STRAPLESS: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X

Deborah Davis, Author . Putnam/Tarcher $24.95 (310p) ISBN 978-1-58542-221-0

John Singer Sargent's portrait Madame X has hung in the Metropolitan Museum of Art for decades, following its scandalous debut in the Paris Salon in 1884, and subsequent retouching of the work to restore the dangling dress strap to the figure's impossibly white bare shoulder. Davis has worked as a story editor and analyst for most of the big film companies, and here seeks the woman behind Sargent's most celebrated, enigmatic profile. Born to Creole New Orleans aristocrats in 1859, Virginie Amelie Gautreau moved to Paris with her family following her father's death, married an older man made rich by the fertilizer trade and cultivated a beauty that, even in fashion-frenzied Paris, earned her widespread fame. She met young John Singer Sargent, a "fellow upstart American," who imagined that, by painting Paris's "most original... most fascinating woman," he would secure his artistic acclaim. After months of laboring, Sargent produced the racier version of Madame X. By Davis's compelling report, the artist worked to deflect the ensuing scandal (partially by painting a glowing icon of flowering innocence), while Amelie slid into social obscurity. "Tyrannized" by the portrait that mocked her fast-fading form, the model obsessively avoided mirrors until her death in 1915. Because historical record will not substantiate a longed-for romance between Sargent and Gautreau, Davis stiffly imports tangential figures such as the seductive gynecologist Samuel-Jean Pozzi to deliver lusty intrigue. Regrettably, her diligent research yields scarcely a word from Amelie; thus, the model remains a strangely weightless heroine, gliding amid this cast of characters like a silent sphinx. (Aug.)

FYI:Other X-iana include Gioia Diliberto's fictional I Am Madame X, published by Scribner in March, and an exhibition of Sargent's women planned to open at New York's Adelson Galleries in November. Davis will make a national author tour.

Reviewed on: 06/09/2003
Release date: 07/01/2003
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