Aesthetic Realism Discussion
OR, ASSERTION AND RETREAT IN WOMAN
by Lynette Abel
have loved this portrait of Madame Pierre Gautreau by the American painter,
John Singer Sargent, titled Madame X, since the first time I saw
Aesthetic Realism taught me that what makes a work of art beautiful is
what we are hoping for in our lives. "All beauty," Eli Siegel stated, "is
a making one of opposites; and the making one of opposites is what we are
going after in ourselves." I have come to see that Sargent's dramatic portrait
makes a one of opposites I was longing to make sense of in myself.
In his essay "A Woman Is the Oneness of Aesthetic Opposites," Mr.
Siegel writes about 15 pairs of opposites in women. And this is what
he writes about "Advancing: Recessive":
is in the feminine mind importantly: the future as outward and to be visited
and had. But how much retreat is in woman, too, the unseen sinking,
the leaving for a previously chosen background.
I think Sargent's Madame X is an opportunity to study these opposites,
which all women have. Sargent shows a haughty woman, ostentatious
in her black satin dress with its jeweled straps--it reveals and hides
at once. This portrait, when it first appeared at the Paris Salon
in l884, shocked people and caused such a scandal that Sargent had to withdraw
it. Yet, if all this painting showed was ostentation, I believe Sargent
wouldn't have said, when he sold it to the Metropolitan Museum in l9l6,
"I suppose it is the best thing I have done." It was at this time
that Sargent asked that the title of the painting be changed to Madame
X. The name Madame X is both more assertive in its dramatic quality
and also more mysterious, and, accenting the impersonal, it makes this
portrait seem to stand for the idea of woman as such.
In an Aesthetic Realism class, Eli Siegel asked me: "Do you believe
you have a fight between showing off and retreating?" "Yes," I said.
Mr. Siegel continued: "You don't know whether to show off or to go
into yourself.... [Are there] two different motions [in you] at the same
time--ostentation and retreat?" There definitely were.
For instance, I wanted a man to think I was the most charming woman he
had ever known--that as I walked into a room I would be the center of interest.
And at the same time I also wanted to retreat, be aloof--if I did have
to talk to a man, my mind would go blank--I had nothing to say. Having
this purpose, which I learned was contempt--wanting to have a big effect
while at the same time retreating and hiding from the world around me--made
for great discomfort and pain in my life. I think in this portrait
Sargent shows powerfully that the opposites of assertion and retreat can
be beautifully one. The artist's purpose is to respect the world
through wanting to see it as it truly is, and this is the only purpose
which will enable a woman to put these opposites together beautifully in
As I was writing this paper, I learned that Mr. Siegel had spoken of John
Singer Sargent in an Aesthetic Realism lesson given to a young woman.
He asked her, "Do you believe that a self is a oneness of the greatest
outwardness and the greatest inwardness?" And he explained:
"There are two qualities. Take the ladies of John Singer Sargent--they're
very demure, the ladies of 1905, and then also they express themselves.
There are Mrs. I.N. Phelps Stokes;
The Misses Vickers;
and there is Madame X."
One of the
first things that struck me about Madame X was the stark contrast
between black and white. There is assertion and showiness in the
expanse of very white skin, from her high forehead down her graceful neck,
shoulders, and arms. At the same time, though the black of her dress
is bold, it is also receding, deep, mysterious. She is surrounded
too by brown, which while accenting the muted, is not just recessive--its
rich color has both glow and shadow.
Gautreau was one of Paris's notorious beauties. She wore lavender
powder and prided herself exceedingly on her appearance. In The
Metropolitan Museum of Art Favorite Paintings, I was affected to read
this commentary on her by A. Hyatt Mayer:
Her studied, indifferent,
statuesque presence stopped parties, stopped traffic in the street....But
one day on the beach at Cannes, Madame Gautreau overheard a woman say that
she was beginning to look worn. She drove in a closed carriage to
her hotel, took a darkened compartment on the train to Paris, and shut
herself up for the rest of her life in dim rooms without mirrors.
I think Madame Gautreau would have felt comprehended, as I did, by questions
Eli Siegel asked me, including: "Do you think [there can be] an accuracy
in going forward and retreating--of being ourselves from within and also
showing ourselves? There has been great discomfort because people
have wanted to retreat....Do you think everything can be done with a oneness
of advance and retreat?"
"Yes," I said.
And Mr. Siegel asked me: "Can you show off discreetly? Try to show
I have been asking as I looked at this painting, "What does it mean to
show off gracefully?" And I have seen what Aesthetic Realism teaches--that
if a woman's conscious purpose is to know and like the world and have other
persons like it, she will assert herself in a way that is graceful.
An important element central to the beauty of this painting is the way
Sargent posed his subject--which I learned was not come to easily.
In his biography John Singer Sargent: His Portrait, Stanley Olson
He sketched her seated in a
Sargent chose this pose for Madame Gautreau carefully: her body boldly
facing forward while her head is turned in profile. A profile by its very
nature is both assertion and retreat--half of one's face is hidden while
at the same time, the part that shows can seem more defined than full face.
In placing her head in profile, Sargent has technically put together the
very opposites that have troubled many women--including the subject for
this painting, and myself. Eli Siegel pointed out in a class once,
"The profile of a person is the more intellectual part because the angle
seems to stand more for thought." So, in this painting flesh and
thought are together.
He sketched her with her head raised,
then lowered looking at a book,
then playing the piano. He
did...her seated in a different posture,
and a brisk oil study of her holding
out a champagne glass at a table.
In desperation he drew her
back as she kneeled on a sofa looking out of the window.
Finally he asked her to stand beside
an Empire table, twisted into a conscious profile.*
One of the reasons I am so affected by Madame X is that Sargent was trying
to present this woman with entirety --there is a mingling of admiration,
criticism and comprehension. One notices a very pink ear, as if she
is listening--and listening is yielding. Was there something she
was burning to hear? I was affected to see that the means by which
reality enables us to take in the world, Sargent has highlighted in this
lady with the warm colors of pink and red: her eye, nose, mouth and hands.
And my colleague, artist, and Aesthetic Realism consultant Dorothy Koppelman,
pointed out to me--that even the most abstract thing in this painting--space--puts
together assertion and retreat. The space between the arm that leans
on the table and her dress has the same form as the most prominent thing
in this painting--her nose: it goes out and in.
Assertion and retreat are in the way Sargent has contrasted and yet related
the two sides of Madame Gautreau. Her left side is a sharply delineated
outline from the top of her head down her nose and chin and all the way
down her arm. We feel the assertion in this woman. Her other
arm recedes as she leans back, with the modelling of soft shadowy contours
down her arm. I'm particularly affected by the way this arm is at
once forward and back, showy and retreating in its gentle turning motion.
She is depending on the table but she is also assertively grasping it.
Sargent shows that Madame Gautreau, in her haughtiness, needs that table.
I learned from Aesthetic Realism a woman needs the world to express and
show herself truly.
The table too, advances and retreats. It is the same and different
from Mme Gautreau. The curves and angles of her body are like the
curves and angles of the delicate though rather sturdy table she is leaning
on. The curve of the table top is like the curves in the bodice of
her dress. The curve at the base of the table is continued in reverse
by the hem of her dress.
Assertion and retreat are made one also in the way the receding curve of
the table is highlighted while the advancing curve of her dress is dark.
The twist of the table leg, called knuring, in the foreground is like the
gentle twisting of her arm.
This arm is continued by the vertical
line of the table leg in the background, appearing almost as an extension
of that arm; something sinuous and bright is supported by something straight
in the shadows.
And Sargent uses color to continue this relation of woman and table.
Her reddish, brown hair is like the table; the bright gold highlight on
its edge is like the bright gold ornament on the top of her hair.
How different this portrait would be were that table absent. We see
her with more power, more depth of meaning because of it. One of
the things I see from this is that in order to show oneself gracefully,
you have to be proud of your need for something else--the world.
Resources about John Singer
at Harvard" is a searchable archive containing studies for "Madame
Museum of Art, New York, for the original portrait: "Madame X" of 1884.
Gallery, where you will find Eli Siegel's historic 15 questions, Is
Beauty the Making One of Opposites?
Museum of Fine Arts: Online are many wonderful pages of thumbnail reproductions
not only of oil paintings but watercolors and drawings, and very many sketches
Gallery, London. Forty-four paintings by Sargent. Works you can see
Portrait of Mrs. Robert Harrison (not one of his better paintings),
Lily, Lily, Rose commented on by Terry Riggs, as well as Ellen
Terry as Lady Macbeth.
of John Singer Sargent Online in the National Gallery of Art, Washington,
DC. Contains bibliographic references. Also
see Paintings, Drawing, and Prints by Sargent in the National Gallery.
Singer Sargent: Outside the Frame," a MacArthur Foundation sponsored video
on DVD, narrated by Jacqueline Bisset. (Library Media Project, Chicago,
IL) Described this way: "Shows the art very well, with full views and details.
Good use of period photographs and location shots." (Also
available on Amazon.com.)
respect Stanley Olsen's book John Singer Sargent: His Portrait
and recommend it. His description of how Madame Gautrau came to have just
the pose we see in the masterpiece "Madame X" gives a clear and vivid picture.
see Strapless: Madame X and the Scandal That Shocked Bell Epoque Paris
by Deborah Davis. This link is to Barnes & Noble and has reader reviews.
Journal says this: "With its intriguing set of circumstances, lively
writing, and an eye for detail and nuance, the book offers art history,
social commentary, and gossip." I question the reliability of the "gossip"
(which declines into innuendo). The book has useful background information
which should be read, however, with a critical eye.
Sargent's Paintings in Museums and Galleries. Comprehensive collection
of links in the United States.
Other Aesthetic Realism Resources
Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method
Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company
Siegel, founder of Aesthetic Realism: A Biography
of Aesthetic Realism—Countering the Lies
Education: the Aesthetic Realism Viewpoint
Terrain Gallery / Aesthetic Realism Foundation
Realism: A New Perspective for Anthropology & Sociology
Bernstein, Aesthetic Realism Associate
Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education, on poet Robert Burns
Siegel's 'Is Beauty the Making One of Opposites?'