One of my favorite things about American art history is the scandals. This week I got to hear about two of my favorite scandals as my class studied the 19th century American expatriate art scene.
John Singer Sargent was a prodigy artist. He was an American born in Italy, raised in France, who spoke like an Englishman, looked like a German, and painted like a Spaniard. At a young age his talent outstripped that of his teacher, the portrait painter Carolus Durand, and he received many commissions. It was easy to flatter his sitters, and he did not want for customers. However, he wanted something more--a fame that would guarantee his name a place on the lips of everyone at the prestigious Paris Salon.
Virginie Gautreau was a girl from New Orleans who had married a well-to-do French doctor. Something like a Victorian era Lindsay Lohan, with the same sort of stage mother, she sought fame and attention by going to all the parties in the latest fashions. A stunning beauty, she enhanced her pale skin with lavender-white powder. When Sargent first saw her he was so struck by her beauty that he offered to paint her portrait. She and her mother knew that a portrait by Sargent unveiled at the Paris Salon, the biggest and most talked about art exhibition in the world, would be an excellent way to secure their place in high society.
However, when the final painting was unveiled at the 1884 Salon, it caused an uproar that neither the artist or the sitter was prepared for. Originally, Sargent had painted one strap of Virginie's dress falling down over her shoulder, and this, not to mention the plunging neckline, was considered extremely offensive. Then there was her pale skin, powdered like an actress!
It's hard for us to understand the negativity heaped upon this beautiful image, living as we do in a much more permissive society. But we can understand the embarrasment that Virginie felt as the whole city of Paris reviled her portrait. She pleaded with tears to have the portrait removed from the Salon, and Sargent unwillingly relented. His fame was assured, but it was not the reaction he had expected--now no respectable families wanted to have him paint their portraits. He repainted the strap on her dress, and fled to London.
Eventually Sargent gave the portrait of Virginie Gautreau to the Metropolitan Museum of Art under the condition, set by Virginie, that it not be titled with her name. "Madame X" has lived in New York ever since, and now enjoys a prestigious place in the newly renovated 19th Century Galleries.
Sargent's troubles echoed a similar scandal of a few decades before. James Abbott McNeill Whistler was born in Massachusetts but chose the life of a cosmopolite in the art world of Victorian London. He started out as a very talented academic artist, but over the course of his life his style became looser and looser until he was practically an Impressionist, though he cared nothing for the Impressionists obsession with effects of light and color. Aesthete would be the best name for him--he just wanted to create beautiful, decorative images, with carefully composed elements. He was an early advocate of the modern "art for art's sake."
However, the English art scene was far behind him. When Whistler submitted "The White Girl," to the annual Royal Academy exhibition in 1862, it was rejected. It was also rejected by the Paris Salon in 1863. Finally, hung at the Salon des Refuses, where all the rejected paintings were exhibited, the piece was received with shock and horror.
That the subject was Whistler's mistress was beside the point. She was painted with her hair undone, appearing as if she'd just got up out of bed. Her hand clasped a flower that to the Victorian sensibilities sent an erotic message. And why was she standing on a horrible bear rug? In a world where a portrait of a woman was either a formal society portrait or a classical allegory depicting some sort of virtue, such a painting was seen as morally degenerate. Whistler, undaunted, continued to follow his heart and paint pictures whose primary purpose was aesthetic beauty.
His style became looser and looser, and in 1877 his "Nocturne In Black and Gold," the night scene of fireworks over the Thames, was considered so awful that the art critic John Ruskin accused Whistler of "flinging a pot of paint in the public's face." Whistler sued Ruskin for libel, and won the case, but only in principle. Ruskin only had to pay a farthing to Whistler, who had been bankrupted by the trial. But Whistler nevertheless continued to paint and acheived international recognition for his work, eventually becoming one of the most beloved of American 19th century artists, all scandal forgiven and forgotten with time.
Now we look back at these paintings and wonder why people back then couldn't just accept them as the beautiful pictures they are.