Welcome to the Chubby Chatterbox Newsletter, where I’ll be posting favorites from the Chubby Chatterbox archives. In addition, my complete thriller Return of the Mary Celeste will soon be serialized here for those who have asked for something beyond a regular post.

My novel is based on a true event, arguably the greatest maritime mystery of all time. In 1872 the crew and passengers of Boston brigantine Mary Celeste abandoned their seaworthy ship and its valuable cargo, vanishing in the middle of the Atlantic. Speculation over their fate has never abated. History records that after the Mary Celeste tragedy no one from that fateful voyage was ever seen again. History is about to be rewritten…

Return of the Mary Celeste

Prologue

Tragedy struck the brigantine Mary Celeste on the morning of November 25, 1872. The hourly log was later recovered from the deserted vessel; At 8 a.m. the last notation was made. By 9 a.m. no one remained aboard to chalk the next entry.

Something had terrified Captain Benjamin Briggs and his crew, prompting the seasoned skipper to make a decision certain to affect not only himself, his ship and crew, but his family as well—his wife and two year old daughter were aboard Mary Celeste. Much ink has been spilled in fanciful and scientific attempts to explain the calamity that engulfed this perfectly seaworthy ship, yet all that is known for certain is this: in a matter of minutes Captain Briggs became convinced that the only way to save their lives was by ordering everyone into a hastily launched lifeboat. By giving the order to abandon ship, he also launched the greatest of all maritime mysteries.

On December 5, 1872, a month after leaving New York Harbor, Mary Celeste was found drifting on a calm and empty sea. The ship was in fine condition, perfectly intact with valuable cargo safely stored in her hold, but the crew and passengers had vanished. None were ever seen again.

Until now….

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Madame X

August 8, 2014
“Shameful!”

    

“A disgrace!”

    

“The artist should be whipped!”

    

The painter John Singer Sargent had no idea his portrait of Madame Pierre Gautreau, known for her artful appearance, would become the talk of Paris at the Salon of 1884. Sargent hoped to enhance his reputation by painting her portrait, but instead of praise critics dished out nothing but ridicule. Scorn for his portrait was so intense that Sargent left Paris and reestablished his studio in London. Looking at this painting, it’s hard to experience the whiff of naughtiness that enraged people, why they thought it obscene, especially in Paris, a city that had seen it all.

    

Sargent worked without a commission, but with Gautreau’s willing participation—until she viewed the final result. Born in Louisiana, Gautreau was a social climber who hoped being painting by an avant-garde young artist would open doors for her. She was already well-known for her unique profile and exotic fashion. She wore pale make-up and salaciously rouged the tips of her ears.

 

    

But it was the dress that caught the public’s eye. She seemed about to spill out of a bodice held up by thin gold straps. ( The picture was originally painted with one of the straps hanging down.) When word reached Sargent that someone had threatened to knife the painting he repainted the dangling strap hoping it would quell the controversy. The alteration failed to do so.

    

 

The strap before alteration.

 

 

Nearly twenty years earlier, Manet had shocked Paris by exhibiting Luncheon on the Grass, showing a naked woman outdoors in the company of fully clothed men. Like Sargent, Manet had no idea his picture, based on an engraving by Raphael, would cause a scandal, yet scandal and notoriety followed both artists for the rest of their lives. In Sargent’s case, the scandal surrounding him generated demands for his work and made him the darling of Victorian England.

 

 
Manet's Luncheon on the Grass.
    

The major difference between Manet’s painting and the portrait of Gautreau is that Luncheon on the Grass depicts the bourgeoisie, the middle class. The French were accustomed to paintings showing the foibles of average people, even if these depictions were unflattering, but Madame Gautreau was not a member of the middle class; she was among the privileged few, a cultured member of the elite. Her straps are diamond, and on her head she wears a crescent moon diadem as a reference to Diana, goddess of the hunt. She all but shouts—money is sexy! Had this been an anonymous woman with her breasts tumbling from her gown the French would have gotten over it more easily, but flaunting sexuality in the form of a real person was an insult.

    

Madame Gautreau never liked the painting and was humiliated by the derision heaped on it. She’d refused to let Sargent identify her as the model so the portrait was exhibited under the title Madame X. Sargent kept the painting in his studio for thirty years, selling it to New York’s Metropolitan Museum only after the sitter’s death in 1915. Late in life when asked about it Sargent commented, “I suppose it is the best thing I have done.”

 

 

Sargent in his studio with Madame X, 1884

 

Is there a particular painting you’d like me to write about? Let me know. Please not Dogs Playing Poker.



Comments

29 Comments
A truly informative and fascinating post.
By: John on August 8, 2014
Still looking for something scandalous about that painting.
By: Cranky on August 8, 2014
You always have interesting tales to tell!
By: Eva Gallant on August 8, 2014
How about "The Night Watch"?
By: Brian Slater on August 8, 2014
Parisians scandalized? I don't get it with that painting. The naked broad in the park I can see. But, even THAT one is just weird, not particularly scandalous.
By: Al Penwasser on August 8, 2014
Rouging the tips of her ears? All righty then. Can you analyze velvet Elvii?
By: PT Dilloway on August 8, 2014
geez, folks were mighty uptight on that one!
By: TexWisGirl on August 8, 2014
Upper, middle and lower classes and their standards befuddles this classless gent. ;-)
By: Daniel LaFrance on August 8, 2014
Strange fellow, Sargent. The picture is more compelling than most of his images, and I wonder why he thought it the best he had done? Though in fact, I agree with him, although I have always loved Carnation Lily Lily Rose.
By: Jenny Woolf on August 8, 2014
I don't understand all the hullabaloo, either!!
By: fishducky on August 8, 2014
would you consider this one: http://fineartamerica.com/featured/cats-playing-pool-gail-eisenfeld.html Actually in all seriousness how about Goya's The Third of May 1808 or Duel with Cudgels? Or...pick one painting by Hieronymus Bosch Cheers!
By: Kathe W. on August 8, 2014
I can see nothing salacious in that painting. Now the naked woman and two fully clothed gents--goodness- not fair for the lady. . Odd how they all seemed totally uninterested.
By: Akansas Patti on August 8, 2014
True artist that you are.. you not only have great talent, you know a lot about the history of art.
By: Hilary on August 8, 2014
I don't agree with Arkansas. I'm thinking that lady is doubly lucky, or will be shortly. The French - go figure. Some of their attitudes have been known to perplex us common, non-French folk.
By: Robyn Engel on August 8, 2014
Rodin's sculpture caught my eye when I toured the Smithsonian. I was not expecting to see it and was shocked that I was so lucky to see the real thing.
By: red on August 8, 2014
I must admit that the first thing I noticed was her rosy ear. I would like to know more about Thomas Cole's "Expulsion: Moon and Firelight." I'm not sure what to make of it, but it commands my attention.
By: Val on August 8, 2014
I figured it had to be the dress. I have one just like it. People always stare when I wear it to the grocery store. I have never before heard of salaciously rouging the tips of one's ears. I might try that out. Love, Janie
By: Janie Junebug on August 8, 2014
Rouging the tips of her ears??? That hussy! :-)
By: Pixel Peeper on August 8, 2014
I always learn something new when I visit your blog. I love art ---I think the painting is GORGEOUS and the story is fascinating! I never knew the story behind this painting!
By: marcia @ Menopausal Mother on August 8, 2014
Believe me, i'm willing to read your commentary on any painting, and no, i won't ask you to comment on the locally famous blue dogs, either.
By: mimi on August 8, 2014
Interesting ... even back then bad publicity was better than no publicity at all -- at least they were talking about him, and still are!
By: tomsightings on August 9, 2014
That was a very interesting account of the two painters, the paintings and Madame X. Such narrow mindedness . . . .quite difficult to believe in this age.
By: Eddie Bluelights on August 9, 2014
I'm sorry, all I can think of is that it is with the same eyes you are using to look upon these classic artworks also saw Sharknado. Alas, I fear my recovery may be long and painful.
By: Jerry E. Beuterbaugh on August 9, 2014
It is a beautiful painting and the artist, whichever world in which he now resides, should be proud.
By: Bruce on August 9, 2014
The painting - and the woman - are gorgeous! I'd expect the criticism to come from Victorian England, not France. The French are an enigma. My favorite painting are Dali's "The Persistence of Memory" and H. Rousseau's "Tiger in the Jungle with Hunters." I dunno why. People have strange tastes!
By: Lexa Cain on August 10, 2014
I had completely forgotten the history of this painting. Thanks. (Besides you tell it so much better than Professor Rosenberg did in 1972!) I can't believe you won't tell about the dogs playing cards. Our neighbors had that centerstage in their den. Even at the age of 10, I thought it was bizarre... and awful.
By: Mitchell is Moving on August 11, 2014
Another post that is both interesting and educational; not always an easy combination to achieve. In my ignorance, I at first assumed that it was her flared nostrils that caused offence!
By: Bryan Jones on August 11, 2014
I'll bet Hugh Hefner knows about this painting and model!
By: Michael Manning on August 13, 2014
interesting back story illustrating the values of the time.
By: lime on August 13, 2014

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