Arts & Culture / Mosaic / October 22, 2009

One man show replicates famous images

Artist Bob Diven performed an original one-man show depicting the struggle of an artist called “John Singer Sargent: Painting Madame X.” Diven, who wrote the show himself, studied Sargent in the perspective of an artist himself and noticed parallels between Sargent’s life and his own.

He created many of the props used on stage, such as the furniture, and more impressively, a replica of the painting, Madame X. The original portrait, Madame X, which Sargent considered his best work, depicted a beautiful expatriate named Madame Amelie Gautreau wearing a black dress with a jeweled strap having slipped off of one of her shoulders. The setting of the show was Sargent’s studio in London in January 8, 1916. On the far stage right was a table with papers on top surrounding a bowl of fruit. Next to it was a piano with a coat draped over it and a banjo on top.

In the middle was a large mural with a few portraits around it and near a canvas faced away from the audience. Next to that was a glass bottle containing an amber-colored liquid next to a small glass. Finally, on far stage left, two sketches of women were sitting on a couch.

The show began with Diven as Sargent playing a piano in the dark. After the lights were turned on, he turned around and immediately broke the fourth wall, addressing the audience and asking questions like, “You weren’t hoping for a portrait, were you?”

Sargent, famous for his portraits, preferred to paint murals and landscapes at this point of his life because they don’t “talk back.”

He addressed how critical people were of their own portraits, joking about how every time he painted a portrait, he lost a friend, and how “a portrait is a painting with something wrong with the mouth.”

The origins of Madame X stemmed from when Sargent spotted a beautiful woman at a party and desired to paint her. He was 26 or 27 at the time and, while he worked independently, he wanted to set himself apart from the shadow of his former mentor.

Sargent would follow her around like a puppy with “a pencil in one paw and paper in the other” and would try to entertain her by singing and playing a banjo. After he was finished, Madame Gautreau was pleased with the painting, describing it as a masterpiece. However, during the showing at the Paris Salon, there was an uproar about the portrait.

Critics attacked her on the opening day because of “the offending dress strap,” which slipped off of her shoulder. At this point, Sargent found himself asking if he should find a different career, if he should go on or turn back.

After the debacle in Paris, Sargent moved to London and continued painting. After years, Sargent received word that Madame Gautreau died and on the same day, he was asked by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York if it could show the painting. Sargent agreed and sent the portrait repainted with dress straps on both shoulders and renamed it Madame X.

At the end of the show, he turned the canvas next to the mural around to reveal a replica of the original painting with one shoulder bare and said, “Adieu, Amelie, au revoir.” After he sat at the piano and began playing, the lights dimmed to reveal a spotlight on Madame X.

Sheena Leano


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