Gioia Diliberto became enthralled with the John Singer Sargent portrait Madame X when she was living in New York and working on her first book, Debutante: The Story of Brenda Frazier (1987). On the way home from doing research at the New York Society Library, she’d often stop at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and look at the painting. “I just loved it,” she says. “It has a brilliant design. It’s very classical and very Old Master-ish in tone and color.”

The work seems tame now, but it caused an uproar when it debuted at the Paris Salon of 1884. The subject, Paris socialite Virginie Avegno Gautreau, was an American-born 23-year-old beauty known for her daring fashion sense and sexual dalliances; the portrait of her with hennaed hair, rouged ears, and decadently pale skin, wearing a black dress whose diamond-encrusted strap had slid down her right shoulder, “upset people who knew what her reputation was,” says Diliberto. “It gave them an excuse to jeer.” It didn’t help that both the painter and the sitter were American. Critics hated the painting and newspapers were full of editorials denouncing it; Gautreau was humiliated, and Sargent’s reputation was ruined in France.

Diliberto, who moved to Chicago in 1991 with her husband, Chicago magazine editor Richard Babcock, and their son, initially thought the painting would make a good jumping-off point for a history of belle epoque Paris. But she hit a dead end when it came to Gautreau, a Creole who fled her family’s Louisiana plantation with her mother and sister after her father was killed at the Battle of Shiloh. “She didn’t leave behind any diaries or letters or anything that would give one a sense of what she was like as a person,” says Diliberto. “She doesn’t even show up in memoirs of those times. The only thing left behind was her paintings.”

Diliberto abandoned the idea and went on to her next project, a biography of Hadley Hemingway, Ernest Hemingway’s first wife. But she became disenchanted with nonfiction while working on her third book, A Useful Woman: The Early Life of Jane Addams (1999). “She left too much of a trace, and not much of it was telling,” she says. “It just took forever to go through all of her papers, and even then you couldn’t really find out what was in her heart….I couldn’t get to her in a deep way.”

Diliberto was looking for new ideas when she went to see the Sargent portrait again on a visit to New York. “It just sort of hit me,” she says, noting that Girl With a Pearl Earring, Tracy Chevalier’s novel about the Vermeer subject, had not yet been published. “I thought, I’m going to try to write a novel about it.”

During the course of research for I Am Madame X, published this month by Scribner, she visited the family plantation in Louisiana and contacted a relative of Gautreau’s who provided a wealth of genealogical information. She also tracked down a copy of the original catalog from the 1884 exhibition. “A lot of the other paintings were really, really bad,” she says. “The funny thing is that there were all kinds of nudes, and you wonder why everyone was getting upset about this painting of a sexy dress. But they were all paintings of mythological subjects; if you took Cupid out of the picture and put Psyche on the couch, people would have gotten upset.”

Writing the novel was the hard part; her early efforts were more journalistic than literary, she says. “Then my editor pointed out to me that if I wanted to write fiction I should think in terms of scenes, and string the scenes together. When she said that it was almost like I’d had an epiphany.” The story is presented as a memoir written by an aging Gautreau, and weaves together imagined scenes with historical fact. “I was faithful to the truth in terms of what I knew about Sargent and the painting,” says Diliberto. “I didn’t go off on some weird tangent–I didn’t have her sleeping with him or anything like that.”

Gautreau became an international celebrity once the furor died down, and eventually sat for several other artists, including Gustave Courtois, whose portrait of her now hangs in the Musee d’Orsay. As for Sargent, he repainted the strap on her shoulder as soon as the salon ended, and later moved to England to reestablish his career. He kept the portrait with him and, though he considered it his masterpiece, exhibited it only a few times before he sold it to the Met in 1916, a year after Gautreau’s death. “It’s impossible to imagine a painting causing a brouhaha like that today,” says Diliberto, who’s currently working on another novel that’s partially set in the 19th century. “It doesn’t have the consequences now that it did back then. At that time painting was how reality was reflected–how cultural discourse was conducted. It had a primacy that movies have today.

“I really loved being in that world, where painting is the most important thing.”

Diliberto will give a slide show and talk on Thursday, March 13, at noon in the Art Institute of Chicago’s Fullerton Hall, Michigan and Adams. It’s free with museum admission ($10 for adults; $6 for students, seniors, and children); call 312-443-3680 for more information. At 7 PM on Wednesday, March 19, she’ll appear at Borders Books & Music, 830 N. Michigan. It’s free; call 312-573-0564.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette Marie Dostatni.