American artists in Paris



“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.

After reading of Sargent’s Honorable Mention, I removed George’s award from the frame to get a better photograph.  We were surprised to find hidden behind the award this contact photograph, something George had not seen since the picture was taken in 1974
  • After reading of Sargent’s Honorable Mention, I removed George’s award from the frame to get a better photograph. We were surprised to find hidden behind the award this contact photograph, something George had not seen since the picture was taken in 1974

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.

Carolus-Duran (bearing a remarkable resemblance to Rodrigue) by John Singer Sargent, 1879

In the case of both Sargent and Rodrigue, the American triumphs shocked both the public and the press, specifically the French newspaper Le Figaro, which said of Sargent, “No American has ever painted with such quiet mastery”* and described Rodrigue one hundred years later as “the American Rousseau.”

Each year the French Government presented the five awards: first and second place, and three honorable mentions. In Rodrigue’s case, they shipped the certificate to Governor Edwin Edwards, who presented the award on their behalf. As with Sargent, the win guaranteed him wall space in the following year’s Salon, when Rodrigue entered his original Jolie Blonde (1974).
Jolie Blonde, 1974

John Singer Sargent continued his yearly entries throughout most of his life, often causing a stir at the well-attended societal affair and at least once, a scandal. But he was not the first to shock the high-minded audience.

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.

Olympia by Edouard Manet, 1863
  • Musee d'Orsay
  • 'Olympia' by Edouard Manet, 1863

The Manet caused an uproar, offending all of Paris as vulgar, with the exception of Manet’s good friend, novelist Emile Zola, who wrote, “It will endure as the characteristic expression of his talent, as the highest mark of his power.”

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.

Madam X by John Singer Sargent, 1884
  • The Metropolitan Museum of Art
  • 'Madam X' by John Singer Sargent, 1884

Sargent faced not only the public’s hatred, but also that of Madam Gautreau, who refused to purchase the painting, nearly breaking him financially. As with Manet and Zola, it was an author who came to his defense, his friend Henry James, who wrote of the artist that he saw “each work that he provides in a light of its own,” and that he did not “turn off successive portraits according to some well-tried receipt which has proved useful in the case of their predecessors.”*
John Singer Sargent in His Studio, Paris, late 1800s
  • Smithsonian Archives of American Art
  • John Singer Sargent in His Studio, Paris, late 1800s

The painting, now with two secure straps on its subject’s dress, remained hidden away for more than thirty years in Sargent’s studio, as he worked to repair his reputation as a portrait artist, catering to the upper class families of England and the American northeast. Indeed, Sargent became that rare phenomenon, an artist both critically acclaimed and financially successful throughout most of his life. For years, in fact, he felt trapped by his portraiture and the demands of his patrons and tried unsuccessfully to break away.*
At one point Louises sister asked Sargent to paint Louise out of the composition, insisting it would look better without her.  He refused.  Mrs. Edward Burckhardt and Her Daughter Louise by John Singer Sargent, 1885
  • Private Collection, New Orleans
  • At one point Louise's sister asked Sargent to paint Louise out of the composition, insisting it would look better without her. He refused. 'Mrs. Edward Burckhardt and Her Daughter Louise' by John Singer Sargent, 1885

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York purchased the painting of Amélie Gautreau from the artist in 1916, the year after her death, with Sargent’s condition that they separate the painting from its subject, renaming it Madam X. Far from a scandal today, many consider it Sargent’s masterpiece, indeed perhaps the most famous painting in America’s greatest museum.

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.

'Mrs. Asher B. Wertheimer' by John Singer Sargent, 1898
  • The New Orleans Museum of Art
  • John Singer Sargent, Mrs. Asher B. Wertheimer, 1898

Finally, the spirit of Amélie Gautreau lives on in our city not as Madam X, but as the young girl who once lived here and the stunning woman she became, immortalized not with another painting, but with the uptown restaurant that bears her name.

“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


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