Latest: What John Singer Sargent Saw

Perhaps you, too, know the notorious “Madame X”?

She of the aquiline profile, alabaster skin and plunging black neckline has recently been transported to Tate Britain, in London, for the second stop of “Sargent and Fashion” (through July 7), which debuted at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, last fall. The retrospective brings together over 50 works that highlight the portraitist’s interest in how the clothes make the man, or woman.

In 1882, John Singer Sargent and his subject Virginie Amélie Gautreau were both 20-something Americans in Paris, outsiders eager to break into the city’s rarefied circles and learn the unspoken rules of class and propriety. The young painter, newly admitted to the French capital’s prestigious Salon, asked the New Orleans-born beauty notorious for her eccentric cosmetic routine (she covered her skin with violet-tinged white powder and rouged the edges of her ears) to sit for a portrait.

The strikingly modern painting, with its pared-back palette and austere lines, pleased both its painter and sitter, but when it was shown publicly in 1884, critics described Gautreau as haughty, her dress crude. Others criticized Sargent’s painting as overly stylized and indecorous. Gautreau’s mother pronounced that he had destroyed her daughter’s reputation. Sargent removed the young woman’s name from the portrait’s title and replaced it with “Madame X,” but the damage was done.

An unfinished preparatory study hanging nearby shows the true scandal: One of the dress’s diamond-studded straps was originally painted off-shoulder, as if momentarily slipped over the course of an evening, or, worse, perhaps the state of undress was intentional. Following the outcry in Paris, Sargent repainted the fastening securely in place, but he never showed the painting again and was forced to decamp to London to restore his career. In 1916, after Gautreau’s death, he donated “Madame X” to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, writing to its director, “I suppose it is the best thing I have done.”

He may be right, but in the intervening decades, and up until his death in 1925, Sargent produced a body of work that shows a rare attunement to the public scrutiny faced by women in the public eye. For these women, clothes were a kind of armor, but also an opportunity for self-expression at a time in which gender roles were increasingly in flux.

Throughout the exhibition, Sargent is posed as a “stylist” — a contemporary but effective term to characterize how he both arranged and interpreted the garments of his sitters, in person and in paint. Portraits were a site of exchange between the subject and their public, but also a collaboration between the subject and their painter.

In “Lady Sassoon,” a portrait of Aline de Rothschild from 1907, the highly educated music lover is shown in a sumptuous black opera cloak of silk taffeta lined with satin pink. Compared to the real cloak, hanging stolidly on display as many of the sitters’ costumes are, Lady Sassoon’s painted ensemble is all energetic rippling lines and folds, its rosy insides flashing where Sargent must have pinned the sleeves back for contrast.

Nearby, “Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth” (1889) captures the famous British actress in a bejeweled green dress and an embroidered maroon robe, her long red plaits braided with gold, as she lifts her murderous husband’s crown in the air. Terry’s elaborate “Beetle Wing Dress” is shown nearby, illustrating Sargent’s confident rendering of its luminous details.

Sargent painted performers, society women, artists, writers, socialists and suffragists. Some brought boxes of dresses to sittings only to have them discarded by the painter who might insist on draping fabric to produce lavish ad hoc ensembles or, conversely, suggest they wear the plainest of fashions.

“I see you! I see you!” Sargent finally said to one patron in a simple black dress, having impatiently watched her work her way through all her best finery. Others were depicted in decidedly unfeminine garb, as in the suited “Vernon Lee” (1881), which captures Sargent’s friend, a writer born Violet Paget, who chose an androgynous moniker and look. In many of these portraits, there is a sense that the painter, himself an outsider — a lifelong expatriate, an unmarried (and possibly gay) man in Victorian London — was keenly aware of the difference between being looked at and being seen.

And then there are the details. I have rarely heard “beautiful” uttered so many times, in such hushed tones of reverence, at an exhibition. Skirts billow like clouds. Colors are ice-cream sweet. Pearl necklaces fall in delicate opalescent strains. Flowers are bright smudges held in hands or pinned against the breast and neck.

“Lady Agnew of Lochnaw” (1892) is a vision in gossamer white, her waist encircled by a swath of violet that spills down her side as if it has come to life. “Lady Helen Vincent, Viscountess d’Abernon (Helen Venetia Duncombe)” (1904) is enveloped by a bolt of shining pastel pink that hovers and twists like a colorful abstraction.

In his later years, Sargent stopped taking commissions and spent his time painting friends and family, often in the outdoors. These works, not geared to the requirements of patrons, show a remarkable sense of Impressionist-inflected experiment. “Two Girls in White Dresses” (1911) shows the titular figures lying in an alpine meadow. The foreground is dominated by the skirts of one, and her small face peers out from the mass of fabric folds as if she — like the surface of the painting — has dissolved into planes of color. Canvas is, after all, a textile itself.

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