My Favourite Painting: Philip Hooper

Philip Hooper of Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler chooses a beguiling portrait: Madame X.

Philip Hooper on Madame X by John Singer Sargent

‘Madame X had me frozen to the spot when I saw her first at The Met. I was unprepared for the scale, the luminosity and the strength of the composition — she hangs alone on the museum walls in a heavy gold frame evoking the excesses of fin-de-siècle Paris, a hint of henna in the hair glowing against her chalky skin and a haughty expression hinting at boredom and mischief.

‘As she looks out beyond the canvas, I can imagine her snapping her fan and demanding another glass of absinthe as she covets the jewelled Lalique combs in her lover’s hair–the air heavy with the scent of tuberose and scandal. Divine decadence, indeed.’

Philip Hooper is joint managing director of interior-design firm Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler.

Charlotte Mullins comments on Madame X

When Madame X was first exhibited at the 1884 Salon in Paris, John Singer Sargent had high hopes for it. He wanted the painting to bring him lucrative commissions, but, instead, it provoked ridicule, causing Sargent to flee to England, where he remained for the rest of his life.

Madame X wasn’t a commissioned portrait, but rather a collaboration between artist and sitter. Louisiana-born Virginie Avegno was married to the wealthy French banker Pierre Gautreau; Sargent had been born to American parents, but raised in Europe. He was popular with expatriate Americans living in Paris and thought painting Madame Gautreau would be good for business. She adopted a striking pose, her body encased in a black satin evening gown, her neck twisted to reveal a dramatic profile.

The uproar when the work was unveiled was provoked both by the colour of her skin — deathly and ‘decomposed’ — and the cut of the dress. Her low décolletage was emphasised by the right shoulder strap, originally painted as if it had slipped off her shoulder. (This raciness was echoed in 1994, when Liz Hurley wore a similarly curvaceous black dress, this time by Versace and held together by gold safety pins, to a film premiere.) Gautreau pleaded with Sargent to have the painting removed, but he refused, although he did try to protect her identity by exhibiting it as Madame X. After the show, he quickly repainted the shoulder strap, but he didn’t exhibit the painting publicly again for more than 20 years.

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