Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2022  Vol.21  No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
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Portrait of Madame X
Do you object to people who are made up to the extent of being a uniform lavender or blotting paper
colour all over? If so you would not care for my sitter.

—Sargent in a letter to Vernon Lee

The problem was she became lavender again
beneath his hand. A year of charcoal & oil
paint shaping her image into what he could
see. He tried to not lavender her body, tried
to make curve & tone more than residue
without identity. I am tempted to say ghost
but there was no death or afterdeath. The wash
of colors into one impression, & he knew
that was not enough. He tried to sketch
a way into beauty & realized the body cannot
remain still. On paper. On canvas. Perhaps
he felt the texture of the world, & then felt
everything—the stomata on leaves nowhere
near the painting, the opalescent fabric
he had rendered so many times, the sharp
boredom, the need always to show something
like the heart—slip from focus, into lavender.

The temptation, of course, in the gallery was
to say something about art. About the present
decline of form. The way varnish no longer
protected people from fading. The decadent
syntax of skin, sometimes bone. Sargent tried
to make people see. Madame Gautreau, too,
was scandalized by her own image, & begged
to have it taken down. This was more
than the strap absent from her right shoulder.
This was the way a body makes a person in
the eyes. The way it wants to separate from
meaning, as if it does not hold even itself.
That morning, before the gallery opened,
Sargent watched sunlight collide with motes
of dust & thought vision was like that—
moving so quickly it did not see itself as
touched. He knew he had not painted her
portrait. There, in the dawn’s light, he saw her
as if she were himself stepping from a mirror.

The portrait of Mme Gautreau is finally begun. It is lovelier to do than I had thought.
—Sargent, 1883

The sketches are restless. Outside, the river is
quiet. We are too far from history, & meaning
has begun to mean something else. Her face
is the same in each sketch—bored, always at
a profile, as if it were too much like life &
wanted to be viewed only with enough clarity
for there to be something still unseen. Picture
Sargent looking at his reflection in the Seine,
aware of the eye’s language: yellow ochre,
fuchsia, onyx, porcelain, opacity. The words
seemed like nothing to him then, looking
onto the dirty surface of that water & waiting
for it to speak. To say something of the ebb
of shape, or beauty. In one of his sketches,
she is doubled—sitting on a divan, looking
away at herself looking away. In a letter to
Belleroche, Sargent wrote, Madame Gautreau is
at the piano driving my thoughts away. For hours
he forgot about the failing light & her texture
in its chiaroscuro. She played the notes legato,
grave. Against the chiffon curtains, her body
looked like more than a silhouette. Sargent
closed his eyes, wished he could change sight.

As a child, I watched my mother paint water-
color landscapes. She believed that streams &
the distant spruces held her heart—no one
noticed. The landscapes were unclear, blurred
into their own parts. At that age, I thought
everything we did changed us. It does & it does
not. My memory is faint, but my mother
tells me I tried to revise my body as if it were
something I could paint. I imagine Sargent
felt the canvas meant something outside of
itself, as if the face turned slightly another
way would create a new way of seeing. In what
became the final portrait, he had tilted her
head eight times, each time with the hope
she would become more individual, less part
of the time’s aesthetic. He must have known
that no one in the gallery would be able to see
his alterations or the cracks, years later, vein
over the portrait’s paint from his reworkings.

Madame Gautreau Drinking a Toast, 1882

Two years before the gallery, she swam along
the bank of a river. Evening settled into her
champagne flute. Sargent watched her toast
yet again, & had begun to feel he knew shapes
were auguries. The way dusk-dappled birds
seemed poetic, the idea of a reflection seemed
more than itself, & her body in the water—
he didn’t know. As he painted her onto wood,
she looked at him, looked back, distance
fading with the dampened light. Perhaps,
when Sargent asked if he could paint her,
she asked why. A simple question. Brushstrokes
overlay her torso & water. Her face is still
clear, ear pinkened, as it would be again two
years later. But there, on the riverbank, both
of them looked posed—Sargent soft against
the landscape, mirroring the feigned toast she was
making, & she, trying not to shiver, cold
as she was in the eventide. In his body, he felt
for a moment, as if he were not imitating her
form casting an arm into the thin air but art,
his art. Body reimaged & mutilated by vision.
Only for a moment, he caught the slight smile
Madame Gautreau made, seeing him inhabit
her role. They said nothing. That was enough.

There are things our own bodies cannot say.
I imagine Sargent must have thought this
during the years he repainted her. Did he, too,
feel layers of association coat sight until it no
longer knew itself under its raiment of ideas.
Did he look at draft after draft—her body, his
vision—& know how much would not be
seen. How much would. Did he worry,
knowing—in those heavy, delicate hours
before his portrait was shown in the gallery—
that no one’s body touches the eye in silence.

Mr. Sargent made a masterpiece of the portrait, I am anxious to write it to you because I am certain
he will not tell you.

—Madame Gautreau, 1883

They did not say it directly at first—their
newly finished portrait, like water reflecting
each of them, & each seeing differently. Quiet
pain. Sargent must have thought art made
one vision clear. The years wearing down
belief—& what was left after he realized sight
is lonely? That quiet was kind also & held
understanding. I cannot enter the painting
any more than they could, but still I feel what
they must have felt—neither being able to see
the same image. She sat at the piano once
more, & this time Sargent listened to her
melancholy notes as he looked at her portrait.
The music made the paint look like it had
been plunged below that shallow water. He
felt the portrait was a place they drowned—
& the only place either of them could breathe.

I will probably end up emigrating definitively.
—Sargent, 1885

Paris dusked Sargent & Gautreau. Even art
could no longer hold their bodies. The city,
landscape of distance. Overhead, starlings
flew. Sargent watched their murmurations
& thought of that day on the riverbank when
he noticed images are pierced by ideas. Their
wings looked like death in the sky. How each
moved with each, as if they agreed on a shape
to inhabit in every moment. Those birds,
he thought, are the history of vision, & he knew sight
would change soon. Their wings made faint
noise from where he sat. So faint he wanted
to make meaning of the sound—as if it too
were an augury. Not that he believed omens.
Still, Paris heard the change as the starlings
flew toward horizon. Still, everything was
as it had been. With sunset, Sargent closed
his eyes for a final time in Paris, & in the cool
dark that followed, the rest of the city did too.  

Note: Some language in the third section is borrowed from M.A. Keller.

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