I just discovered this painting Portrait of Madame X by John Singer Sargent on pinterest, where I pinned it to my board entitled "Noses." (It is a board devoted to attractive people with prominent and/or interesting noses. You'd think I had way too much time on my hands.) Curious about the identity of the lady, I looked it up. She is Virginie Amélie Gautreau, a Parisian socialite and notorious beauty originally from New Orleans, and this gorgeous, elegant painting was her undoing -- she had to retire from society after it was shown. And Sargent had to leave Paris. From Confessions of An Unrepentant Art Junkie:
So what did cause such a scandal with Mme. X that Sargent could no longer find commissions and soon had to move to London? According to Mary Alexander, it was the strap and the jewels. Let me explain. Sargent has portrayed Mme. X in the notorious black dress with jeweled straps. She shows off her wedding ring by displaying it against her black satin skirt. She also wears the tiniest of tiaras, barely there, in the shape of a crescent moon: the symbol of Diana, the Goddess of the Hunt. In the 1880s no one would wear evening dress without jewelry, earrings, bracelets, brooches and necklaces. The fact that Mme. X has only her wedding ring and tiara on, suggests that she is home from an evening out and has removed her outer wrap and jewelry. The wedding ring is, however, intentionally prominent. When Sargent originally showed the work in 1884, Mme X’s right strap was painted so that it had fallen off her shoulder, baring her chest suggestively. As Ms. Alexander pointed out, while these standards would change completely within the next couple of years, in 1884, the only contemporary works showing women in such states of undress, were Toulouse Lautrec’s paintings and drawings of prostitutes. Showing Mme. X in such a state lacked the propriety one should expect in a society portrait. Simple as that, according to Ms. Alexander.
Through letters between Mme X and Sargent, Ms. Alexander proved that initially the sitter was pleased with the portrait, though she found the process of posing for it tedious, so we know her initial reaction to the work was not the reason for its infamy. Ms. Alexander says that because it showed the Parisian society matron in a state of undress and posed as Diana “the Huntress,” with her haughty, aristocratic bearing, it lacked the dignity that Parisians expected of society portraits. Though there was a long tradition in French portraiture of portraying aristocrats as classical heroes or goddesses, this was not Mme. X as a Goddess. Her tiara and its reference to Diana allude to her as a huntress/seductress, not the embodiment of a classical goddess, and the strap, fallen off her shoulder and pressing into her arm reinforced the sexual power of the image, but all that seemed acceptable even to the sitter, until the picture was shown in the Salon of 1884.