Book review: Strapless, by Deborah Davis


Celebrity & scandal in the Paris Belle Epoche art world. Even if you don’t know of John Singer Sargent by name, you will, most likely, recognize one of his most famous portraits: Madame X. You might want to consider this as your summer beach read. 

After the scandal at the salon, Sargent repainted the strap.

After the scandal at the salon, Sargent repainted the strap.

In this well-researched book, Davis tells the stories of the two protagonists: John Singer Sargent, and Madame X, aka Virginie Gautreau. Both were american ex-pats, trying to cement their reputation in Paris society at the end of the 19th century. Davis does not create situations and conversations, but sticks to want is documented. 


John Singer Sargent is, in my opinion, one of the greatest artists of all time. He was clearly naturally gifted, but I hadn’t realized how hard he worked at mastering his skills.


It was interesting to see that Sargent faced many of the same marketing challenges that artists face today. I always, naively, thought that his talent alone was enough. It turns out he thought pro-actively about which paintings to show at the annual salon to garner press. He also worked strategically to make his name with the society patrons. 


While it’s not technically a biography of Sargent, Davis does convey a lot of his personality and motivations. I still got an overall impression of who he was.


Madame Gautreau had her own challenges. She was considered to be a great beauty, and again, that alone was not enough. She worked constantly on her image to remain in the headlines of the tabloids. 

Sargent thought her portrait, displayed at the 1884 Salon de Paris would crystallize his standing with the upper crust, and she thought having her painting as a featured piece in the annual salon would continue to buoy her social rank and fame.  

In the painting Sargent decided to let one of the straps drop off her shoulder. Gautreau agreed. Neither of them were prepared for the fallout afterwards. 

Deborah Davis did a fabulous job of conveying the social dynamics of the times, the motivations of the principles, and explanations of the art.