Artwork of the week for January 18, 2010

Robert Henri, American, 1865 – 1929

O in Black with Scarf (Marjorie Organ Henri), 1910
oil on canvas

de Young Museum, San Francisco, CA

At the 1884 Paris Salon, John Singer Sargent showed a portrait of a woman in a black dress. It was supposed to be his greatest achievement, a testament to an American beauty in Paris and a showcase for his talents as a portrait painter. But rather than make him famous, Sargent’s portrait forced him into exile — “Madame x (Madame Pierre Gautreau)” remains one of the most scandalous portraits in the history of western art. Sargent claims he intended to capture M. Gautreau’s renowned (if not infamous) beauty. Instead, the image portrayed Gautreau as a constructed character — it is a painting of an American play-acting a parisienne, consuming culture as if it were a little black dress. Ultimately, “Madam X” is a tableau about spectacle and consumption, pantomime and assumed sophistication.

Surely, when American painter Robert Henri posed his wife in the studio, with her black dress and white skin, “Madame X” and her history loomed before his eyes. The similarities between the two portraits and their sitters are obvious — the size of the canvases, the muted pallets of black, brown, pink and white,  the subjects’ rouged features (lips, cheeks, and ears) contrasted against chalky skin, their left hands clutching their respective accessories. Interestingly, Marjorie Organ Henri and Virginie Gautreau were both ex-pats, a shared characteristic that makes a comparison between the two portraits all the more fascinating. Is Marjorie, the Irish immigrant married to one of the most celebrated painters of the day, performing the part of a socialite? If she is, she’s doing so in a more demure manner than Gautreau.

There are so many comparisons to be made between the two paintings — from the sitter’s gaze or her jeweled embellishments to the artist’s handling of light — so many that I just can’t do it all in the space of a blog. But even without going into further detail, it should be pretty clear “O in Black with Scarf” is Henri’s re-envisioning of “Madame X,” controversial shoulder strap not included.

For you uber-nerds: if you think a comparison like this is super fun, look at Cecilia Beaux’s 1893 “Sita and Sarita” (the Corcoran has attributed the wrong date). Not only is it one of my most favorite paintings, it’s Beaux’s Americanization of Manet’s “Olympia.”

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