New Orleans, Uncategorized

Louisiana’s Madame X

An impulsive moment brought me to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in November, where I discovered a Louisiana connection. More on that in a moment.

Months ago, before my Instagram account was hacked by someone in Nigeria, I saw an ad for a conversation between Nigella Lawson and Ina Garten in Brooklyn. I thought about it for a week and then bought two tickets. I love their cookbooks, their cooking shows and their social media. And, the last time we were in New York, the Twin Towers still stood. So, why not take a trip to New York City and admire the fall colors?

We spent a beautiful, breezy November week walking across the Brooklyn Bridge, exploring DUMBO, admiring awe-inspiring churches, choking back tears at the 9/11 Museum, visiting the biggest bookstore ever, stepping carefully away from a sidewalk rat, seeing two renowned cooks and rambling through the rain at Central Park before my husband dropped me off at the entrance to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

If you’ve never been to this museum, I have to insist that you go – even if you’re not in the area to see two cooks talk about the danger of cooking with a mandolin.

The museum wasn’t on the itinerary this trip. We’ve been before, and my husband can speed walk through a museum faster than an elderly mall walker. But I really, really wanted to go. I couldn’t stop thinking about that ancient Egyptian temple built thousands of years ago along the Nile and transplanted, block by block, to the Met. I wanted to turn the corner once again for the big reveal of that temple in the middle of Manhattan. So, we compromised. I went to the Met. My husband went to the Carlyle and sat in the sumptuous bar soaking up the atmosphere and chasing away the rain with hot toddies.

If you’ve never been to the Metropolitan, take a moment to study the floor plan and develop a battle plan since this is a huge museum. I circled the galleries containing the art I just had to see. However, I kept getting distracted. I planned, for example, to visit the Astor Chinese Garden Court. I did not plan to be stopped in my tracks by gorgeous, kimono-inspired fashion on my way to the court.

Another distraction was Madame X.

Currently on view in Gallery 771, this stunning portrait by John Singer Sargent features Madame Pierre Gautreau, who was born as Virginie Amélie Avegno in New Orleans on Jan 29, 1859. The painting was considered risque (look at the amount of pale white skin on display, the figure-revealing dress, the strap inching down her shoulder) in the 1880s, prompting Sargent to mask the subject’s identity by referring to her as Madame X.

I wanted to know more about Madame X. A long piece in a December 1984 edition of the Baton Rouge Advocate newspaper filled in the rest of her story.

Amelie was born in New Orleans, supposedly in a house that still stands on Toulouse Street. Today, it’s a towering, salmon-colored townhome worth millions of dollars. No doubt, it was equally as nice in Amelie’s time. That’s it above in a drawing from the Historic New Orleans Collection.

Her father was Anatole Placide Avegno, a merchant’s son who raised his own regiment to fight in the Civil War. Unfortunately, he had a flair for fashion that led him to outfit the regiment in brightly colored uniforms that included flared pantaloons. He stood out on the battlefield and soon was fatally wounded. He tried to get back home only to die on the way.

Her mother was Marie Virginie de Ternant, who spent her childhood drifting between France and her family’s sprawling plantation in Pointe Coupee Parish.

Paris is a common thread in the family history. After Marie Virginie’s father died young, her mother found solace in Paris and retreated there often with her young daughter in tow. Marie Virginie would make the same trek with her own daughter years later after becoming a young widow.

It was in Paris that Amelie became the bride of banker and ship owner Pierre Gautreau (pictured above). Her uncle traveled from Louisiana to walk her down the aisle. Married life didn’t prevent Amelie from making the rounds of Parisian society. She was known for her beauty. Artist Edward Simmons wrote that she “walked as Virgil speaks of goddesses – sliding – and seems to take no steps.”

Amelie also wasn’t shy. She flaunted her cleavage and was rumored to be unfaithful to her husband. At the beach, she hired a strong man to carry her, Cleopatra like, across the hot sands.

As soon as he saw her, Sargent became obsessed with painting her portrait. Her skin, he later said was “uniform lavender or blotting paper color all over.” That would probably be the arsenic Amelie used to drain the color from her skin.

Amelie sat 30 times for the portrait. Sargent was exacting in his approach, even choosing the sassy dress she wore. He was young and ambitious. He wanted this to be a sensation. Both he and Amelie were social climbers. They viewed the portrait as an opportunity to cheekily dazzle French society.

Problems emerged long before the portrait was shown to the public. Sargent tired of Amelie’s “hopeless laziness.” Amelie, no doubt, was restless about the long sittings. She had a young daughter and social engagements. Still, Amelie seemed pleased with Sargent’s work.

The portrait was designed to titillate. In the original version, one dress strap snaked down Amelie’s shoulder. The black dress is a sharp contrast to the sickly shade of porcelain skin on display in an apparent nod to the complexion of consumption patients.

The unveiling at the Salon of 1884 was a disaster. Amelie became a caricature, the Morticia Addams of her day. Critics compared her to a corpse. “The bluish coloring atrocious,” the New York Times sniped.

Amelie’s mother was mortified, saying her daughter was lost. Certainly, society shunned Amelie, forcing her to take the arm of low ranking escorts when she went to the opera. Sargent fled to London, taking the painting with him. His ambition took a deep dive.

It wasn’t until 1916 that he sold the painting to the Met. All those years later, the debacle was fresh in his mind. He didn’t want Amelie’s name attached to the portrait because of “the row I had with the lady years ago.” Amelie became Madame X. Today, the museum identifies her as Madame Pierre Gautreau. Sargent restored the fallen dress strap to its proper place on her shoulder before relinquishing what he called his best work.

Amelie died a year before her portrait made its way to the Met. She outlived her husband and daughter even though she was only 56 when she died. She’s buried in France, the country that shunned her allure. Today, she’s a sensation.


6 thoughts on “Louisiana’s Madame X”

  1. The details in this story are fascinating. I actually had to look up the practice of bleaching one’s skin with arsenic, as I’d certainly never heard of such a thing. It’s interesting how standards of beauty change over the years; I’d never consider pale white skin to be more attractive than one’s natural color, whatever that may be on the spectrum of lovely skin tones. Anyway, thank you for this tale! (Also, I do appreciate your husband’s desire to sit in the Carlyle and chase away the rain with hot toddies. That sounds quite poetic and fun!)

  2. I love your site. I am the only one in my family really interested in genealogy and as a Louisiana girl (and artist) myself, this article was so fun to run across. I love your flair for storytelling and I can’t wait to read more of your work.

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