1884. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA. Read Note.
Virginie Gautreau (1859-1915, née Avegno) was born in Louisiana to Marie-Virginie de Ternant, said to be the only surviving child of the 2nd Marquis de Ternant, and Major Anatole Placide Avegno, himself of Italian descent. When her father died from wounds received at the battle of Shiloh, her widowed mother packed up and sailed to France, taking Virginie (aged four) and her elder sister Julie. They never returned to America. As her daughters grew older, Madame Avegno worked to place them in society, which meant marry them well. The Faubourg turned its back on these colonial hybrids; their genealogy was too flimsy, their background too mysterious, to permit them to move in the highest circles. They were, despite their thin aristocratic connection, considered arriviste, and were summarily dismissed. But the girls possessed such beauty – having inherited a full portion of their mother and their father’s glorious appearance – they were impossible to ignore. Their looks were a considerable social asset, and Virginie was not backward or modest about showing herself off. She was excessively proud of her features and her figure; proud to a degree that parodied such a gift… She married a wealthy banker and ship owner, Pierre Gautreau, and found a place – not an altogether secure place – in Paris society. She moved among the professional classes; financiers, doctors, politicians… She was alleged to have had a long affair with Dr. Pozzi.” (John Singer Sargent. His Portrait. by Stanley Olson. Macmillan London Ltd. 1986. p. 102)
Virginie was painted by different artists. John Sargent started work on his portrait of her when she was twenty three year old. The portrait was showed at the Spring Paris Salon in 1884 and aroused severe critic. “The storm that swirled around the picture gathered force from a basic confusion. The fierce reaction was caused primarily by the subject, and the painting was used as evidence. People were jeering at Madame Gautreau herself.” (John Singer Sargent. His Portrait. by Stanley Olson. Macmillan London Ltd. 1986. p. 103)