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Lady Violette

The Romantic Lifestyle

Violet / Lavender Face Powder ~ Who Wore it First? John Singer Sargeant’s Muse, Madame X, of Course!

October 23rd, 2011 by violette

Madame X by John Singer Sargeant 1884

It is always amusing to me to see who claims to have devised beauty treatments and colors first. I know for a fact that Revlon was not the first to come up with the idea of lavender or violet tinted face powder. Incidentally, both of these names refer to the same thing/color ~ a light purple. Whichever name is used is whichever appeals more to the creator of the face powder under discussion and works best for marketing it. The color and concept has been around for a very long time in France, England, Italy, Spain and the United States and there are many references to it in women’s literature and antique beauty manuals. Revlon claiming to have invented the color violet for face powder and cosmetic use in 1946 for their Ultra Violet campaign was simply a marketing ploy.

Lavender and Violet face powder ? … You may wonder, what is it’s purpose?

Well, originally it was considered an exotic makeup color, which it is, and it was scented delicately with violet or lavender perfume.

A Photograph of the Original Painting as Sargeant Displayed it in the Paris Salon of 1884 with Madame X Jeweled Strap Slipping Off Her Shoulder Which Caused a Scandal. He Repainted the Strap on Her Shoulder as We Know the Painting Now in an Attempt to Appease the Social Critics of the Time and Salvage His and His Subjects Reputations

Cosmetic and makeup specialists told women it would tone down a yellow complexion, making it much more attractive and desirable, giving it a more balanced white and pink look. Thus it was recommend as a color corrector. There is quite a bit of it available on the market today from various companies claiming to do this. Honestly, I do not know if it works. I cannot prove it by trying it out on myself because I do not have a yellow complexion. If someone out there has experience with this, please let me know how this works for you.

Study for Madame X

Next, it was marketed as an desirable colorful look in makeup as well as a delicate attractive floral scent. Honestly, I do know that this works! I have several violet and lavender colors of eye shadow powders, blushes, lip sticks and glosses, nail lacquers, and a luscious violet tinted loose face powder from Borghese which I love for its exotic color effect as a finishing touch to a violet themed face makeup.

 

 

 

 

I personally believe that John Singer Sargeant’s Muse, Madam X, who was Madame Virginie Amilie Avegno Gautreau in real life, used it this way and brushed it over her famous decolletage and white shoulders as well. I enjoy thinking about her doing that when I am applying the powder myself. I find the rituals of applying makeup very interesting and satisfying and filled with historical references. Women have always adorned themselves and I love getting inspiring ideas from history and literature on beauty and makeup. I have long been on the lookout for references in art and literature to use as inspiration.

Currently, purple, violet, and lavender is a very popular makeup color, and is offered in every conceivable shade and variation by many respectable cosmetic lines. These range from the most delicate hint of light violet to the darkest deepest almost black purple hue and every shade and variation of formula in between. Purples and violets and lavenders are made in nail polishes, lipsticks, eye shadows, blushes, mascaras, eyeliners, and powders of every imaginable type. I am always exploring these offerings because I love the color! The violet is my personal flower and violet is my personal color as well. As Lady Violette it is also my name, and it follows, of course, that violet should be foremost in my personal makeup palette.  And, as I have explained before having a personal flower and a personal color gives a woman a theme to explore in her dressing and grooming and the creation of her personal signature look. This is very useful as it gives one a starting point. I think Madame X would have loved all these modern purple these cosmetics!

Study for Madame X Sargeant 1883

Interestingly, there is no color on the current market that comes across as the ruby red infused with violet glimmer that Revlon’s Ultra Violet of 1946 claimed to be! I will be first to know if one comes out! And I’ll post that information immediately! I have not seen the 1946 Ultra Violet by Revlon in person. It came out way before my time! And I have yet to locate a vintage example, but I am looking for one! I deduce that the color so named was the color of the nail lacquer and the lipstick and the powder was a very softly, lightly violet tinted face powder sold to compliment the lips and tips that were done up in Ultra Violet.

 

Madame X Unfinished 1884

My own favorite wearer of this shade of face powder historically was Madame X ~ Virginie Amilie Avegno Gautreau, the Parisian socialite painted by John Singer Sargeant. She wore lavender face powder and prided herself on her appearance. Her use of this shade of cosmetic face powder was written about and documented as early as 1880. She was well known for wearing it in Paris. I doubt she actually invented it, or was the earliest person to wear it, but she became famous for her beauty and her use of this daring color was unusual at the time. Personally, I love Madame X and Sargeant’s drawings and paintings of her. And yes, I have seen many of them in person and they are masterpieces in my opinion. I am grateful to both the sitter and the painter for creating them. I am an ardent admirer of Sargeant’s art work and of Virginie Gautreau as a woman of great interest and beauty. I recommend seeing the painting in person if you get the chance. I also recommend reading about Madame X ~ there are several good biographies on her and several good books on Sargent the artist as well. They are both great inspiration to me ~ as people and as artists. I consider the great beauties of her type to be artists. Isn’t a beautiful woman, after all, a living moving work of art? A living sculpture? I think this way because I am a classically trained dancer and dancers are trained to think of themselves this way in relation to line, space, volume, form and color.

Madame X with champagne in an oil sketch by Sargeant

I, personally, first became consciously aware of violet and lavender face powder when I learned that Madame X had worn it so famously in Paris in the 1880s. Thus, for me, she is the person I know of who wore it first. When I ask the question, ” Who wore violet or lavender face powder first? ” her name immediately pops into my mind as the answer. So, you see, as far as I am concerned, just for me, she wore it first! Since no one really knows who dreamed it up initially, this answer will suffice for me! She is beautiful, exotic, mysterious and intriguing so her association with the color is perfect from an imaging standpoint.

Following is from the Wikipedia entry on The painting The Portrait of Madame X.

Portrait of Madame X

John Singer Sargent, Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau), 1884, oil on canvas, 234.95 x 109.86 cm, Manhattan: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Madame X or Portrait of Madame X is the informal title of a portrait painting by John Singer Sargent of a young socialite named Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, wife of Pierre Gautreau. The model was an American expatriate who married a French banker, and became notorious in Parisian high society for her beauty and rumored infidelities. She wore lavender powder and prided herself on her appearance.

Madame X was painted not as a commission, but at the request of Sargent.[1] It is a study in opposition. Sargent shows a woman posing in a black satin dress with jeweled straps, a dress that reveals and hides at the same time. The portrait is characterized by the pale flesh tone of the subject contrasted against a dark colored dress and background.

For Sargent, the scandal resulting from the painting’s controversial reception at the Paris Salon of 1884 amounted to the failure of a strategy to build a long-term career as a portrait painter in France.[2]

Background

Renowned for her beauty, Gautreau represented the parisienne, a new type of Frenchwoman recognized for her sophistication. The English term ‘professional beauty’, referring to a woman who uses personal skills to advance to elite status, was also used to describe her.[3] Her unconventional beauty made her an object of fascination for artists; the American painter Edward Simmons claimed that he “could not stop stalking her as one does a deer.”[4] Sargent was also impressed, and anticipated that a portrait of Gautreau would garner much attention at the upcoming Paris Salon, and increase interest in portrait commissions. He wrote to a friend:

” I have a great desire to paint her portrait and have reason to think she would allow it and is waiting for someone to propose this homage to her beauty. If you are ‘bien avec elle’ and will see her in Paris, you might tell her I am a man of prodigious talent.”[5]

Although she had refused numerous similar requests from artists, Gautreau accepted Sargent’s offer in February 1883.[6] Sargent was an expatriate like Gautreau, and their collaboration has been interpreted as motivated by a shared desire to attain high status in French society.[7]

Studies

Little progress was made during the winter of 1883, as Gautreau was distracted by social engagements, and was not by nature inclined to the discipline of sitting for a portrait. At her suggestion, Sargent traveled to her estate in Brittany in June, where he commenced a series of preparatory works in pencil, watercolors, and oils.[8] About thirty drawings resulted from these sessions, in which many poses were attempted. Like the eventual portrait, an oil sketch entitled Madame Gautreau Drinking a Toast (Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum), shows the subject’s profile and bare arms against a dark background, but is of a more freely brushed and informal character.

Just as she had been in Paris, in the country Gautreau was bored by the process of sitting; here, too, there were social engagements, as well as the responsibilities of tending to her four-year-old daughter, her mother, house guests, and a full domestic staff. Sargent complained of “the unpaintable beauty and hopeless laziness of Madame Gautreau.”[9]

Execution

As in his previous entries to the Salon, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit and El Jaleo, Sargent chose a canvas of dimensions large enough to ensure notice on the crowded Salon walls. The pose proved to be different from any of those tried in the preliminary works. It necessitated that Gautreau stand with her body facing the artist while her head was turned away, her right arm extended behind her for support, her hand on a low table; the result was to create tension in the neck and arm as well as to emphasize the subject’s elegant contours.[10] For painting the artificial tone of Gautreau’s pale skin, Sargent used a palette composed of lead white, rose madder, vermilion, viridian, and bone black.[10]

Even when composition had been decided upon and painting started, work progressed slowly. In a letter to a friend Sargent wrote “One day I was dissatisfied with it and dashed a tone of light rose over the former gloomy background…The élancée figure of the model shows to much greater advantage.”[11] On September 7, Sargent wrote “still at Paramé, basking in the sunshine of my beautiful model’s countenance.”[11] By the fall, Sargent’s interest in the venture was nearing completion: “The summer is definitely over and with it, I admit, is my pleasure at being at Les Chênes (Gautreau’s estate).”[12]

Description

There is an assertion and showiness in the expanse of white skin — from her high forehead down her graceful neck, shoulders, and arms. Although the black of her dress is bold, it is also deep, recessive, and mysterious. She is surrounded by a rich brown which is at once luminous and dark enough to provide contrast to the skin tones. Most disconcerting is the whiteness of the skin, an overt contrivance of “aristocratic pallor”; by contrast her red ear is a jarring reminder of the color of flesh unadorned.[7]

Sargent chose the pose for Gautreau carefully: her body boldly faces forward while her head is turned in profile. A profile is both assertion and retreat; half of the face is hidden while, at the same time, the part that shows can seem more defined than full face.

Sargent in his Paris studio, ca. 1885

The table provides support for Gautreau, and echoes her curves and stance. At the time, her pose was considered sexually suggestive. As originally exhibited, one strap of her gown had fallen down Gautreau’s right shoulder, suggesting the possibility of further revealment; “One more struggle”, wrote a critic in Le Figaro, “and the lady will be free”. (Perhaps unknown to the critic, the bodice was constructed over a metal and whalebone foundation and could not have possibly fallen; the shoulder straps were ornamental).

The image’s erotic suggestion is of a distinctly upper-class sort: unnaturally pale skin, cinched waist, severity of profile and an emphasis on aristocratic bone structure all imply a distant sexuality “under the professional control of the sitter”, rather than offered for the viewer’s delectation.[7]

Classical sources, such as the figures in a fresco by Francesco de’ Rossi (Il Salviati), have been suggested as inspiration for the pose.[13] The painting features several subtle classical references: sirens of Greek mythology adorn the table’s legs, and the crescent tiara worn by Gautreau symbolizes the goddess Diana. The latter was not contrived by the artist, but was part of Gautreau’s self-display.[11]

Reception

Antonio de La Gandara, Madame Pierre Gautreau, 1898.

While the work was in progress, Gautreau was enthusiastic; she believed that Sargent was painting a masterpiece.[14] When the painting first appeared at the Paris Salon under the title Portrait de Mme *** in 1884, people were shocked and scandalized; the attempt to preserve the subject’s anonymity was unsuccessful, and the sitter’s mother requested that Sargent withdraw the painting from the exhibition. Sargent refused, saying he had painted her “exactly as she was dressed, that nothing could be said of the canvas worse than had been said in print of her appearance”.[15] Later, Sargent overpainted the shoulder strap to raise it up and make it look more securely fastened. He also changed the title, from the original Portrait de Mme ***, to Madame X — a name more assertive, dramatic and mysterious, and, by accenting the impersonal, giving the illusion of the woman archetype.

The poor public and critical reception was a disappointment to both artist and model. Gautreau was humiliated by the affair, and Sargent would soon leave Paris and move to London permanently.

Aftermath

Sargent hung Madame X first in his Paris studio, and later in his studio in London. Starting in 1905, he displayed it in a number of international exhibitions. In 1916, Sargent sold the painting to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, writing to its director “I suppose it is the best thing I have ever done.”[16][17] A second, unfinished version of the same pose, in which the position of the right shoulder strap remained unresolved, is in the Tate Gallery.[17]

Seven years after Sargent painted Madame Gautreau, Gustave Courtois painted her. As in the earlier painting, the portrait shows her face in profile. She wears the same style of dress, with Courtois’s portrait showing a bit more skin. The strap of her dress hangs off her shoulder much as it had in Sargent’s portrait. This time, however, the portrait was well received by the public. In 1897 Gautreau posed yet again for a standing portrait, for what would be her favorite version, by Antonio de la Gandara.[12]

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