Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X by Deborah Davis

For some reason, I expected this book to be historic fiction when I started it. So I was pleasantly surprised to find that it’s actually a well-researched, completely factual account of John Singer Sargent, the woman known as Madame X, and the scandal caused by a fallen strap.

In the late 1800s, John Singer Sargent submitted a portrait of Amelie Gautreau, a beautiful Parisian socialite, to the annual Paris Salon. The painting showed Amelie standing at a table wearing a slinky black dress and looking to her left. The left strap of her dress had fallen off her shoulder, while the right one stayed in place. When the Salon visitors saw this painting (displayed amongst works depicting full-frontal nudity) they went absolutely batshit crazy over the impropriety of it all. Sargent was forced to repaint the portrait with the strap in place, but the damage was done: Amelie’s reputation was permanently ruined, and Sargent’s career was never the same.

Davis’s book explores the personal histories of Amelie, Sargent, and their respective families, as well as Sargent’s career and Amelie’s rise and fall in Parisian society. All of it is fascinating, although admittedly I could’ve done without the personal histories of Amelie’s grandparents and everyone Sargent painted. That being said, they were all fascinating people and I still liked reading about them, although the book would’ve been just as good without their stories.

Verdict: four out of five stars

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