Editor's note: The following essay, with notes, was rekeyed and reprinted on July 1, 2002 in Resource Library Magazine with permission of the author, Lynette Abel. Images accompanying the text in the author's website at http://www.lynetteabel.org/Art.html were not reproduced with this reprinting. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay please contact the author through her Web address.


Sargent's "Madame X"; or, Assertion and Retreat in Woman

by Lynette Abel 


I have loved this portrait of Madame Pierre Gautreau by the American painter, John Singer Sargent, titled Madame X, since the first time I saw it. 

Aesthetic Realism taught me that what makes a work of art beautiful is what we are hoping for in our lives. "All beauty," Eli Siegel stated, "is a making one of opposites; and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves." I have come to see that Sargent's dramatic portrait makes a one of opposites I was longing to make sense of in myself. 

In his essay "A Woman Is the Oneness of Aesthetic Opposites,"  Mr. Siegel writes about 15 pairs of opposites in women.  And this is what he writes about "Advancing: Recessive": 

Towards something is in the feminine mind importantly: the future as outward and to be visited and had.  But how much retreat is in woman, too, the unseen sinking, the leaving for a previously chosen background.

I think Sargent's Madame X is an opportunity to study these opposites, which all women have.  Sargent shows a haughty woman, ostentatious in her black satin dress with its jeweled straps--it reveals and hides at once.  This portrait, when it first appeared at the Paris Salon in 1884, shocked people and caused such a scandal that Sargent had to withdraw it.  Yet, if all this painting showed was ostentation, I believe Sargent wouldn't have said, when he sold it to the Metropolitan Museum in 1916, "I suppose it is the best thing I have done."  It was at this time that Sargent asked that the title of the painting be changed to Madame X.  The name Madame X is both more assertive in its dramatic quality and also more mysterious, and, accenting the impersonal, it makes this portrait seem to stand for the idea of woman as such. 

In an Aesthetic Realism class, Eli Siegel so kindly asked me:  "Do you believe you have a fight between showing off and retreating?"  "Yes," I said.  Mr. Siegel continued:  "You don't know whether to show off or to go into yourself.... [Are there] two different motions [in you] at the same time--ostentation and retreat?"  There definitely were. 

For instance, I wanted a man to think I was the most charming woman he had ever known--that as I walked into a room I would be the center of interest.  And at the same time I also wanted to retreat, be aloof--if I did have to talk to a man my mind would go blank--I had nothing to say.  Having this purpose, which I learned was contempt--wanting to have a big effect while at the same time retreating and hiding from the world around me--made for great discomfort and pain in my life.  I think in this portrait Sargent shows powerfully that the opposites of assertion and retreat can be beautifully one.  The artist's purpose is to respect the world through wanting to see it as it truly is, and this is the only purpose which will enable a woman to put these opposites together beautifully in herself. 

As I was writing this paper, I was thrilled to learn that Mr. Siegel had spoken of John Singer Sargent in an Aesthetic Realism lesson given to a young woman.  He asked her, "Do you believe that a self is a oneness of the greatest outwardness and the greatest inwardness?"  And he explained:  "There are two qualities.  Take the ladies of John Singer Sargent--they're very demure, the ladies of 1905, and then also they express themselves.

There are Mrs. I.N. Phelps Stokes; The Misses Vickers; Lady Agnew; and there is Madame X."

One of the first things that struck me about Madame X was the stark contrast between black and white.  There is assertion and showiness in the expanse of very white skin, from her high forehead down her graceful neck, shoulders, and arms.  At the same time, though the black of her dress is bold, it is also receding, deep, mysterious.   She is surrounded too by brown, which while accenting the muted, is not just recessive--its rich color has both glow and shadow. 

Madame Gautreau was one of Paris's notorious beauties.  She wore lavender powder and prided herself exceedingly on her appearance.  In The Metropolitan Museum of Art Favorite Paintings, I was affected to read this commentary on her by A. Hyatt Mayer: 

Her studied, indifferent, statuesque presence stopped parties, stopped traffic in the street....But one day on the beach at Cannes, Madame Gautreau overheard a woman say that she was beginning to look worn.  She drove in a closed carriage to her hotel, took a darkened compartment on the train to Paris, and shut herself up for the rest of her life in dim rooms without mirrors.

       I think Madame Gautreau would have felt comprehended, as I did, by questions Eli Siegel asked me, including: "Do you think [there can be] an accuracy in going forward and retreating--of being ourselves from within and also showing ourselves?  There has been great discomfort because people have wanted to retreat....Do you think everything can be done with a oneness of advance and retreat?"

"Yes," I said. 

And Mr. Siegel asked me: "Can you show off discreetly?  Try to show off gracefully?"

I have been asking as I looked at this painting, "What does it mean to show off gracefully?"  And I have seen what Aesthetic Realism teaches--that if a woman's conscious purpose is to know and like the world and have other persons like it, she will assert herself in a way that is graceful.  And I am so glad to be learning more about this in my happy marriage to writer and Aesthetic Realism associate, Michael Palmer. 

An important element central to the beauty of this painting is the way Sargent posed his subject--which I learned was not come to easily.  In a biography of Sargent, Stanley Olson writes: 

He sketched her seated in a contorted pose.  He sketched her with her head raised, then lowered looking at a book, then playing the piano.  He did...her seated in a different posture, and a brisk oil study of her holding out a champagne glass at a table.  In desperation he drew her back as she kneeled on a sofa looking out of the window.  Finally he asked her to stand beside an Empire table, twisted into a conscious profile. 

Sargent chose this pose for Madame Gautreau carefully: her body boldly facing forward while her head is turned in profile. A profile by its very nature is both assertion and retreat--half of one's face is hidden while at the same time, the part that shows can seem more defined than full face.  In placing her head in profile, Sargent has technically put together the very opposites that have troubled many women--including the subject for this painting, and myself.  Eli Siegel pointed out in a class once, "The profile of a person is the more intellectual part because the angle seems to stand more for thought."  So, in this painting flesh and thought are together. 

One of the reasons I am so affected by Madame X is that Sargent was trying to present this woman with entirety --there is a mingling of admiration, criticism and comprehension.  One notices a very pink ear, as if she is listening--and listening is yielding.  Was there something she was burning to hear?  I was affected to see that the means by which reality enables us to take in the world, Sargent has highlighted in this lady with the warm colors of pink and red: her eye, nose, mouth and hands. 

And I was thrilled to see what my colleague, Dorothy Koppelman, pointed out to me--that even the most abstract thing in this painting--space--puts together assertion and retreat.  The space between the arm that leans on the table and her dress has the same form as the most prominent thing in this painting--her nose: it goes out and in. 

Assertion and retreat are in the way Sargent has contrasted and yet related the two sides of Madame Gautreau.  Her left side is a sharply delineated outline from the top of her head down her nose and chin and all the way down her arm.  We feel the assertion in this woman.  Her other arm recedes as she leans back, with the modeling of soft shadowy contours down her arm.  I'm particularly affected by the way this arm is at once forward and back, showy and retreating in its gentle turning motion.  She is depending on the table but she is also assertively grasping it. 

Sargent shows that Madame Gautreau, in her haughtiness, needs that table.  I learned from Aesthetic Realism a woman needs the world to express and show herself truly. 

The table too, advances and retreats.  It is the same and different from Mme Gautreau.  The curves and angles of her body are like the curves and angles of the delicate though rather sturdy table she is leaning on.  The curve of the table top is like the curves in the bodice of her dress.  The curve at the base of the table is continued in reverse by the hem of her dress. 

Assertion and retreat are made one also in the way the receding curve of the table is highlighted while the advancing curve of her dress is dark.  The twist of the table leg, called knuring, in the foreground is like the gentle twisting of her arm.

This arm is continued by the vertical line of the table leg in the background, appearing almost as an extension of that arm; something sinuous and bright is supported by something straight in the shadows. 

And Sargent uses color to continue this relation of woman and table.  Her reddish, brown hair is like the table; the bright gold highlight on its edge is like the bright gold ornament on the top of her hair.  

How different this portrait would be were that table absent.  We see her with more power, more depth of meaning because of it.  One of the things I see from this is that in order to show oneself gracefully, you have to be proud of your need for something else--the world.  I thank Eli Siegel and Aesthetic Realism for enabling me to feel this pride so richly and deeply. 


About the author

Lynette Abel is an associate of Aesthetic Realism and a writer. Her articles on love, road rage, and economics have appeared in many newspapers throughout the United States. She lives in New York City with her husband, Michael Palmer.

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