Virginie Gautreau: Alabaster and Lavender Décolletage

To be immortalised, frozen in time as a great beauty and muse to a great artist would appeal to anyone. For one woman, this dream proved to be meaningless. Virginie Gautreau.

Born Virginie Amelie Avegno on 29th January 1859 in New Orleans. After her father was killed during the civil war, aged 8 she and her mother moved to Paris. Acceptance into Parisian high society was highly coveted. Marriage to the wealthy Pierre Gautreau, meant that  Gautreau would be living in absolute luxury. Through out history, the desire to not just keep up with your but to out do them is nothing new. One only needs to look at the current batch of celebrities, to be part of any beauty regiment is tolerable. To be a trendsetter is a far more valuable prize. Gautreau stood out from other socialites; dark hair (dyed using henna) pale complexion (enhanced by her use of lavender powder), fine facial features and the all important hourglass figure.

Attracting much admiration from her fellow Parisians for her unique appearance. It makes sense that artists would take note of Madame Gautreau and want to use her to pose for them. So to have three renowned artists want to paint you, is a privilege few will ever enjoy. Sure, she was captured on canvas by Gustave Courtois and Antonio de la Gandara (bottom picture). However it was the famous painting ‘Madame X’ by John Sargeant (top picture) were she won her place in art history. Enamored by her striking appearance, Sargeant offered to paint Gautreau. ‘Madame X’ was unveiled in 1884 at the Paris Salon. Now when one sees ‘Madame X’ now, you would be hard pressed to find anything offensive. So to imagine that such a painting would scandalise Paris society is nearly impossible. Many were appalled by her skin colour, her ‘skimpy’ dress, her décolletage and her bare shoulders. Gautreau was publicly humiliated by the negative reaction.

Gautreau passed away in Cannes on 25th June 1915 aged 56. As time has passed, Gautreau is remembered in a more flattering light, the feverish reaction long forgotten. Now her beauty can be admired, simply and without fuss.

John Singer Sargeant 'Madame X' II

antonio de la gandera virginie gautreau



One comment

  1. At the time — jewelry was a huge piece of portrait “fashion”. She wore none. The shoulder strap which had originally been painted as fallen off her shoulder was a hastily repainted up. Both Sargent and Gautreau thought this portrait was going to leap frog them into Parisian society. Gautreau was humiliated and Sargent moved from Paris to London. He always said that it was his best work…

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