A mistake like this is, in a way, only a misnomer, but it takes a painter’s intention out of the picture.

In the announcement of a John Singer Sargent show at Boston’s Museum of Fine Art, it referred to one of his most famous paintings “Madame X” this way:

Sargent admired the unusual beauty of American socialite Virginie Avegno Gautreau and convinced her to pose for a portrait.”

Say what?

The problem with that sentence is that “Madame X” is no more a portrait than the painting popularly known as Whistler’s Mother is. James McNeill Whistler made this point perfectly clear when he titled the work “Arrangement in Grey and Black.”

Rather than portraying his mother, Whistler made a study in shades of gray.

He even posed her in profile, so you can’t see her face very well.

Sargent made the same point by not only keeping the woman’s name out of the picture, but also by turning her face away from view. Instead of a portrait, “Madama X” is a study in contrasts. .

The pale skin on the bare neck, arms, and shoulders creates a sharp contrast with the black satin gown and glittering jeweled strap that holds the gown up. (No painter does black better than Sargent, probably because he focused on contrasting it).

Missing the point

But no one seems to notice this now or when it first appeared. “Madame X” was so misunderstood it was deemed scandalous. The dress, you see, tight-fitting, was thought vulgar.

But the vulgarity mostly had to do with the shoulder straps, one of which was omitted in the original painting.

In effect, what you saw then was an off-the-shoulder almost strapless gown – daring in the 19th century.

The woman in “Madame X” - American socialite Virginie Avegno Gautreau - was upset by the public reaction. She and her mother asked Sargent to remove the work from exhibit, but he refused. He agreed, however, to repaint the should strap to give it a more secure look.

In several reviews at the time of its first showing of “Madame X” it was even said that he purposely sensationalized the picture to gain attention. Odd, don’t you think, that no one noticed that Sargent exposed the subject’s skin to get as much contrast between flesh and fabric as possible.

Maybe the furor over “Madame X” is what ultimately turned Sargent away from painting people.

According to biographer Stanley Olson’s 1986 Book “John Singer Sargent: His Portraits,” the painter gave up what he called “paughturs” as he mocking called his likenesses of his upper-class clients.

To hear Olson tell it, in one instance, Sargent told a Lady Radmor “Ask me to paint your gates, your fences, your barns, which I would gladly do, but not the human form.”

Eventually, the Metropolitan Museum of Art took “Madame X” off Sargent’s hands, telling Edward Robinson, Met director at the time, “I suppose it is the best thing I have done.”

Yet, even the Met to this day gets the painting wrong, saying on its website, “Sargent worked with obsessive intensity to capture the exotic, even bizarre appearance of Madame Gautreau.”

How can that be? By the museum’s own admission, in an essay titled “Revealing Madame X” by Dorothy Mahon, Conservator, Department of Paintings, Sargent stipulated he didn’t want the woman’s name mentioned?