Madame X, 1884, Image Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (OASC)
In Decadence and the Senses, ed. Jane Desmaris and Alice Conde (Legenda Press/MHRA, 2017), 183-199.
When John Singer Sargent exhibited his portrait of Madame X in the 1884 Salon, audiences cried that she resembled a corpse. Indeed, the potash of chlorate mixture gave her skin a lavender tinge, which contrasted strikingly with the dyed red henna in her hair. This eccentric combination is what ultimately incited in Sargent a desire to paint, unsolicited, this ‘great beauty,’ a work that many argue was the downfall of his Parisian career. Susan Sidlauskas’s article about Madame X’s painted skin has explored the historical notion of the ‘professional beauty’ in the wider context of nineteenth century cosmetic practices. Yet aside from Madame X’s penchant for the dramatic, however, lies the underlying focus of the painting – the exposure, to an ‘indecent’ degree, of her skin. My aim will be to explore such white female skin not through its status in social performance, but rather as an altogether different obsession; Aestheticism’s fascination with the whiteness of the sculptural body and its implications of desire and deity, described by Pater as a ‘white light…purged from the empty angry, blood like stains of action and passion, reveals, not what is accidental in man, but the god in him…”
Aestheticism’s discussions on ‘whiteness’ will first be situated within an overall cultural and social context, beginning with Queen Victoria’s choice for a white wedding gown in her marriage to Prince Albert in 1840, which spurred the twinning of whiteness with feminine domestic purity, and a representation of virginal bodies. Aestheticism reacted against such color ethics by looking to associate them with their antagonists - death, decay, and negation. Vernon Lee would examine this more fully in her 1908 discussion on white in ‘Beauty and Sanity’ from Lauris Nobilis, crying, ‘But what if we do not care for white, what if its insipidity sickens us […]?’ That Lee, as a lesbian, would rally against white as a representation of heterosexual love and purity would find support in Pater’s ever present discussions of the ‘whiteness’ of Greek sculpture, which was used by many Aesthetic writers as a blank canvas onto which they could safely project their own same sex desires.
My recent discovery of Sargent’s acknowledgement to Lee that he was reading Pater in 1881 will support my assertion that Sargent’s fascination with the showing and revealing of female skin in his early portraits is a deliberate visual interpretation of his engagement with the Aesthetic concept of the white sculptural body as metaphor for non-normative passion. My discussion will come full circle back to analysis of Madame X, and her intended companion portrait, Mrs. Henry White, which, in their wildly contradictory presentations of female white bodies, represents Sargent’s own thoughts on the accepted versus subversive symbolism of the color. Ultimately, Madame X, in her columnar body and expanse of skin, will act as Sargent’s own ‘white sculptural body,’ advertising his Aesthetic leanings and ultimately, his own ‘curious and bizarre’ pursuits.
By Dr. Liz Renes