Suburban Soliloquy #56

La Visite

Ms Keogh, my more significant other of eighteen years, and I were traipsing around downtown Philadelphia one recent evening. As it grew late we returned to the car, which I had left parked in front of the Jefferson Alumni Hall of Thomas Jefferson University. Before climbing into the car, we went into the Alumni Hall to peek into the Eakins Gallery. Although one is not allowed to enter the gallery at that late hour, you can peer into the gallery from the adjacent Eakins Lounge. During the day all you need do is ask and the guard will unlock the gallery's door and let you visit. These areas are named for Thomas Eakins, often acclaimed my Nation's greatest painter, and a native son of Philadelphia.

One side of the lounge is a wall of glass looking into a garden. The other side is a wall of bricks with a towering Romanesque archway into which a heavy iron gate has been installed. Through the widely separated grating is a view into the heart of the Eakins Gallery.

Across the gallery should have been Thomas Eakins' large painting, The Gross Clinic. Eakins had a strong affiliation with the Jefferson Medical College at the University. He attended their anatomy classes and dissected cadavers to develop his skills as a painter. This immense group portrait, more than six feet wide and eight feet high, centers on Doctor Samuel D. Gross. In the painting Professor Gross has momentarily turned away from the surgery to instruct. He is removing a sequestrum from the left thigh of an adolescent - whose mother is present, though I can't imagine why. She is covering her face, obviously distraught. The painting, completed in 1875, was a flop. The public and critics felt it was too - um - "gross". Jefferson Medical College bought it for two hundred dollars in 1878. The Gross Clinic was recently on loan to the Philadelphia Museum of Art for a fantastic exhibition, Thomas Eakins: American Realist. During that time the wall in the Eakins Gallery had remained bare. That show concluded on the sixth of January and the painting should have long since been returned, or so I figured.

Shock! It had not been returned. Instead in its place hung another painting. Not just any painting, but perhaps Ms Keogh's favourite painting, Madame X by John Singer Sargent. Who does not know this painting? What the HELL was Madame X doing in Philadelphia?!?!?! Had there been any kind of announcement of her visit? Did the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan know she was slumming it here on Locust Street in Philadelphia?

I called to Ms Keogh to hurry over. With typical contrariness to any perceived demand of supposed authority, she didn't come but called out, "What is it?" But I didn't want to tell her. I wanted to surprise her. Besides, I didn't think she would believe me. She came reluctantly, dragging her feet. When she reached my side by the iron gate, she was stunned. "Is it a copy?" she asked. We were both incredulous. How could she be here unannounced?

The painting, for those few of you not familiar with it, shows Madame Pierre Gautreau in her twenties. She is standing before us in a scandalous low-cut gown that reveals her hourglass figure. In contrast to the blackness of her gown is the stark whiteness of her practically bare shoulders, her long neck, her head turned in profile; it has the appearance of a cameo in white marble. She wears her hair in a chignon and this makes visible a small ear that looks as though it has been carved from red coral. I have since learned that these colours resulted from her curious sense of makeup, but it does make for an interesting painting. She wears no jewelry, except the thin straps of her gown are bejeweled.

She is a woman I want to know, flamboyant and proud, and also daring. In the original version of this painting one of the straps has fallen off her shoulder. It was just too risqué. Sargent had shown the painting at the Paris Salon the year he completed it, 1884. The public mocked it. The critics panned it. Madame's family asked him to withdraw the painting. When the show was over, Sargent revised the painting, rearranging the strap back to her shoulder. There exists a photograph that shows the painting before he altered it. I would have preferred it if he hadn't acceded to the prudes. The resulting notoriety caused Sargent to leave France and set up his studio in England. He kept the painting, but wouldn't show it again for another twenty-one years. He sold it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1916.

On an afternoon I went back to visit with Madame X. The guard let me into the Elkins Gallery, but he was required to remain with me. I felt I was inconveniencing him, so after a bit I let him lock the place back up. I returned to the iron gate in the brick wall and stood outside the gallery looking in. I pulled up a chair and rested my feet on one of the gate's crossbars. She was well-lit and I could see the whole of the painting which is higher than six and a half feet, wider than three and a half feet. For the next hour and a half I was alone with Madame X. No one else entered the area to disturb us. I took out my carnet and attempted to sketch her with my ballpoint pen. It is an awful sketch. I made so many corrections with my penknife that the page is just about scraped through.

The Gross Clinic stayed with the Thomas Eakins: American Realist exhibition as it traveled to the Metropolitan Museum. In the meantime the Jefferson Alumni Hall is holding Madame X hostage. Shouldn't she be regarded a guest of the city? But America's Mona Lisa remains tucked away, unannounced. We've since had several trysts.

Bruce Bentzman

Madame X belongs to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (and can be visited at . The museum kindly allows us to reproduce the picture, but very reasonably asks that we include this caption information:

Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau), 1883–1884
John Singer Sargent (1856–1925)
Oil on canvas; 82 1/8 x 43 1/4 in. (208.6 x 109.9 cm)
Arthur Hoppock Hearn Fund, 1916 (16.53)

This essay is the fifty-sixth in a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr Bentzman. If you've any comments or suggestions, the writer would be pleased to hear from you.
Mr Bentzman's collection of poems, "Atheist Grace" is now available from Amazon, as are "The Short Stories of B.H.Bentzman"