Unpaintable Beauty

Madame Gautreau Drinking a Toast. Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Madame Gautreau Drinking a Toast. Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Madame Gautreau Drinking a Toast exhales intimacy into the Blue Room of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. The delicate lavenders of Madame Gautreau’s dress and the paleness of her complexion contrast the darkness of the rest of the canvas.

John Singer Sargent’s muse was an “unpaintable beauty,” and came with the price of disgrace. Upon revealing Madame X, Sargent’s most famous painting of Gautreau, both the artist and the model were scrutinized for its overt sexuality. Sargent refused to withdraw the painting, defending its beauty against negative outcry. He attempted to keep Gautreau’s identity a secret in order to protect her reputation but failed.

Looking at Sargent’s portrait of Gautreau, I sense wantonness and earnest desire, not for the carnal desires that history looks down upon, but for beauty.

Madame Gautreau Drinking a Toast was purchased in Paris in 1919 by Isabella Stewart Gardner before finding a permanent home in her museum. The elusive beauty of the painting struck Gardner, and she soon commissioned her own portrait from Sargent, which also lives in her museum. Many believed that Sargent deliberately paid homage to his initial scandal with Madame X for his portrait of Gardner, painting her with a low neckline and surrounding her with a halo-esque ring. Mr. Gardner requested that the portrait not be shown publicly while he was alive, and it was placed in the private Gothic Room until Mrs. Gardner’s death in 1924.

After learning the history of Gautreau, I have just a minute understanding of the bravery it must have taken to vulnerably bear herself to Sargent in such a public display of beauty and to continue pose for him after her status in society was tarnished. As I contemplate the work now, I believe it is a true testament to the battle between perceived vanity and poised confidence that still plagues women today.

For me, Madame Gautreau Drinking a Toast presents a playfulness between gentleness and sharpness. Gautreau’s features are pointed, her arm outstretched and holding a clear flute amidst wispy, lavender flowers. She doesn’t have a care in the world. She is lavished in the perfection of her gown and the promise of champagne. I can almost picture her turning and smiling, the “unpaintable beauty” who defied 19th century gender expectations. –Isabelle Hahn

Isabelle Hahn studies Journalism and English at Northeastern University. She is from Dallas, Texas, and loves to write about art in all capacities. Her work has been featured in The Avenue Magazine, Artistry Magazine, The Huntington News, and she has worked as a freelance reporter in Greece for class credit.

Madame Gautreau Drinking a Toast is currently on display at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.