Sargent’s Madame X and new ideas about visual objectification of women

John Singer Sargent’s painting Madame X was a scandalous portrait in its day, and arguably one of the most erotic images of the late 19th Century:

The portrait was of Virginie Gautreau, whose mother objected to how the dress, unstrapped on one side, appeared to be falling off thus suggesting a too-easy availability. As a social climber, and member of a an American family trying to recover its reputation despite having been slave-owning plantationers during the Civil War, Gautreau’s social status had to have been a hot commodity. Indeed it’s rumored that she constantly played up her beauty and presence, to the chagrin of many artists who wished to paint her portrait (Sargent was allowed to first). The social conventions of the time seem gross and silly to us today; they were perhaps best spoofed by Oscar Wilde in The Importance of Being Earnest. Unfortunately, the profile-composition and the sexuality of the image caused scandal, enough that Sargent was forced to add the strap back in, although you can see the strapless version in this sketch:

Why is this portrait so alluring? In addition to the rules of Victorian culture (and breaking them), there are some design reasons, hinted at in the simplified backgrounds found both in the finished painting as well as Sargent’s studies. Consider how ornate the background is in this photo of Sargent and the painting; a typical wealthy person’s Victorian home… we don’t see such details in the painting:

Simplifying the background has the effect of bringing attention to the figure, drawing attention away from the thousands of visual intrigues and many objects that would be in a background (panelling, architecture, etc.) To take away these background details is to amplify the main subject matter; to accomplish what neuroscientists call the peak-shift effect, creating a supernormal image that is more attractive than everyday life. It also turns out that removing the objects changes our vision a bit, since we use different visual processing for seeing and interpreting objects as we do for seeing people…

To get a sense of the importance of the background, we could compare Madame X to some other important portraits by Sargent, such as these two:

Padre Sebastiano

Mrs. Hugh Hammersley (Mary Frances Grant)

Both portraits contain much more active backgrounds. Does it make sense to say that Padre Sebastiano sinks into his surroundings rather than, like Madame X, dominates the scene? The Hammersley portrait, according to the Metropolitan Museum’s curatorial notes, is said to have re-established Sargent’s reputation as a reliable portraitist in the new international style, after the Madame X scandals. In many ways Mrs. Hammersley is equally as fetching, if not more so due to her direct gaze and the height of our viewpoint (we have the dominant position as viewers). I can’t help but think how such images mislead us all into sexualized fantasies. Why?

An interesting new study [“Seeing women as objects: The sexual body part recognition bias.” European Journal of Social Psychology, 2012; DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.1890 ] just confirmed what we all knew: we look at men and women differently. Indeed we might use entirely different cognitive systems altogether – ones that are used to identify whole patterns (sometimes called gestalts), versus ones used to identify specific parts within a pattern. Specific parts goes towards viewing women, whereas gestalts go towards viewing men. This understanding has implications for all sorts advertising, websites and fine art, not least of which are the many traditions of the nude in art, and the many power-plays that they employ to interest and titillate the intended audience. Interestingly, both male and female subject experienced these same cognitive differences when viewing women; it wasn’t just the men alone who did the objectifying. And that’s the interesting part about the study: women process images of women in the same objectifying ways that men do. What about viewing transsexuals, asexuals, or those who appear especially androgynous? More study, obviously has to be done.

As related to visual art, often in figure drawing we art instructors try to encourage students to see and rely on the form of the whole person’s pose, before identifying specific features – I wonder if this kind of task might be easier if the model is male, since that is when we tend to look for gestalts? Hmm. Of course in realist art, a good figure drawing or painting is one that is a balanced blend of both the whole and the parts – so, I guess that means the artistry might require both sets of global and local cognitive abilities.

Another study along a similar vein was Integrating Sexual Objectification With Object Versus Person Recognition: The Sexualized-Body-Inversion Hypothesis. [P. Bernard, S. J. Gervais, J. Allen, S. Campomizzi, O. Klein.  Psychological Science, 2012; 23 (5): 469 DOI: 10.1177/0956797611434748]. The study attempted to use upside-down images of sexy men and women. The basics? Psychological research has determined that we see people and objects in very different ways, which in turn suggest that we could measure whether or not we sometimes see people as objects, or objects as people.

I’d be curious to find out if portraits of people are sometimes treated as if they were real people. If we did treat portraits as if they were real (in cognitive terms), then the substitution of art for life would suggest that portraiture actually would have some basis in reasonable visual experiences closely linked to real life, that the realist is activating the same parts of the mind as would be sometimes activated by the presence of a real person. Could it be possible? If so, what happens when the image is entirely invented, as in a painting of a mythical figure? Interesting dilemma; one that hits at the root of representation in art and whether or not artists are mere illusionists or full connectors, and provokers, of lively human experiences. I’d like to believe the latter!

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