The life of Virginie Gautreau, the notorious beauty of Madame X, John Singer Sargent's most famous and scandalous portrait, provides inspiration for this absorbing and intriguing novel.
Madame X caused an immediate furor when Sargent unveiled it at the 1884 Paris Salon. The subject's bold pose, provocative dress, and decadent pallor shocked the public, and the critics panned the picture, smashing Sargent's dream of a Paris career. The artist soon relocated to England, where he established himself as the favorite portrait painter of the wealthy.
In this remarkable novel, Gioia Diliberto tells Virginie's story, drawing on the sketchy facts of Virginie's life to re-create her tempestuous personality and the captivating milieu of nineteenth-century Paris. Born in New Orleans to two of Louisiana's prominent Creole families and raised at Parlange, her grandmother's lush plantation, Virginie fled to France with her mother and sister during the Civil War. The family settled in Paris among other expatriate Southerners and hoped, through their French ancestry, to insinuate themselves into high society. They soon were absorbed into the fascinating and wealthy world of grand ballrooms, dressmakers' salons, luxurious country estates, and artists' ateliers. Because of Virginie's striking appearance and vivid character, her mother pinned the family's hopes for social acceptance on her daughter, who became a "professional beauty" and married a French banker. Even before Sargent painted her portrait, Virginie's reputation for promiscuity and showy self-display made her the subject of vicious Paris gossip.
I Am Madame X is a compulsively readable immersion in Belle Epoque Paris. It is also the story of a great work of art, illuminating the struggle between Virginie and Sargent as they fought to control the outcome of a painting that changed their lives and affected the course of art history.
Paris gasped and gossiped when John Singer Sargent's portrait of Madame X was first exhibited in 1884. Everyone knew the subject was the notorious Virginie Gatreau, and Sargent's shocking depiction posed in profile, the woman boasts bare shoulders, deep d colletage and an exotically pale complexion intimately suggested her vanity, arrogance and sexuality. In her first novel (after biographies of Jane Addams, Hadley Hemingway and Brenda Frazier), Diliberto competently imagines Gatreau's controversial life. During the Civil War, six-year-old Virginie, her younger sister and her widowed mother flee the Union soldiers approaching her grandmother's sugar plantation in Louisiana. As an expatriate in Paris, Virginie (or Mimi, as she is called) becomes a "professional beauty," someone who is "received in the best society but ha no other occupation, no other ambition than to be beautiful." At 15, she begins trysting with a married doctor. Pregnant, she hastily marries social climber Pierre Gatreau (and then suffers a miscarriage). Later, she has an affair with French Republican leader Leon Gambetta. Her life is filled with tragedy: the shame of pregnancy, the death of her sister from typhoid and her emotional isolation. Her only trustworthy relative is her Aunt Julie, who refuses to marry and becomes a professional artist; Virginie's narcissistic mother uses her daughter to get into the top echelons of society. This fast scroll through history (the Civil War, the fall of the French Second Empire, the belle poque, etc.) against a backdrop of parties, salons, operas, artists' studios and sexual escapades is inviting for its wealth of well-researched period details, but limited by its narrator's sensibility. In this evocation, Virginie Gatreau never becomes anything more than a shallow object of beauty.