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By Avery Glassman — Early next month the Driehaus Museum Book Club will discuss the novel, I am Madame X, presented by its author, Gioia Diliberto. Ms. Diliberto’s novel is based on the scandalous portrait of Virginie Gautreau by American artist, John Singer Sargent.  He originally titled it, Portrait of Madame ***, in an attempt to conceal his voluptuous sitter’s identity. As far as Paris society was concerned, the woman’s identity was far from the only asset the painting failed to cover. First exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1884, Madame X would swiftly undo the reputation Sargent had worked years to establish.

Driehaus Museum Chicago

Portrait of Madame ***, John Singer Sargent, 1884.

Portraiture was Sargent’s business, but Madame X was not a commissioned painting. Rather, Sargent sought out Gautreau as his subject. In a letter to his friend Ben Castillo, Sargent writes, “I have a great desire to paint her portrait and have reason to think that she would allow it and is waiting for someone to pay this homage to her beauty. If you are ‘bien avec elle’ and will see her in Paris you might tell her that I am a man of prodigious talent.” Born in New Orleans but raised in Paris, Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau was known in international circles as a professional beauty; she transformed the Gilded Age conceit of socializing and its notions of femininity into an act of performance. Inspired by her dramatic looks but just as influenced by her social prowess, Sargent was convinced that one confidently painted portrait of Gautreau would be enough to solidify his standing as the premier portraitist in France.

At the 1884 Salon, however, the painting was ridiculed by critics and the public alike, as indecent, obscene, and even morbid. The original composition depicts the left strap of Gautreau’s gown hanging off her shoulder. “Hanging” is a misleading descriptor, however, as the strap appears tightly bound. Gautreau’s flesh puckers around the strap’s encrustations as her deltoid muscle flexes from her hand’s firm placement on the table. Were the strap to drape limply over Gautreau’s shoulder, the slippage would seem accidental and therefore innocent; the lady a mere victim of gravity. But the tension of the strap within the exhibited composition instead affirms intention, a purposefully daring modification to an already provocative outfit. To viewers at the Salon it was aggressive—certainly the last thing a woman in 1884 was supposed to be. Madame X’s dominant womanhood is just as thoroughly imbued in her assertive stance, haughty profile, and ambiguous, undomestic surroundings. It is for these reasons that Madame X continued to offend viewers, even after Sargent’s sartorial edit.

Gautreau, who had expressed satisfaction with the work in Sargent’s studio, was humiliated and irate after its unveiling. She and her mother demanded that Sargent take it down.  He refused until the bitter dispute escalated with their threats to forcibly remove the painting. Ultimately, Sargent was compelled to evade disparaging remarks in Paris by permanently relocating to London. Sargent donated Madame X to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1916, along with some instructions. To the museum director Sargent wrote, “By the way, I should prefer, on account of the row I had with the lady years ago, that the picture should not be called by her name, at any rate for the present, and that her name should not be communicated to the newspapers.”

Throughout his career, the largest faction of John Singer Sargent’s clientele was American. One wonders if Samuel and Matilda Nickerson ever considered investing in a portrait by Sargent. It is unlikely that they gave it much thought after 1884, as Madame X’s unembellished, revealing gown presents a stark contrast to the heavily embroidered, conservative frocks Mrs. Nickerson was reported to have worn. The couple would certainly have caught wind of the Madame X scandal and, since their tastes were relatively traditional (as their art collection suggests), the Nickerson’s would probably have kept themselves far removed from a portraitist so avant-garde.



Centeno, Silvia, and Dorothy Mahon. “A Technical Study of John Singer Sargent’s Portrait of Madame Pierre Gautreau.” Metropolitan Museum Journal, 2005.

Diliberto, Gioia. “Sargent’s Muses: Was Madame X Actually a Mister?” New York Times, May 18, 2003.

Moss, Dorothy. “John Singer Sargent, ‘Madame X’ and ‘Baby Millbank’.” The Burlington Magazine, May 2001.

Ormond, Richard. Oxford Art Online / Grove Art Online entry on John Singer Sargent. September 27, 1999.

Sidlauskas, Susan. “Painting Skin: John Singer Sargent’s ‘Madame X’.” American Art, Autumn 2001.


vreeland_bookclub_groupThe Tiffany Girls faced their toughest critic since the old master himself during a recent twilight tour at the Driehaus Museum. Susan Vreeland, author of the acclaimed bestselling novel, Clara and Mr. Tiffany, was the featured speaker at the Driehaus Winter Book Club this March. She also gave two lectures at the museum on the Women’s Department at Tiffany Studios. Vreeland provided some valuable insights as she accompanied “Clara Driscoll” and “Agnes Northrop” on a historic reenactment through their temporary studio and showroom in the Nickerson Mansion.


Set in 1899, Clara and Agnes are preparing to enter their designs in the 1900 Exposition Universalle in Paris. Guests on the tour are invited to take roles as potential customers. Ms. Vreeland was handed the part of an English aristocrat and played it rather convincingly. She demanded answers about the techniques used to create the myriad effects associated with the fabrication of Tiffany lamps. Vreeland’s visit to Chicago was timed to coincide with Women’s History Month as well as to tour the exhibition: Louis Comfort Tiffany, Treasures from the Driehaus Collection. In her novel, Vreeland recreates the fin de siecle with its tempestuous labor struggles and the nascent women’s rights movement. Her book describes the strivings of young women artists who found gainful employment in Louis Comfort Tiffany’s New York studios alongside their grudging male counterparts.

“Remember to emphasize that this was a very diverse group of women,” Vreeland advised. “Some of the workers had formal art training while others who showed a certain predilection for the tasks had to be instructed in the selection and cutting of the glass by Clara herself.” “There were many languages spoken and the women represented a range of the immigrant population.”

Susan Vreeland with the "Tiffany Girls"

Susan Vreeland with the “Tiffany Girls”

She found the two actresses who portrayed Clara and Agnes to be both charming and very knowledgeable about their respective roles.

Ms. Vreeland read a portion of her novel in Roland Nickerson’s bedroom, pausing at Driscoll’s Wisteria Lamp to deliver a message on beauty and design. Later in an impromptu question and answer session, she fielded queries about her research, writing methods and the plot of her newest novel, Lisette’s List to the group.

“I write on a lap top,” she said. “Multiple drafts.”

Book signing following the group discussion

Book signing following the group discussion

Many questions centered on the betrothal and subsequent disappearance of Clara Driscoll’s second fiancé, social reformer, Edwin Waldo. In the book, the couple travels to Lake Geneva to mark their engagement. Although seemingly happy, Edwin suddenly and mysteriously disappears. He would resurface many years later without explanation. Vreeland speculated that he might have had some form of mental illness. Apparently he would vanish again after relocating to California. But she emphasized his sincere desire to help elevate the status of workers. Clara Driscoll was deeply influenced by his passion for reform. Vreeland suggests that Driscoll adopted some of Waldo’s methods when she marched her female employees arm in arm to storm a picket set up by the Glass Cutter’s Union.

When asked about the details of Edwin and Clara’s relationship, Vreeland replied that this is where researchers hit a wall. She was forced to speculate on the events their honeymoon trip blending what little information there was available with the fiction writer’s art.


What was her favorite piece in the Driehaus exhibit? She loves the Peony Lamp which is on display in Samuel Nickerson’s bedroom.

tiffanygirls_deskExperience the Tiffany Girls Tour

  • Saturdays and Sundays in March. at 4 p.m.
  • First and Third Tuesdays in April, May, and June at 6:30 p.m.
  • Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays beginning June 25th at 5:30 p.m.

Adults $18; Youth (10-17 years) $8

Ticket includes Museum general admission.


Photo credit: Marcin Cymmer



The Driehaus Museum is excited to introduce its first Book Club series.  We begin the series with Sally Sexton Kalmbach’s book Jewel of the Gold Coast: Mrs. Potter Palmer’s Chicago. The Jewel of the Gold Coast book clubs take place on January 30th and February 5th.  Here is a brief selection from the book, as well as a conversation with Anna Wolff, Driehaus Museum Educator.


An Excerpt from The Jewel of the Gold Coast

On a warm day in late July of 1870, Bertha Honore married Potter Palmer at her parents’ fashionable limestone home at 157 Michigan Avenue, across the street from today’s site of the Art Institute of Chicago. The tree-lined residential street was filled with carriages depositing the forty relatives and close friends who attended the wedding ceremony. At 6 p.m. a pastor from the First Christian Church performed the ceremony. A wedding supper for seven hundred followed the service, catered by Kinsley’s, one of the most celebrated restaurants of the day. Noted for its oysters shipped from the East Coast, Kinsley’s was located on Washington Street between Dearborn and State, not far from the Honore home.

The petite 5’5″ dark-eyed woman of 21 was dressed in a gown of white satin and rose-point lace designed by Charles Frederick Worth, a designer who dominated Parisian fashion in the later half of the nineteenth century. Orange blossoms were arranged in her brown hair. Her small waist was encircled by a corset, an item of clothing in vogue throughout most of her life.

Potter Palmer was a happy man. At the age of forty-four, he was the most eligible bachelor in Chicago. He had illustrated his business acumen by amassing millions, traveled extensively in Europe, sown his wild oats, and now he was marrying the intelligent and graceful woman who had captured his attention eight years previously.

Her wedding present was the new Palmer House Hotel, valued at $3,500,000, and just being completed at the time of their marriage.

After the ceremony, the newly married couple departed for Europe, but Paris was not part of the itinerary because of the Franco-Prussian war raging in France. This was Bertha’s first journey to Europe, but her introduction to Paris and the Impressionists lay in the future.


What do you hope participants will get out of joining in the discussion?

Anna Wolff:  I see the book club as a relaxed way for our guests and members to further engage topics related to the museum.  We’ll be discussing Gilded Age fiction, biographies, and history with the authors and will expound upon the book from a literary perspective as well as discuss the larger historical context of its content.  Our Book Club is a great way for patrons to get to know each other better in an informal setting over shared interests.

How did you decide which books would be used for the first book club?

Clara_and_Mr_TiffanyWolff:  March’s Book Club will feature Clara and Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland.  This was a natural fit for us since Ms. Vreeland will speak in an informal lecture earlier that week.  With our current exhibition “Louis Comfort Tiffany: Treasures from the Driehaus Collection” we chose a book that celebrates that time period.

People are always very interested in Bertha Palmer. Since the book, The Jewel of the Gold Coast: Mrs. Potter Palmer’s Chicago, sells well in our Museum Store we knew many visitors and members would be interested in discussing the book and meeting its author in an intimate setting. For the winter series we found it very fitting to have one historic fictional novel and one more rooted in fact.

The first book featured is Jewel of the Gold Coast by Sally Kalmbach. What has it been like working with her on this new project?

Wolff:  Sally is a wealth of knowledge that is always eager to share information.  She will be bringing historic documents, images, and illustrations to further explain who Bertha Palmer was.

What did you find most interesting when reading The Jewel of the Gold Coast: Mrs. Potter Palmer’s Chicago?

Wolff:  I found it particularly interesting to learn about Mrs. Palmer’s life as an art collector.  I gained an understanding of who she actually was as opposed to her legacy as an art collector.  The process of her becoming an art collector is far different than I ever expected.

What’s next…what are some books you would like to include in future book clubs?

Wolff:  I would love to feature Devil in the White City or Death in the Haymarket both have a strong connection to Chicago history and are fascinating reads.