was a married woman of 25 whose appearances in Parisian society were documented at length in the newspaper columns of her day. The display of her portrait at the Salon wrecked her standing and caused the near destruction of his professional career. Viewers found the implications of a fallen shoulder strap and the tight fit of the black gown Amelie wore for the portrait to be deeply shocking, suggestive of illicit behavior and corrupt society. (Sargent had actually selected the gown in which Madame Gautreau was shown.) In the face of such bad press that he feared might harm his career, he sought unsuccessfully to pull the portrait from the exhibition. Amelie's horrified family refused to pay the artist for the work. He retained the painting in his studio until 1916 when he arranged for Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to purchase the work. (Amelie had died by that time and Sargent felt she would not be harmed by any resulting publicity.)

Davis' intent was to pursue the back story beyond this famous painting, not as a story of Model and Artist but as ordinary people (with some public standing) who are caught in a bad situation. She succeeds in that Strapless is an exploration of a world where fine art held a significant place, Sargent a fascinating personality, and Davis is enthusiastic about the various figures he painted . Additionally, while the image of the painting is famous, the story she tells is not overly familiar to this generation. The events have a certain drama to them and Davis succeeds in building interest to the climactic chapter where she walks the reader through the various display rooms of the Salon that year leading up to the ultimate shock of entering the room where this particular work was displayed. Unfortunately, the drama flags once the scandal had exhausted public interest. John Singer Sargent was able to arrange a visit to friends in London and eventually he was able to re-establish himself. The 1884 Salon was the first negative experience he'd had with regard to his work so it was not as difficult for him as for Amelie who had to endure the truly embarrassing treatment by the press. She never recovered the attention and adulation she'd had prior to the exhibition of the portrait.

Her sleek and simple gown looks elegant to us today but its close fit would have suggested to late 19th century viewers that Amelie was not wearing her petticoat, a crucial piece of underwear that any proper young woman would have worn religiously. Although many society portraits at the time fairly dripped with ostentatious displays of family jewelry, there was little here; a diamond crescent in Amelie's hair, a subtly glinting wedding ring. There was little in the way of decorative touches to distract from Amelie's magnificent figure. The lines of her body were so visible, especially in the vicinity of her strapless shoulder that she might as well have been naked --not nude. (pg 171)

Also relevant: The fame of the Portrait of Madame X (a name it acquired officially upon acquisition by the Metropolitan) makes this an interesting story. Davis' doesn't attempt extensive technical or in-depth analysis of any of Sargent's works. Strapless is suited to the casual interest of a lay person but not up to the rigorous expectations of a scholar. There are plenty of footnotes, a bibliography and an index (albeit with a few errors).

Davis helped me to discover more about Sargent that I had known prior to reading the book so it wasn't a waste of time. I found it interesting, but it is true that the time period portrayed was in keeping with other material I'd been reading recently. If I were to assign a rating based on Amazon's stars, I would award it the four stars that indicate that "I liked it" but admit that it was no more than that.