Her portrait is one of the treasured icons of American painting. Her image an alluring woman standing in profile with her alabaster skin in contrast to her black velvet dress mesmerizes visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The painter, John Singer Sargent, considered her to be one of his finest works yet refused to release her name to the public. Today, we still refer to the painting only as Madame X.
Hooked by this mysterious title, biographer Gioia Diliberto embarked on a search for the real woman, Madame Virginie Avegno Gautreau. An accomplished writer, Diliberto has published three biographies of influential women. When historical material on Virginie proved rare, Diliberto blended fact with imagination to craft her debut novel, I Am Madame X. Written as Virginie's memoir, the novel opens on a Louisiana plantation during the Civil War. The daughter of a prominent Creole family, Virginie grows up surrounded by French culture. After the death of her father at Shiloh, Virginie's mother flees with her daughter to France. Virginie's astounding beauty gains her prominence in the social swirl of turn-of-the-century Paris. Her life becomes one of passion, scandal and notoriety in a city full of fabulous characters. The author creates a stunning backdrop of Parisian haute monde a world of old aristocrats, social climbers, writers, politicians and of course, artists.
Virginie's story culminates in the painting of her portrait by John Singer Sargent. They may have first met in 1881. At the time, Virginie was a young wife and mother at the height of her loveliness. Sargent pursued her for more than a year until she agreed to sit for him. The completed full-length portrait debuted at the Paris Salon of 1884. The public was horrified. The pure white skin, attenuated arms and striking pose drew raking reviews from Parisian art critics. The scandal changed forever the careers of artist and subject. It is the author's attention to these historical details that makes Virginie's world so lush. Diliberto's Virginie proves an unabashed, powerful woman with the touches of pride and vanity visible in her portrait. An engrossing tale, I Am Madame X delves into a beloved work of art to create a stunning work of fiction. Lisa Porter is a curator with the Cheekwood Museum of Art in Nashville.