Art used to be complex. If you loved it, you were fancy. I’d spend time in front of a portrait, clueless to what the brush strokes were or what the colours were or how revolutionary the painting itself was. I was clueless. Until 3 years ago, when I hit The National Gallery and took an art tour on a whim, I thought visiting museums to look at paintings was pointless. Until 3 years ago, no painting other than Mona Lisa at the Louvre interested me. Until 3 years ago, Monet was just a random name.
On a cold windy New York day, with not much to do outdoors, I set out to the MET. “Its one of the best museums I have ever been too!” Far too many people had told me. And as I climbed up the beautiful stairs, I knew why. The museum is enormous. It houses paintings, sculptures. Well, I should stop. Most of you know that the MET is huge and what all it has..
Rewind 3 years. I was alone in London. It was valentine’s day and I didn’t give a shit about the red all around or the love that was in the air. So I went into the National Gallery and took a few guided tours. It was here that I fell in love with knowing the story behind each painting. The era they were painted in, how subtly the artist left a mark of their perception on the image they painted, and of course, I realised that I do indeed enjoy seeing museums. Suddenly, walking down long corridors halting every minute to take in a painting became fun.
Fast forward: back to 20th October 2009. I entered the MET and grabbed a schedule sheet. The first tour I would take was American paintings, followed by an interesting tour: fashion through art and then there was an impressionist tour before I headed out to meet a friend at Columbia University. I wanted to take the modern art tour as well, but then I already liked the sound of my day!
Copley, Homer, Trumbaults were followed by a painting that took my breath away and tickled my curiosity. I stopped in front of it, waiting for the rest of the group to settle. Before the guide told me its story, I knew I was in love with the painting: Madame X.
A woman with a pallid white skin tone dons a black gown that highlights her figure. Her hand rests rather uncomfortably on a table as she looks in an awkward direction. Her longish nose, which might look ugly on anyone else, looks elegant and there’s an air of sophistication, pride and immense amount of attitude about the woman in the painting. Her dress is held by two straps and one strap is noticeably different from the other. She looked gorgeous, and the painter must have been taken by her beauty to depict her the way she looked (beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, and this beholder thought this woman was gorgeous, you could just tell!)
“The painting is that of a well-known Parisian socialite Madame Gautreau. She was born in America and went to Paris in search of a wealthy husband. Known for her glamour and style, Madame was a flamboyant woman. John Singer Sargent’s painting led to a lot of controversy resulting in the fall of Madame. Although her name was nowhere on it, people knew it was her. Now in those days…”
She went on to explain that it was a bit too shocking in the day and age. Today, far lesser than that is worn and yet called classy, but Madame’s outfit, her pose and the fallen strap in the original painting, caused quite an uproar. Didn’t she know she was posing in an outrageous pose then? Why did Sargent paint her the way he did? Who was Amelie Gatreau? Wikipedia wasn’t going to be enough and hence I got myself Strapless, a novel by Deborah Davis. It’s a well-researched account of Gautreau’s and Sargent’s lives leading upto the painting of Madame X and what happens after the painting.
The book had me hooked. The lives of women in high society, the fickleness of their marriages (it was normal to have affairs as long as they were discreet, huh?) the ways of the world of art, the business angle of art, men and their muses, friendships that were ways of getting ahead in the society. Not much has changed today. The women might not need to find a rich husband, women are allowed to paint (back in the day, women did not get admitted to art school), but we still make friends to make better contacts, we cheat discreetly and the big change: less and less of us seem to believe in marriage. To be as gorgeous and glamorous as Amelie and to be stuck in a loveless marriage would be a disaster. But what amuses me even more is that after being painted in that fashion, Amelie lost all she had worked for, whereas Sargent gained repute and went on to become a celebrated painter who rubbed shoulders with the high and mighty in England and America.
It’s a story of art but more than anything, it’s the story of a search, the endless pursuit of youth, glamour and fame. In the end, it’s a hollow existence but that hollow existence stands immortalized on a canvas in the MET, looking at thousands of visitors that pass by, thinking, how the times have changed and yet, so many things remain unchanged…