Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Unmasking 'Madame X'

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Unmasking 'Madame X'

Article excerpt

Scholars aren't the only ones who have unraveled mysteries surrounding great art and great artists. An amateur with a little Nancy Drew-like curiosity and determination can go a long way.

That was true for Deborah Davis, whose background is not in art but as a story editor and script analyst for movie companies like Warner Bros., Disney, and Miramax. A few years ago, she had borrowed a designer dress - black, chic, with jeweled straps - to attend the Golden Globe awards. Wearing it had reminded her of a character in a famous painting, and she searched through art books until she found it: "Madame X," a portrait by the virtuoso 19th-century American painter John Singer Sargent.

It was a portrait of a young American woman living in Paris, Virginie Gautreau. That much was known - but little else - about Gautreau and the circumstances surrounding the painting, except that it had caused a scandal when it was first shown at the Paris Salon in 1884.

The more Ms. Davis read, the more she became fascinated.

Trevor Fairbrother, a Sargent scholar, solved a major piece of the puzzle in 1981. He found evidence that the portrait had originally been painted with one of the straps of Gautreau's gown falling down over her shoulder, a risque detail that was probably the source of much of the shock the painting produced in Belle Epoque Paris. After the show, Sargent had touched it up, moving the strap back over her shoulder. That is the way it appears today on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

But what was "Madame X" really like, and what did she think of Sargent's painting of her? Davis went to France in search of answers. In Paris, she sought out places associated with Gautreau.

"I literally walked around with her picture and asked people if they'd ever heard of her," she says in a phone interview. "It was kind of a futile exercise."

Her worst moment came when she went to an address where Madame X had lived. She saw a butcher shop called "Gautreau."

Amazed at her luck, she went inside, showed the butcher a picture of Virginie, and asked him if he knew anything about Madame Gautreau.

"The butcher looked at me in great bewilderment and went in the back room and came out with his portly wife and said, 'No, this is Madame Gautreau. …

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