Painting Madame Gautreau
Madame X, John Singer Sargent, 1884
She could hardly hold a pose, destabilizing hours
in which his charcoals offered dim peignoirs
that queried rather than followed flesh
already so compromised by purplish powder
that in the finished oils she looked less lush
than “decomposed,” or so one critic brusquely
noted his dismay that a woman famously
adulterous could compel the particular brush
of an uppercrust portraitist. And oh, the easy V
of bodice! “One more struggle and the lady will be free…,”
this baritone undercutting the “quelle horreurs”
of the bonneted, who graced the opening in feisty,
pastel droves. But how could a painting smudge the honor
of a self-acknowledged henna user?
And the work had become its own inducement
once he accepted the discomfiture
that certain brushwork, like proximity, introduces.
The light itself had tipped that flush of puce
down her chest: Beauty arriving in its own best armor
for a skirmish he’d only tried to reproduce
those awful months. He didn’t have to like her.
Though he had loved pulling a twist of pink around one ear
and nostril, the stiff, cinched velvet X
of gown, and the strap he’d brushed back over
one columnar shoulder when he’d moved the likeness
back to his groundfloor rooms and the soon-to-be-ex
gardener had leaned over the sill to chaff Madame
then wandered off, perplexed, to pinch the iris!