He stalked her like a deer, often asking her to sit for him, but this demure beauty declined each advance until she finally succumbed to this up-and-coming artist known as John Singer Sargent.

Tragedy ensued.

The Creole Avegno family flew the Civil War’s aftermath from New Orleans to Paris when Virginie Amélie was a child. She grew into an outstanding beauty, with her copper hair, voluptuous figure, aquiline nose, and luminous skin. She rose quickly in highly particular Parisian social circles and was the Belle of many balls. She married well, Pierre Gautreau, a wealthy merchant.

Above is her portrait as it stands larger than life in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. This version, however, was not the painting on exhibition after her sitting. 

As this goddess posed awkwardly leaning on that fragile table, the spaghetti strap on her right shoulder fell to the side. Quickly, she attempted to readjust it, but Singer Sargent said, “No, mon Cherie. It is perfect as it is.”

This version appeared before all of Paris and created a scandal that ruined poor Amelie Gautreau’s reputation and nearly cratered Singer Sargent’s career (after all, who would want this man to paint their wives and their daughters?). It suggested not an aristocratic beauty but a lady of the evening. Society was outraged! Men cursed and women fainted.  Although Singer Sargent tried to take the painting down and repaint the strap as it appears today, the jury would not let him alter the work until after the exhibition.

Singer Sargent fled to England and eventually survived the scandal, painting some of the most celebrated and beautiful portraits the world has ever known. Poor Amelie never recovered her fall from grace and withdrew from polite society.

No one wanted this besmirched work after the exhibition, and it stayed with Singer Sargent for many years until his death. He declared this his masterpiece. Indeed, it is (well, maybe Lady Agnew of Locknaw–but that’s another story).

And that, dear reader, is the ill-fated tale of Madam X.