Unmasking 'Madame X'

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 risqué detail that was probably the source of much of the shock the painting produced in Belle Époque 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.'

"And I thought, 'Is this the way it's going to be?' "

But in provincial Brittany, where Gautreau had also lived, Davis struck gold.

A local archivist showed her a detailed financial ledger that belonged to the Gautreau family - "essentially, their American Express bills," Davis says. It helped her unlock Gautreau's "best-kept beauty secret."

For more than a century, it had been rumored that she took small doses of arsenic to maintain her ultra-pale, nearly cadaverous complexion. The records showed the family bought "white rice face powder," a much less exotic - and less dangerous - beauty treatment.

Unearthing Gautreau's wedding license led to Davis's biggest discovery: Gautreau referred to herself as "Amélie," not Virginie. Back in the United States, Davis consulted with the Adelson Galleries in New York - "Sargent central," as Davis calls it - where the painter's catalogue raisonné is being slowly assembled. Adelson had purchased a letter at auction by an Amélie Gautreau, not realizing that it was "Madame X" herself.

"The letter revealed for the first time her feelings about the painting," Davis says.

The letter read in part, "Mr. Sargent has made a masterpiece of the portrait. I am anxious to write this to you, as I am sure he will not tell you so himself."

Davis showed that the stories of Gautreau's displeasure with the painting "were really apocryphal," says Warren Adelson, president of Adelson Galleries and a Sargent scholar. "That's a fairly significant discovery."

Her research has sparked a coming exhibition at Adelson called "Sargent's Women," which will open in November.

And Davis has written a book about her investigation, called "Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X," that will be published Aug. 1.

Not being a professional scholar may have helped her, she says. "I looked in unexpected places." Academics are trained to look for the art, the paintings. "I was peeking behind the painting. I wanted to find the person."

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