Scandalous painting sparks off ballet

Detail of Portrait Of Madame X (above) by American artist John Singer Sargent. The artist repainted the right shoulder strap after a social uproar in 1884.
Detail of Portrait Of Madame X (above) by American artist John Singer Sargent. The artist repainted the right shoulder strap after a social uproar in 1884.PHOTO: YOUTUBE
Christopher Wheeldon.
Christopher Wheeldon.PHOTO: YOUTUBE

A 19th-century portrait of a socialite spurred choreographer Christopher Wheeldon to come up with Strapless

LONDON • When acclaimed choreographer Christopher Wheeldon first saw Portrait Of Madame X, he was captivated by the painting that caused a social uproar in 19th-century Paris.

The John Singer Sargent portrait of married socialite Amelie Gautreau showed her in a black dress with one of her jewelled straps slipping off her right shoulder.

Unveiled in 1884, the painting was deemed provocative and shocked Parisian high society.

Sargent swiftly repainted the strap in place, but the damage to their reputations was done.

English-born Wheeldon saw the painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where he joined City Ballet in 1993.

Years later, he has taken inspiration from it for his latest production, Strapless, premiering at London's Royal Ballet this week.

"I fell in love with the painting... and really was intrigued by so many of the things I think that made the painting a scandal: her stance, the way her skin tone made her stand out from the darkness of the background, her curves," he said.

"When I discovered the story was so rich in intrigue and scandal, she seemed like a wonderful character to build a ballet around."

The one-act narrative production is also inspired by Deborah Davis' book of the same name.

Leading the cast are Royal Ballet principal dancers Natalia Osipova as Gautreau and Edward Watson as Sargent.

"The more I looked at what happened, the more I understood what a real tragedy it was," Osipova said.

"When someone has a strong desire to achieve something, but then society... discards it, this can make the person feel vulnerable... and so, at the end of the ballet, she (Gautreau) ends up naked and exposed."

The socialite's reputation was badly damaged after the unveiling, but Sargent managed to eventually rebuild his career.

"I think it's interesting that... everybody involved is sort of a victim of the piece of work," Watson said.

"He is painting something which he thought was going to be great, she is posing for something which she thought would be the perfect portrait of her. So the interesting thing is what that work did to everybody."

Strapless is Wheeldon's eighth work for the Royal Ballet, where he is artistic associate and follows his productions of Alice's Adventures In Wonderland and A Winter's Tale.

It premieres at London's Royal Opera House tomorrow as part of a programme of three Wheeldon works, including After The Rain and Within The Golden Hour.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 11, 2016, with the headline 'Scandalous painting sparks off ballet'. Print Edition | Subscribe