I am Madame X

Written by Gioia Diliberto
Review by Tess Allegra

John Singer Sargent’s most notorious portrait, Madame X., caused a furor when unveiled in 1884 at the Paris Salon. The subject was a notorious beauty whose provocative air and dress were considered decadent at the time, even in Paris. No worse was the woman herself, Virginie Gautreau, a Louisiana Creole born in New Orleans who fled to France with her mother and sister to escape the American Civil War. Because of her French heritage, Virginie dared to wind her way into French society, going from hennaed hussy to Professional Beauty. Her arrogant promiscuity made her unpopular yet intriguing, and rising portrait painter John Singer Sargent was determined to paint her. Or so Virginie insists. After the disappointing exhibition, Sargent kept the painting, although Virginie considered it hers because she was its subject. He insisted on anonymity in the title, whereas she was furious not to be named in its notoriety.

Although this is a novel which imagines the history of Madame X– both painting and sitter – it is so delightful and realistic with the flavor of Belle Époque France that the reader is willingly captured. Written in the first person, there can be no doubt that the fiery nature and self-assured arrogance of Virginie Gautreau is real. We visualize her as she schemes and laments, always returning to that cool, pale pose that is Madame X.