Madame X Sits for John Singer Sargent

By June Calender

When he first let me see what he was doing after he painted my face, I nearly picked up the canvas to smash over his head. Of course I was aware I was looking away from him as he had insisted. The view beyond the French doors was far more interesting than watching the dabbing and mixing and cocking his head this way and that. For four days he only said, “I am working on your head.” I wondered when he’d ask me to look at him and smile. I didn’t plan to smile. I planned to lift my chin and look inquiringly about something—anything. I really thought he was working on the lines of the neck and shoulders and arms.

Then I saw he had painted me in silhouette. My nose a mini hatchet, my chin a bit recessive. I did not like it. Not at all. “Get rid of it.” I said.

“Get rid of what?”

“My head. Do it properly.”

“I have done your head magnificently, mon cher.”

“You have not. That pointy nose isn’t mine.”

“It’s yours indeed, and very fine.”

“What do you think you’re doing?” I demanded. I had no intention of paying him for this travesty. My dress was magnificent, yes, but not my head.

“Well, shorten it at least.”

“I will not.”

“I won’t pay you.”

“I’ll whittle another inch off your waist, but I will not profane your perfect profile.”

I knew he was arrogant, but I didn’t know he was the kind who thought he could flatter me into agreement. I thought, because he is American, as am I, and Pierre, I could trust him to do a portrait that would acclaim my place in Parisian society. He wanted to claim his own place in the Parisian art world. That’s why we planned together that I would wear this black dress—this utterly unusual, gorgeously cut, heavy silk dress—utterly different from the pretty pastel, satin, frou-frou frocks, with their modest necklines, society women chose for their portraits.

 

He DID flatter me when we discussed my couture. I showed him the dressmaker’s sketches. He gave the décolletage the dramatic scallop and replaced the fussy sleeves with jeweled straps. I gasped. I thought Mattilde would faint. “Scandalous,” she whispered.

“We will show your perfect alabaster skin; it is the envy of every woman in Paris,” he said. Men think they can play with our vanity. I’m sure he knows I use rice powder from the Chinaman’s shop near the Beaux Artes where the ballerinas buy cosmetics. Of course everyone does talk about my flawless skin. “You will wear no other jewels, just the pearls and gems on your shoulders.”

“It is not done.”

“We are not going to a ball. We are painting a portrait.”

When the dress was finished, with a train that I could hold up when I danced, I decided I will wear it to the New Year’s Eve ball! But first, the portrait.

 

“Watch,” Sargent said.  He mixed a bit more of the gray. With a single deft stroke, he whittled an inch off my waist that no corset would have done.

“That’s how it’s done?” I asked. He smiled proudly. I snatched the brush from his hand. A little dab of that same gray would shorten my nose. As I reached toward the painting his hand closed around my wrist.

“I am the painter.”

I gave my hand a jerk to free myself. He held me tighter. “I will speak to my husband.”

“We spoke last evening. He says you–” he did not look at me but gestured to the painting with his free hand– “will give us both the gift of making all Parisienne society jealous of we three Americans. You–” he turned and looked into my eyes and smiled. Was it arrogance? Elation? Infatuation? — “with your beauty and hauteur tell them that American je ne c’est quoi and, of course, wealth, eclipses all their old word stuffiness and conservatism.”

Oh, he was shamelessly flattering me. He was also softly touching my lips with his, never taking his eyes from mine, clasping my wrist tightly.

“I think I will stop calling you Mr. Sargent. Perhaps it should be Lieutenant Major.”

 

Monologue by Madame Pierre Gaetreau (called Madame X in title of painting)

June Calender retired from a career as an off-off-Broadway playwright in NYC and now lives on Cape Cod, where she writes fiction and poetry. She is working on a much researched biography of a traveler to Tibet in 1937, when it was a closed country.

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