Tuesday, September 21, 2010

An Inferior (Photographic) Reproduction

Of Madame X

Left: Nicole Kidman as Madame X
Right: The original Madame X - Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau,
an American socialite married to a French banker

The October 2010 issue of Vogue is promoting a new book: The World in Vogue: People, Parties, Places, and put a sampler of two portraits of famous women. One is American painter John Singer Sargent's Madam X, which he painted in 1884. Another is a reprint of actress Nicole Kidman posing as a Sargent woman, and Madam X in particular, taken by Vogue photographer Steven Meisel for the June 1999 issue of Vogue.

Sargent's Madame X exudes confidence by the full twist of her body, as though ignoring the painter, and the way she holds her head high. Her presence is appealing with her tightly clinched waist, and a dress with a well-defined bodice and of fine satin material.

Kidman, on the other hand, cannot seem to decide whether to turn away or toward the photographer, and she has those "eyes glaring at headlights" look that she conveys in many of her photos and films. (I always wonder why she is such a popular actress, with such a meek presence). The cut of her dress is not nearly as sophisticated as Madam X's, and it is not clear what the material the dress is made from, although it looks like a heavy and unattractive velvet. And it could just be the web and magazine reprint, but the light behind her is unforgiving and harsh, bringing up too much of a contrast in her skin, and giving it an unattractive reddish glow. Even the table she is leaning on is overbearing, unlike the elegant circular form which is behind Madam X, and whose curves mimic her delicate waistline.

The article in Vogue describes a new exhibition on view at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, New York. The museum's website has a few images from the exhibition, including a sketch of Madame X by Sargent.