New York Times Magazine
By Sam Anderson
Paparazzi, if they had existed in 1880s France, would have followed Amélie Gautreau in a permanent cloud. Crowds gathered when she appeared in the streets of Paris. Newspapers reported her outfit changes. Royalty asked to meet her. Traditional beauty is rarely so exciting, but hers was unorthodox: She had a long neck, a big nose and skin so uncannily white that people argued over whether it was real or fake. Theories included that she covered her entire body with makeup or strategically dosed herself with arsenic. In an era of puffy, body-swallowing gowns, she wore snug dresses that showed off her curves; she put red makeup on the tips of her ears, just for extra drama. She was rumored to be sleeping with half the men in Paris. Every painter wanted to paint her, to be the great hero who fixed her image for a culture desperate to stare at it. But art — the translation of three-dimensional life into a flat, static illusion — was an act of magic with serious consequences. In a time before mass-produced cameras, an image was a heavy thing, laborious to make and hard to distribute. Instagram was Duragram. Amélie always refused.
Then came John Singer Sargent. Like Amélie, Sargent was a displaced American eccentric whose reputation was soaring in France. (Amélie’s family was from New Orleans; Sargent’s from New England.) During portrait sessions, he chain-smoked, chattered constantly, used pocketfuls of bread as erasers and — when he was particularly inspired — ran at the canvas screaming, “Demons, demons, demons!” Sargent courted Amélie, and eventually he got her. Unfortunately she turned out to be a terrible subject. She fidgeted, complained, skipped appointments. She wanted to go to parties, not to stand frozen in a quiet room in front of a man she wasn’t even sleeping with. Sargent sketched her over and over, obsessively, whenever she gave him the chance, month after frustrating month.
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