Portrait Gallery: Madam X - Poem by Chuck Toll
How much do artists know, truly and deeply know?
Is their understanding of the eye and the hand,
or does it spring from the heart or head?
Take John Singer Sargent, for example, at 28
Comfortably ensconced in Parisienne society
With enough commissions to make VanGogh cry.
Young but talented, already a consummate painter
And recognized as such, which really matters!
His portraits, they’re honest even as they flatter.
Sargent is a master of brushstroke, graceful lines,
And striking arrangements. He’s one whose work
Dominates a wall rather than merely decorates it.
He spies a beauty, a darling of Parisian society,
Mme. Virginie Pierre Gautrau, American by birth,
But Creole and monied, plus her French is perfect.
He must paint her! The introductions are made.
He pleads, she agrees. Even before he begins
He knows this painting will be a true masterpiece!
Sargent doesn’t rush things: he plans; he sketches;
He tries various poses and outfits (she loves that part) :
He defers to her social engagements, which are legion.
As days stretch into weeks, and weeks into months,
Mme grows bored with the project. For his part, Sargent
Remains excited about the project but bored with her.
Now she stands in a subtle curve, one hand on a table.
Face in profile, alabaster skin set off by sleek black dress
And dark background, the jeweled straps of her gown glow.
Both artist and subject are pleased with the finished work.
Arrangements are made to enter it in this year’s salon
Where in years past his entries have been well received.
* * * * *
The execution begins moments after the Salon doors open.
People stand silent before the painting ‘Portrait of Mme****’
The critics, hearing the thunderous silence, press closer.
What do they see? A violation of taste, of decency, of …
Everything! Carnality personified in all its suggestive
And forbidden allure—and in one of their own!
They see a siren buxom yet so narrow at the waist,
The twist of her body suggesting how it might writhe
Under other circumstances, the velveteen black dress
So palpable against the chalky skin, turning the mind
To what it hides, why, it could have been added later
As an afterthought, and look at the right hand strap
Fallen off her shoulder, perhaps she had just come
From writhing, perhaps the other strap will likewise fall
and she will be writhing shortly, and to top it all
A head in feral profile, sharp little teeth hidden,
Without expression or thought, both unnecessary,
And, see, the dresstop shapes a heart over the breasts!
Praxiliteles would praise the ‘S’ curve of the body,
But its effect here is far from elegant or classical.
It is lewd and prurient—and in one of our own!
* * * * *
Mystified by the silent mutters and furtive stares, Sargent
Still knows he has not reached his audience as he planned,
Or perhaps he has connected in ways they cannot discuss.
Horrified, he withdraws the painting from the showing
And, back in his studio, stares at his disgraced work,
Then repaints the shoulder strap back in its proper place.
He retitles, too: ‘Portrait of Mme X’, less like a secret
And more like a model. Then he reads the first reviews.
'Portrait of Mme X, ' strap in place, does not return to the Salon.
So the Parisian art scene in furor turns on a favored son.
The girl, seeing the work in a different light, is in hysterics.
The family wants to buy the painting to destroy it.
Soon there is talk of multiple lawsuits as well.
So sargent departs Paris immediately and silently,
Carrying his seven foot Madam X with him,
He settles in London where, well known in social circles,
He is quickly embraced and shortly back in business
Painting portraits of individuals and families that matter.
Toward the end of the nineteenth century and for nearly
Two decades into the twentieth, there was no artist more
Popular or prosperous than John Singer Sargent.
He kept Madam X until he was a old man, finally selling
It to New York’s Museum of Art. He wrote that it was
Probably the best work he ever did. But what did he know?
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