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I Am Madame X: A Novel Paperback – May 11, 2004
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Mystery is often more alluring than knowledge. A fictional memoir of the legendary American-born beauty Virginie Gautreau, the subject of John Singer Sargent's famous 1884 painting, Portrait of Madame X, Gioia Diliberto's I Am Madame X risks dashing cold water on one of the loveliest and most persistent mysteries in Western art history: what the model is thinking. Following in the footsteps of Tracy Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring, though with much more historical documentation at her disposal, Diliberto gives voice to a woman whose memory rests on this single painting. A gem of Belle Époque Paris, Virginie Gautreau had fled Louisiana with her mother during the Civil War. Married at a young age to a French banker, she attracted every kind of attention with her unusual beauty and her daring fashion sense. Her affairs were widely whispered about. Diliberto presents a vivid picture of Virginie's life and times, and brings to life one model's troubled but stimulating relationship with the artist who immortalized her. --Regina Marler --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.
From Publishers Weekly
Paris gasped and gossiped when John Singer Sargent's portrait of Madame X was first exhibited in 1884. Everyone knew the subject was the notorious Virginie Gatreau, and Sargent's shocking depiction-posed in profile, the woman boasts bare shoulders, deep decolletage and an exotically pale complexion-intimately suggested her vanity, arrogance and sexuality. In her first novel (after biographies of Jane Addams, Hadley Hemingway and Brenda Frazier), Diliberto competently imagines Gatreau's controversial life. During the Civil War, six-year-old Virginie, her younger sister and her widowed mother flee the Union soldiers approaching her grandmother's sugar plantation in Louisiana. As an expatriate in Paris, Virginie (or Mimi, as she is called) becomes a "professional beauty," someone who is "received in the best society but ha[s] no other occupation, no other ambition than to be beautiful." At 15, she begins trysting with a married doctor. Pregnant, she hastily marries social climber Pierre Gatreau (and then suffers a miscarriage). Later, she has an affair with French Republican leader Leon Gambetta. Her life is filled with tragedy: the shame of pregnancy, the death of her sister from typhoid and her emotional isolation. Her only trustworthy relative is her Aunt Julie, who refuses to marry and becomes a professional artist; Virginie's narcissistic mother uses her daughter to get into the top echelons of society. This fast scroll through history (the Civil War, the fall of the French Second Empire, the belle epoque, etc.) against a backdrop of parties, salons, operas, artists' studios and sexual escapades is inviting for its wealth of well-researched period details, but limited by its narrator's sensibility. In this evocation, Virginie Gatreau never becomes anything more than a shallow object of beauty.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.
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The basic story is known; in 1884, the young genius Sargent presented "Portrait of Madame X" at the Paris Salon (having taken over a year to paint it), and there was all hell to pay. Sargent had depicted the right strap of Virginie's gown pulled down onto the shoulder, which was viewed by both the public and the professional critics as an "overt sexual invitation". This in a society where a girl may walk up the street naked, and exhibit the sexual morals of a mink (which Virginie did), with perfect impunity!?! Sargent was essentially run out of Paris (though he may have been ready to leave, anyway), and spent the rest of his career in London, turning-out portraits of (mostly) useless high-society types (for a contrast, look up "The Four Doctors") that he couldn't stand, but who paid BIG FEES. Virginie, and her Mom, were, to an extent, shunned by "polite" society, though her show-marriage and promiscuous ways went on, and she did model for other painters.
Mrs. Dilberto has given us a wonderful glimpse into a bygone world, mixing fact with fiction quite seemlessly. Big kudos for using real names! The convention of changing names in historical fiction really bugs me! Virginie, her Mom and husband, and Sargent, are, of course, real. Her Dad really did die at Shiloh (Virginie is aged 4 years so she can remember the Civil War). Mrs. Dilberto deserves thanks for giving us an excellent author's note.
If you wish to meet Madame X, she has been at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York since Sargent sold her in 1916. At some point, he "fixed" the strap (which many regret), but he did take a photo first, which can be seen on Virginie's Find a Grave page. Mrs. Dilberto has given us a quite fascinating look at some legendary events; Thank You. If art history and/or 19th. century high society are your thing, you will like it.
A well known beauty in French society, Madame Gautreau's reputation (such as it was) was destroyed by the unveiling of this painting, as was Sargents, who chose to leave Paris for good. The author has depicted a very vivid and interesting early life for Virginie, however in the long run the subject comes across as shallow and self-serving. She actually seemed to me a Paris Hilton of her day, renowned for nothing more than attending parties and being what was termed a professional beauty.
The writing captured the essence of the time, and I found parts of the story fascinating, but the main character often seemed so whiny that I really didn't like her much. I did appreciate the author's notes at the end, where she clarifies some of the history of the story, indicating the fictional adaptations she made.