Monday, August 3, 2009

Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X by Deborah Davis

Madame X with her strap painted back into place

The library book group will be meeting this Friday morning at 10:30 a.m. to discuss Strapless. Strapless is the fascinating history of the artist John Singer Sargent and Amelie Gautreau, whose portrait by Sargent is known as Madame X. Davis begins with Amelie's history. Her father was one of the men who revived New Orleans' Mardi Gras parade back in 1857, and they owned Parlange Plantation. After her father's death in the Civil War, Amelie was brought up in Paris during its Belle Epoque and married into a rich family that made its fortune in bat guano, banking and shipping; but this came in handy in a city where "a woman of Amelie's class could spend 40,000 francs a year (more than $100,000 today)" (page 51) on her appearance.

John Singer Sargent had won an honorable mention in the 1879 Paris Salon for a painting of his teacher, Carolus Duran, which meant (fatefully) that the Salon could never reject any of his future entries. After more well received paintings (including a portrait of the gynecologist and womanizer Samuel-Jean Pozzi, another interesting "character" in the book, and El Jaleo, a painting of Spanish dancers), Sargent wanted a painting that would make him famous. Amelie was already a famous beauty, but neither of them were prepared for the outraged reception Madame X would get (mostly because of the suggestive fallen strap of Amelie's evening dress).

No one else has posted discussion questions on the Internet for this book yet, so you're stuck with mine. Enjoy.

Did you "side" with Amelie or Sargent at any point? Did your sympathies change over the course of the book? Or did you feel more like an observer?

What was the most interesting thing you learned from the book?

Why is the portrait known as Madame X instead of "Portrait of Virginie Amelie Gautreau"?

What do you think about the author's theory that Sargent had romantic crushes on Pozzi and Belleroche (see pages 118 and 121 in the paperback edition)? Is it visible in their portraits below? Or do you think we're reading too much into his art?

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