'Selecting, Transforming, Recombining': Madame X and the Aesthetics of Sculptural Corporeality

  • Liz Renes

    Liz Renes

  • July 18, 2017

Madame X, 1884, Image Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (OASC)

Published in Decadence and the Senses (MHRA/Legenda 2017) - here.

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…”

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By Liz Renes