Friday, November 26, 2010

Library Book Groups Meeting Next Week

There will be two opportunities next week to join in book discussions at Bernardsville Library. Both library book groups will be meeting to discuss their respective selections, and you are welcome to participate.

Memoirs and Coffee book group will be discussing Temple Grandin's memoir, Thinking in Pictures: and other reports from my life with autism.  Dr. Grandin is Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University and is a noted advocate of improved lifestock handling.  She has designed numerous lifestock facilities around the world which are intended to reduce stress on animals and improve their productivity.  Dr. Grandin also has autism, and in Thinking in Pictures, she reveals what it is like to live with autusm and think in picutres rather than words. Her memoir will be discussed this Tuesday, November 30, at 10:30 a.m. in the library Community Room.

Saturday Samplers book group will discuss The Invisible Wall: a love story that broke barriers by Harry Bernstein on Saturday, December 4, at 3:30 p.m. in the Small Meeting Room.  Mr. Bernstein is a late-blooming author, having published this biography at the age of  96 in 2007.  He has subsequently written two more books.  The Invisible Wall recalls his youth in a Lancashire working class town where Jews and Christians lived on the same street, but separated themselves according to sides of the street.  The author paints a very bleak picture of his brutish father, oppressed mother, and struggling siblings, and yet he counterbalances this with a very touching love story that indeed broke barriers.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Madame X in Literature and X-Rays

As a follow-up to the Saturday Samplers book group discussion of  Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X by Deborah Davis, here are a few points of interest that we learned.
The original version of the painting, Portrait de Mme ***, which caused such a stir at the Paris Salon of 1884, was captured in only one black and white photograph, seen above. The pose of Madame Gautreau with her jeweled strap seductively slipping off her shoulder brought notoriety to a painting which was not well received for several other reasons. Both the artist and subject were duly shocked by the critical furor, and Sargent retreated to England while Madame Gautreau (Mme. X) spent the rest of her life trying to reclaim her former position in Parisian society. At some point, Sargent repainted the strap to fit her shoulder (see image below.) Still believing that it was his finest work, he later sold the painting to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
By coincidence, two books published in 2003 (with similar book covers) addressed the compelling story behind this famous portrait. Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X used historical resources to describe Sargent's career and how it intersected with Mme. X in this one painting. While art historians know that there are many intriguing tales behind works of art, it takes a writer looking for a book subject to bring them to life for the general public. A second writer, Gioia Diliberto, chose to focus on Madame Gautreau, rather than the painting itself, in her publication, I am Madame X: a novel. This book is a highly imaginative, fictional account of an American woman born of French descent whose goal in life was to make a name for herself in belle époque France.

For interesting insights into how Sargent struggled with his composition of Madame X, repainting her profile at least eight times, please refer to the Saturday Samplers blog. There you will find a technical analysis done by the Metropolitan Museum of Art using X-radiography. You can see an X-ray image of the repainted strap as well.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

A Freudian Slip of the Strap?

Saturday Samplers, a Bernardsville Library book group, will discuss Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X by Deborah Davis on Saturday, November 6, at 3:30 p.m. in the library. 

Strapless tells the fascinating story behind John Singer Sargent's famous portrait of Mme. Gautreau. This life-size oil painting caused an absolute sensation at the Paris Salon of 1884.  Exhibited alongside hundreds of paintings by renowned and aspiring artists, Portrait de Mme ***, as Madame X  singularly attracted the disdain of both art critics and the Parisian public.

Why should this particular painting of a Belle Epoch socialite arouse such instantaneous revulsion and criticism?  After all, Mme. Gautreau was considered to be an exotically beautiful young woman known for her remarkable neckline and figure.  Why should John Singer Sargent's work be so reviled when he had successfully exhibited paintings at previous Salons? Could the artist's placement of her loose dress strap be enough to inflame the French or were there other factors behind their general disdain for what is now considered to be a masterpiece?  In Strapless, Sargent's career is examined in terms of the impact this portrait had on both the artist and the sitter, Madame X.
Review by Evelyn Fischel