The French Connection

In the G-rated version of the painting, the shoulder strap is firmly in place.

In 1884, Virginie Amélie Gautreau, a Parisian socialite celebrated for her eccentric beauty and rumored liaisons, agreed to pose for rising star artist, John Singer Sargent. What they assumed would be a collaboration advancing both their social positions had, alas, the opposite effect. When the painting was unveiled at the Paris Salon, entitled Portrait de Mme ***, the public, who had no trouble identifying the subject, was appalled by Virginie’s revealing gown with its right strap falling casually off her shoulder, her corpse-like skin and provocative pose. It was also savaged by critics crying that no well-born lady would dress in such an unconventional manner. Desperate to save the moment, Sargent painted the strap back in place and renamed the painting Madam X, but the damage was irreparable. Madam Gautreau was so humiliated that she withdrew from society, while Sargent, his career shattered, left France forever. While Madam Gautreau remained reclusive, Sargent ultimately became the preeminent society portraitist of his day. Madam X remained his favorite painting and is today regarded as one of his finest works.

Sergeant in his studio wit the infamous painting that almost cost his career.

Sargent in his studio with the infamous painting that almost cost his career.

While Madam X’s scandal is the stuff of French legend, few know that her family came from Louisiana. Her mother, Marie Virginie de Ternant, was born on Parlange Plantation above Baton Rouge. Situated on False River, so-named because the Mississippi River shifted course and left behind a land-locked arm, Parlange had a number of colorful mistresses, none more formidable than Madam Gautreau’s grandmother Virginie Ternant, for whom she was named. Twice-widowed, Virginie single-handedly saved the plantation from destruction during the Civil War. Instead of resisting enemy troops like her neighbors, she dressed to the hilt and welcomed Union General Nathaniel Banks with genuine Southern hospitality, offering him the finest guest room in the house and throwing a lavish picnic on the lawn for his soldiers. As a result, Banks and his men responded in kind, and, although troop horses trampled the formal gardens, the plantation was otherwise unmolested. Unbeknownst to the Yankees, the wily Virginie had hidden the family silver and buried cash and jewelry in the swamps. She ignored criticism from fellow Confederates accusing her of fraternizing with the enemy by reminding them that the best way to keep soldiers from temptation is to keep certain things out of sight.

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Tragic Julie’s portrait casts a ghostly reflection in Parlange’s drawing room mirror. Photo by Clarence John Laughlin.

Virginie’s tenacity and tact did not always serve her well, however. Her other daughter, Madam Gautreau’s Aunt Julie, was another willful beauty whose life was manipulated with tragic results. At sixteen, Julie fell in love with  a planter’s son, but her mother dismissed the young man as unsuitable and declared that Julie would marry a French count more than twice her age. To everyone’s astonishment, Julie capitulated without a fight and agreed to be married at Parlange. Wedding guests were alarmed by her unearthly pallor and nervousness and the fact that she said nothing more than the fateful, “I do.” Shortly after the ceremony, she screamed, broke away from her aged husband and fled outdoors, hurling herself with terrible force against the base of a great live oak where she sobbed inconsolably. Whether the impulsive deed shattered her skull or triggered madness, no one knows, but it’s recorded that she died a few hours later. Poor Julie was buried in her wedding gown, and, yes, her ghost is said to wander beneath the great moss-draped oaks when the moon is full.

Madam Gautreau’s decendants still occupy Parlange 265 years after its construction. It remains one of the finest examples of French Colonial architecture in America, and in 1974 was declared a National Historic Landmark. It may be visited by appointment only.

Perfectly restored, Parlange Plantation is a National Historic Landmark today.

Perfectly restored and  maintained, Parlange Plantation has endured since 1750.

Another exotic Louisiana-French connection is explored in my book, Creole Son: A Novel of Degas in New Orleans.

2 Comments

  1. Scott
    Apr 4, 2015

    I can hardly imagine that Parisians would be appalled at a loose strap, much less nudity, since they were surrounded by it in museums and galleries since the 1700s. You create intrigue from nearly nothing, and that’s to be commended, as a writer. Sounds like a bad case of “I don’t” at Julie’s wedding. Thanks again for bringing to life a time and culture that has seemingly been forgotten, and lost on our youth.

  2. Liz
    Apr 8, 2015

    I have always loved that Sargent painting and have often stood in front of it at the Metropolitan for long stretches of time. And now I appreciate it even more, thanks to you!

    But oh – poor Julie…

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