I couldn’t help but notice the discrepancy as I watched the scantily clad young women enter Starbuck’s. Their ultra short shorts showed more of them than I cared to see while their loose tops slipped off of their shoulders revealing bikini straps. No one batted an eye. In my hands, however, was Deborah Davis’s Strapless: John Singer Sargent And The Fall Of Madame X, a biography of Sargent’s painting of a fully clothed woman whose dress strap happened to have fallen off of her shoulder. The fallen strap shocked and horrified the 1884 Parisian art world; the ramifications were so bad it took Sargent and his model, Amelie Gautreau, years to recover from its effects.
Discrepancies, however, drive this book. First consider our two subjects: Sargent and Gautreau. Sargent was an American citizen born and raised in Europe who never set foot onto his “native” soil until he was in his twenties. He refused to be knighted because he was an American, not a Brit. Gautreau, also an American citizen, was born and raised in New Orleans steeped in the French language and culture. When she and her family moved to Paris when she was ten, it felt just like home. Then consider the portrait of Madame X on display with the others at the 1884 salon: as stated it was of a woman in a dress with a fallen strap. It hung on the wall with paintings of fully nude or partially nude women, none which raised an eyebrow. Then consider the French public, who knew that marriages were for convenience and love could be found in another’s arms, who enthusiastically sought out gory scenes to ogle, who managed to find and enjoy all vice in a variety of forms, was shocked at the image of a bare shoulder. While life post-scandal was challenging for Sargent, who struggled for a bit, but because of his gender and status as an unmarried man could leave Paris, travel to new places and make new friends and contacts. Gautreau, in her role as an upper-class society wife, was stuck in that world. Sargent was known for his paintings; Gaurtreau, her looks. Both aimed to reinvent themselves; both had different results.
Strapless is one of my favorite types of books: the type where you learn much more than you were expecting. Davis discusses French political history from the Franco-Prussian War, the end of the Bonapartes, the rise and fall of the Commune, to the rise of the Third Replublic. She explains how the Franco-Prussian War impacted art and gave rise to Realism and Impressionism, and the war’s impact on social mores and health. One by-product of the war was the new field of gynecology. This new emphasis on female health was lead by Dr. Pozzi, a womanizer who used his profession to not only make breakthroughs in women’s health, but to also lure women to his bed (not that they needed much tempting). One might assume that he inspired the role of Otter in Animal House. Davis also introduces the reader to a cast of British artists and American patrons, one being Isabella Stewart Gardner who created the Gardner Art Museum in Boston.
Through all of this Davis explores the questions of what makes art great and an artist remembered? What determines a public’s
response to something and is the public or history a good judge? What does it mean to create something new? Do innovators always have to detract from those from who went before them? And what are the possible implications of our smallest or off-the-cuff decisions? Davis’s work is reminiscent of Cynthia Saltzman’s The Portrait of Dr. Gachet: The Story of a Van Gogh Masterpiece, Money, Politics, Collectors, Greed, and Loss in which Saltzman traces the history of Van Gogh and his famous portrait and Van Gogh’s subsequent fame after his death. Davis’s book would also be a good companion read with David McCullough’s The Greater Journey: Americans In Paris. It is not McCullough’s best book, but it is interesting to learn how Paris shaped the views of many prominent Americans, and hence, shaped our country.
Readers, what books about art or French history have you enjoyed? Please share!