As Davis describes, “Amélie was impatient with the interminable, boring process, the frequent sessions of enforced stillness. She had difficulty paying attention to Sargent’s directions, and the household was chaotic… there was the rigorous social calendar… and of course, visits to the beach and boardwalk.”
Sargent traveled to and from Paris as he too became frustrated with the process. He once wrote to his friend, the writer Vernon Lee, “Your letter has just reached me, still in this country house struggling with the unpaintable beauty and hopeless laziness of Mme. Gautreau.”
After creating numerous preparatory sketches and several painting attempts, Sargent managed to finish his picture for the 1884 Salon, which he originally titled Portrait of Mme***. The reception was poor. As De Costa writes, “After the Salon, fame briefly morphed into infamy, and Madame Gautreau was subject to derision and jeers in the drawing rooms of Paris.” Viewers understood the subject’s bare shoulder, with its dangling strap and exposed cleavage, as a nod towards Gautreau’s loose sexual morals.
This wasn’t a new claim: Gautreau already had a reputation as an adultress. Davis writes of Gautreau’s rumored liaisons with French statesman Léon Gambetta and diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps. Not all contemporary writers fault her for this alleged promiscuity: Her wealthy husband, as Miranda Seymour wrote
in the New York Times
, was “small, singularly ugly and twice the age of Amélie Avegno.” Yet such a public, visual display of her sexuality brought Gautreau additional disrepute.
Parisian tastemakers recoiled not just from the subject’s revealing clothing, but from her ghostly skin-tone as well. Like other fashionable women of her day, Gautreau may have been ingesting arsenic to lighten her skin (although Davis believes she more likely used rice powder). In a review of the 1884 Salon, the Times reported
, “Sargent is below his usual standard this year… The pose of the figure is absurd, and the bluish coloring atrocious. The features are so exaggerated that the natural delicacy of outline is entirely lost.” Under Sargent’s brush, the “so-called beautiful” subject looked like a mere “caricature.”