John Singer Sargent’s painted “Madame X”—a portrait of Amelie Gautreau, an American of French descent—while they both lived in Paris during the Belle Époque. In it, she is standing at a table wearing a slinky black dress and looking to her left. However, the painting showed the right strap of her dress as if it had fallen off her shoulder, a sensual and daring detail.
When the visitors at the 1884 Paris Salon saw the painting, it created a scandal that effectively ended the reign of “La Belle Gautreau,” and Sargent’s rise as a top Parisian portraitist. He was forced to move to England. However, in 1891, Mme. Gautreau, seeking the notoriety she had lost, had Gustave Courtois paint another portrait with a fallen strap and it didn’t create a ripple.
Madame Gautreau ended up as a recluse once her looks were gone, going as far as to remove all mirrors from her house and venturing out only at night. She died at the age of fifty-six.
Sargent painted the strap back on her shoulder and her magnificent painting toured Europe and the US. In 1915, he sold it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for approximately $5,000, where it still resides.
Sargent told the museum director, “It is the best thing I have done.”