John Singer Sargent and Madame X in Paris

I am Madame X by Gioia Diliberto


I first read Gioia Diliberto’s  I Am Madame X back in 2004. I might have even picked it as a book club read. It’s a fabulous Belle Epoque novel about the life and times of the celebrated 19th century American portrait artist John Singer Sargent and his most infamous model, American beauty Virginie Gautreau.

I read it again recently, because John Singer Sargent’s name keeps popping up on my travels through Paris art history. This book is even better the second time around, especially now that I know my way around Paris and I can really appreciate what it meant to be a Left Bank artist versus a Right Bank Artist.

John Singer Sargent had the best of both worlds.

He was the son of a wealthy, cosmopolitan American family that had lived abroad for decades by the time they arrived in Paris in 1874. They settled into a posh Right Bank apartment near the Champs-Élysées, which has since become a commercial building at 52 rue La Boétie. Sargent’s father took him to meet the young teaching master Carolus-Duran, who ran a popular Left Bank painting atelier in the heart of Montparnasse.

Sargent was only 18 years old, but he was already bursting with talent. He quickly earned the admiration of his fellow students and within a year was accepted at the rigorous L’Ecole des Beaux Arts. In 1875, Sargent moved out of the family’s home and into a fifth-floor studio apartment at 73 rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs with fellow art student James Carroll Beckwith.

The young American artists had found a promising location. The studios at 73 rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs had also housed the famous French painter Jean-Paul Laurens, while 75 was the mansion-atelier of Adolphe William Bourguereau. By the 1860s, this small, winding road had already been nicknamed “the royal road of painting.” Even today, the address looks inspiring. It still has an impressive entrance and an inviting green courtyard.

Sargent, Beckwith and their pals led a young bohemian life in the Left Bank. They worked hard but still had time for wild evenings, moving the easels aside for dancing and drinking right in the studio. Sargent was known for entertaining his guests on a rented piano. On Sunday nights, they would clean themselves up for  a proper dinner party at Sargent’s family’s home with “educated and agreeable” conversation.

73 rue des Notre-Dame-des-Champs, once the art studio of John Singer Sargent

Courtyard of 73-75 rue Notre-Dame-des-Petit-Champs. Back in the 1870s, the gardens probably went all the way through to Luxembourg Gardens

John Singer Sargent, Portrait of Carolus-Duran (1879)

In 1879, Sargent painted the portrait of his art teacher Carolus-Duran, and it absolutely launched his career. It was bold, theatrical, and presented a stunning likeness in both spirit and physicality. Sargent was only 23 years old and already one of the best portrait artists in France.

In Diliberto’s novel, Sargent meets the future Madame X at a Montparnasse restaurant. In reality, they may have met when Gautreau attended an informal party at Sargent’s studio on rue de Notre-Dame-des-Champs in 1881. Sargent was celebrating the completion of his portrait of Dr. Pozzi, one of Gautreau’s many reputed lovers. According to Diliberto, Gautreau was shocked by Sargent’s portrayal of Dr. Pozzi, a charismatic ladies man (and gynecologist) who had ungraciously tossed her aside before her marriage to Pierre Gautreau:

On an easel near the French doors stood Sargent’s painting of Dr. Pozzi. It looked like a portrait of the devil. Virtually the entire canvas was red – the sumptuous curtains in the background, the carpeted floor. The doctor himself was dressed in red slippers and the red wool dressing gown that I had seen him wear dozens of times. His pose was hypertheatrical; his face was caught in an intense observance of an object outside the canvas, and his elongated fingers tugged nervously at his collar and the drawstring of his robe. His fingers were as sharp as pincers and seemed spotted with blood. Had Pozzi just performed a gynecological operation? Deflowered a virgin?

I just love how Diliberto gave Gautreau such a blunt and penetrating voice. She is clearly no innocent about men, or for that matter, about Sargent’s ability to portray a model’s true character.

John Singer Sargent, Dr. Pozzi at Home (1881)

Sargent was determined to get the chance to paint Gautreau’s portrait. He obviously understood the PR value of painting the “professional beauty” who was the focus of such much attention and gossip in the affluent social circles of Paris. Gautreau thought about giving her business to other more traditional French portrait artists, but she may have felt a special connection to Sargent. They were both up-and-coming Americans with something to prove to the French.

In the meantime, steady commissions enabled Sargent to buy a large, new home and studio on the Right Bank, closer to all of his wealthy patrons. In the winter of 1883-84, Sargent moved to 41 boulevard Berthier, on the shaded side of a wide street whose light made it a popular location for art studios. It wasn’t far from the new mansions near Parc Monceau, and in fact just a few blocks from Madame Gautreau who lived at 80 rue Jouffroy d’Abbans.

In The Greater Journey, David McCullough describes Sargent’s new Right Bank studio:

. . .  a workplace elegantly furnished with comfortably upholstered chairs, Persian rugs, and drapery befitting his new professional standing, and with an upright piano against one wall, . . .

No longer would Sargent’s patrons have to track through the mud and past the questionable bohemians on rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs.

41 boulevard Berthier has been replaced by a newer building, but this one next door is a good example of the types of buildings that once dominated the street, with large windows  and skylights on the top floors.  It was on this street that Virginie Gautreau would have gone to pose for her portrait.

Parc Monceau in the 17th, the center of the fashionable new Plaine Monceau area of the 1870s-80s. Monet painted this park several times.

80 rue Jouffroy, the home of Virginie and Pierre Gautreau in the 1880s.

By 1883, Gautreau finally agreed to pose for Sargent. He talked her into wearing a black dress that would highlight her unusual color, which included rouged ears, white pastey skin (thanks to lavender skin cream) and brightly hennaed hair. At the end of the day, Sargent may have painted her color a little too well. He captured her true character, just like he had with Dr. Pozzi. Her pose was so confident it seemed haughty.

But the strap was the last straw. The painting we know now, as it appears at the Metropolitan Museum in New Yorkwas retouched. The original painting looked like this – a little risqué, no doubt, but more balanced and much more interesting.

Nevertheless, it was a disaster at the 1884 salon. “Quelle horreur!” said polite Paris society. One critic said the flesh “more resembles the flesh of a dead than a living body.”

Sargent soon left for the summer in London while Gautreau disappeared to Brittany, far from the judgment of Paris. Sargent would keep his Paris studio on boulevard Berthier for two more years, where he proudly displayed Madame X. 

Although Sargent may have misjudged the limits of Right Bank tolerance and underestimated their hypocrisy (after all, many of the traditional paintings in the Salon were nudes, and they’re complaining about a little strap?), he would later say that Madame X was “the best thing I have done.”

John Singer Sargent in his boulevard Berthier studio with a retouched Madame X. The strap is repainted.

If your read I am Madame X you will find out much more about Virginie Gautreau: her New Oreans background, her family’s escape to Paris during the Civil War, her early years in a Paris convent school. It’s a well-told story in the voice of a fascinating woman.

 I am Madame X by Gioia Diliberto: HIghly recommended.

The Hadley Hemingway Tour

American women just love The Paris Wife. Perhaps we’ve read Moveable Feast or maybe we just heard the buzz through our book club, but it seems we just love getting the scoop on Ernest Hemingway through the eyes of his first wife Hadley.

As most readers seem to have heard by now, The Paris Wife by Paula McLain (Ballantine Books 2011) is about Ernest and Hadley Hemingway’s brief but passionate years together in Paris in the early 20s. Ernest Hemingway was a charismatic and gifted writer, the genius of his generation, but he was also a narcissist, a cheater and a big drinker. No one better to deal the dirt than the first wife.

 In addition to The Paris Wife, there’s an excellent nonfiction book about the same years called Paris Without End by Gioia Diliberto (Harper Perennial 2011). One of my favorite authors (she’s also written I Am Madame X, The Collection and A Useful Woman), Diliberto’s nonfiction format  allows us to know more about Ernest’s developing affair with Pauline Pfeiffer than Hadley did at the time, back when Hadley was in the dark – or in denial, or a little of both. Diliberto is also able to compare the fictional events and characters in Hemingway’s stories to the real stuff going on in his life, which is a real bonus if you’re familiar with his work.

Whether you prefer the fictional drama in The Paris Wife or a more thorough nonfictional approach in Paris Without End, you’re sure to enjoy some of these Paris photographs, depicting scenes from both books. You can’t find a better Paris walk than the neighborhoods of the Latin Quarter, St. Germain and the Luxembourg Gardens. You can follow along on a Google Map here.

Ernest and Hadley moved into this apartment, at 74 rue du Cardinal-Lemoine in a working-class neighborhood of the 5th arrondissement in January, 1922. It was a two-room flat on the fourth floor without hot water or a private toilet. Hadley later said that "the apartment wasn't ghastly. In fact, it was kind of fun." She remembered that "The steep winding staircase had a niche on each flight for a step-on-two-pedals toilet."

The shop with the green awning below the Hemingways' window was once a loud and popular dance hall called Le Bal du Printemps. Ernest described it as a "noisy, rough music hall and hangout for sailor, whores, 'apaches' (French gang members) and American expatriates, who nicknamed it 'Bucket of Blood.' "

Ernest Hemingway rented an attic apartment in this building at 39 rue Descartes from 1921-1922. It served as his getaway and writing studio, and was just around the corner from his apartment with Hadley.

The plaque on the building at 39 rue Descartes giving recognition to Ernest Hemingway, although it does not appear that Hemingway continued to rent the studio after 1922.

Hadley and Ernest left Paris in August 1923 to have their baby "Bumby" in Toronto. When they returned in January 1924, they found another fairly shabby apartment at 113 rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs. It was a carpenter's loft over a working sawmill. The sawmill was torn down long ago and was replaced with the uninspiring school buildings that you see today.

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The front door of the Les Blés D'Ange bakery at 151 Bis boulevard Montparnasse. Just like Ernest and Hadley, I cut through myself and stopped to buy a croissant, which I enjoyed on a bench right outside the bakery.

Ernest had no separate writing studio while they lived in the sawmill loft, , so he spent hours at the nearby café, La Closerie des Lilas, 171 boulevard du Montparnasse. You can go there today and try for the seat with the Hemingway plaque.

While Ernest worked away at Closerie des Lilas, Hadley and little Bumby would escape the apartment and go to the nearby Luxembourg Gardens. I could picture little Bumby trying to scramble around on this old tree, which certainly looks as if it would have been around in 1925.

Hemingway tended to embellish the extent of his and Hadley's poverty during their Paris years. Ernest claimed that he sometimes killed pigeons in the Luxembourg Gardens and brought them home to eat. Hadley said that wasn't true.

The site of Hadley's first post-separation apartment at 35 rue de Fleurus near boulevard Raspail. The building was torn down and the address is now a part of Alliance Française. Hadley and Ernest separated in August 1925 after it became clear that Ernest's affair with Pauline Pfeiffer would not just die out. When Ernest and Hadley first separated, he stayed in a studio loaned to him by Gerald Murphy on rue Froievaux, and Hadley stayed in the Hotel Beauvoir on avenue l'Observatoire. In October 1925, Hadley and Bumby moved in their solo apartment, which was only two doors down from Gertrude Stein.

According to Gioia Diliberto, Hadley couldn't bear to go back to their sawmill apartment, so Ernest made several trips with a handcart in order to deliver her things to her on rue de Fleurus. He is said to have pushed the handcart "weeping down the street."

Ernest and Pauline marry in May, 1926 and move into a posh apartment on rue Férou, a quiet street that leads down from the Luxembourg Gardens into Place Saint Sulpice.

Ernest and Pauline's home at 6 rue Férou, which was paid for by Pauline's uncle. According to Gioia Diliberto, it was "lavishly furnished with antiques by the bride." Pretty obvious that Ernest is no starving bohemian anymore. Nevertheless, Hadley continued to have a friendly relationship with Ernest and Pauline, and often sent Bumby to stay with them here.

I would never have been able to piece together this Hadley Hemingway tour without the help of Walks in Hemingway’s Paris: A Guide to Paris for the Literary Traveler by Noel Riley Fitch, which I highly recommend. This guide is incredibly complete, and includes walking tours of Saint Germain, Montparnasse, L’Odeon, Hemingway’s Right Bank and more. I can’t imagine a better way to explore Paris.