The young woman turns her head away, as if she has no use for the spectators that gather around her. Despite the apparent rebuff, they are drawn to her—to her extraordinary hourglass figure, her sharp, beguiling profile, and especially to the unearthly pallor of her exposed skin, in marked contrast to the luxuriant black velvet of her shoulder-baring dress.

Observers have been drawn to her for more than a century, and that pale, almost blue flesh is as compelling now as it was shocking when she—or better put, her portrait—was originally unveiled to the public at the Paris Salon of 1884. John Singer Sargent’s depiction of Amélie Gautreau, now known as Madame X, was initially an object of derision, but it came to be treasured over the past 130 years as an icon of the Gilded Age. For art historian Susan Sidlauskas, who is beginning a Guggenheim Fellowship while writing a book about the painter, it’s also something else: a clue to the influence of Sargent’s father, a renowned surgeon, on his son and pupil.

Sidlauskas, a professor in the Department of Art History in the School of Arts and Sciences, had long been fascinated with Sargent and the way he handled skin, fabric, and paint in making them appear “to fuse together and seem interchangeable.” Her discovery, several years ago, that his father, Fitzwilliam, had been a doctor and was the author of On Bandaging, the foremost book of its day on the subject, was something of a revelation. Suddenly, that blue pallor—which Gautreau achieved by way of the application of lavender-tinted powder on her face and body—could be read as Sargent’s deliberate evocation of life and death. And his obsession with layering—garment upon garment upon garment upon flesh—began to seem like the natural interest of a man who’d grown up around intricate depictions of bandaging, not to mention anatomical illustrations. 

Mrs. Hugh Hammersley (1892), left, and Mrs. Carl Meyer and Her Children (1896) demonstrate Sargent’s preoccupation with layering—garment upon garment upon garment upon flesh.


Mrs. Hugh Hammersley (1892), left, and Mrs. Carl Meyer and Her Children (1896) demonstrate Sargent’s preoccupation with layering—garment upon garment upon garment upon flesh.

Courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art; Tate Gallery London

Like a surgeon, Sargent was famously tactile. “He would touch everything he saw that he was interested in,” including paintings in the Louvre, says Sidlauskas. (Once, irked by the placement of the Venus de Milo, he tried to angle the sculpture in a more pleasing direction.) In Sargent’s creation of Madame X and other portraits, Sidlauskas believes, it’s possible that the portraitist was viewing his subjects not just with the eye of a painter but also the vision of a physician.

Nowhere is that possibility more intriguing than in Sargent’s portrait of Lady Sassoon, painted nearly a quarter century after Madame X, in 1907. His subject, who was born Aline Rothschild, doesn’t avert her gaze but instead serenely engages the viewer. It’s not the subject’s face or flesh, though, but her clothing—an ivory lace gown barely visible under a voluminous black cloak lined vividly in red—that’s most striking. “The amazing thing is how the interior of the cloak is arranged around her body in a way she couldn’t possibly have worn it without its being pinned in place,” says Sidlauskas; in fact, Sargent not only chose most of his subjects’ clothing, but also often arranged them in unusual ways—a point reflected in the book title of Sidlauskas’s work in progress, Skins: The Metamorphoses of John Singer Sargent.

Rothschild’s cloak appears to have been arranged deliberately to highlight its scarlet lining, which in this context, Sidlauskas notes, “looks like flesh, like the interior of the body.” The portrait, which in spite of its genial subject provokes an almost violent response, brings to mind a famous 18th-century anatomical mezzotint (an elaborate, three-color print) known as The Flayed Angel, in which a young woman, her back to the viewer, is depicted with her ribs and the raw, red lining of her skin exposed. Sidlauskas can’t say with certainty that Sargent was familiar with the provocative mezzotint, “but he certainly knew about anatomical drawing.”

Fitzwilliam Sargent, after all, wasn’t just the painter’s father but also his tutor, who instructed his son in art and also in the systems of the body, its musculature, skeleton, and venous and arterial systems, which comprise the physical layers of the body. As a painter, says Sidlauskas, Sargent was fascinated with the way layers “both cover and expose.” And certainly, there are layers of mystery obscuring our view of Sargent that have yet to be lifted. She notes that he was “a man without a nation”—an American citizen who lived in Europe most of his life. And economically, “we’re not sure of his class—his father gave up his medical practice at the insistence of his wife, who was ill and who had inherited just enough money to allow the family to live in Europe, where they would move according to the weather: Italy in the cold months, Germany in the warm.”

In researching the book, Sidlauskas has been privileged to view a number of Sargent’s paintings held in private collections, including the enigmatic Sally Fairchild With Blue Veil, a portrait of the Boston heiress that Sargent painted in 1890. From the shoulders up, Fairchild is swathed in a sky-blue veil that obscures virtually all of her features with the exception of a single dark eye and its overarching brow. The layers of cloth—again, reminiscent of bandages—make it hard to get a sense of the living person beneath them, but that well-defined eye reminds us that, if we can’t see in, she can certainly see out—a metaphor, perhaps, for Sargent himself. •