Black, white and red are our signature colors, so when we came upon these two marvelous portraits by John Singer Sargent, we were inspired to look closer.
John Singer Sargent’s striking portrait of society coquette Virginie Gautreau — “Portrait of Madame X” (1884) — is now viewed as his greatest painting. But at the time the simplicity and color of the dress was considered so scandalously sensual, especially against Gautreau’s famously white skin, it effectively finished his career in Paris (he fled to London two years later).
To the modern eye, a black dress like this evokes restraint and elegance. Yet place it in the context of Belle Epoque fashions with their florid details and pastel colors (think of Barbara Streisand in ‘Hello, Dolly!’ and you get the picture) and see how incendiary simple black can be.
In “Dr Samuel Jean Pozzi at Home” (1881), Sargent uses a rich scarlet red to portray another Belle Epoque charmer. Renowned as one of the most handsome men of the era, Dr. Pozzi was immortalized by Proust, and was rumoured to be the lover of both Sarah Bernhardt — and Virginie Gautreau.
This is why we find it illuminating to consider the pictures side by side. The spare color palette complements each subject so intimately — consider the black of her dress and his black hair, the white of his cuffs and her porcelain skin, and, most tellingly, his red robe and Virginie’s celebrated henna hair — we can’t help but imagine Sargent was making a connection about their affair.
(Neither sitter had a happy ending: the scandal of Virginie’s portrait evicted her from the Paris society she cared so deeply about, and, in a bizarre episode much later in his life, Dr Pozzi was fatally shot by a patient he was unable to cure.)
* “Madame X” can be found at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and “Dr Samuel Pozzi” at the Hammer Museum at UCLA. And there is a marvelous book about Virginie: “I Am Madame X”, by Gioia Diliberto.