Wednesday, April 22, 2009
“A portrait,” said the celebrated American painter John Singer Sargent, “is a picture in which something is wrong with the mouth.”
A generous swapper sent me a sample of Ava Luxe’s “Madame X.” I knew nothing about this scent, so, when I opened the vial, I was surprised at its richness. It reminded me of vintage Bal a Versailles, but drier, a little more leathery in the opening. It also had an unmistakable animal note, a molecule of seductive ripeness, and powder -- nearly as much powder as Habanita.
The name fits beautifully. The subject of Sargent’s infamous-for-its-time painting was an expatriate American beauty, Virginie Amélie Avegno, who was born in Louisiana, groomed by her mother to marry up (and did) and ultimately became the subject of a fierce scandal. As Madame Pierre Gautreau, wife of a wealthy Parisian banker, she was free to behave as she pleased, or so she thought. She kept designers in business making her luxurious gowns, painted her face and reddened her earlobes -- a detail that Sargent noticed -- tinted her hair and even, it was whispered, ate bits of arsenic to maintain the pallor of her white skin, which she then dusted with lavender-tinted powder.
It was inevitable that Sargent would paint her. At the time, his work was rendering the rich. True also to their time and place, his well-placed subjects made no attempt to disguise their view of the portraitist as a highly skilled servant (this is the source of Sargent’s remark).
Sargent complained to a friend that Madame Gautreau was difficult, lazy and fidgety; the many preliminary sketches for the painting, of the lady in widely varying poses, illustrate this. When the portrait was finally finished, it was debuted at a Salon show in Paris, 1884. (It was in a slightly different form then. One strap of her gown had fallen from her shoulder in seductive dishabille.) That errant strap cost the painter and his subject their reputations.
Sargent eventually regained his. Madame Gautreau didn’t. She fell from belle of Paris to its laughingstock. The Gautreaus refused to buy the painting. Ultimately, Sargent painted the fallen shoulder strap back into place, and in 1916 he sold the painting to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Madame Gautreau never recovered. When her celebrated looks began to fade, she became a recluse, living out her seclusion in a series of homes without mirrors.
In the hands of a less talented painter, this might have been a portrait of a vain and silly 19th-century Frenchwoman. In Sargent’s, it was a masterpiece.
I have been somewhat amiss in these pages. I haven’t written much about the perfumers, the artists who create the fragrances. In the narrowing world of the modern perfumer’s art, I believe that it is more important than ever to write about them, especially the niche, the self-taught, the independents. “Madame X” was made by Serena Ava Franco, whose line of scents (and there are many) is known as “Ava Luxe.” Ms. Franco is a jeweler as well as a perfumer in San Diego, California. Her line includes many perfumes with tantalizing names like “Madame X.” Others -- I intend to try them all eventually -- are Chypre Noire, Loukhoum, Incense Tibet, Film Noir and Firewood. There are many more.
In the lushness of the fragrance “Madame X,” I can envision the powdered white skin of Madame Gautreau, who must have perfumed herself as lavishly as she lived. The name of this perfume could not be more perfect.
“Madame X” contains notes of coriander, acacia, farnesiana, new-mown hay, jasmine, rose, labdanum, leather, incense, patchouli, oakmoss, civet, amber, castoreum, sandalwood, musks and vanilla.
It is generally called an “animalic oriental.”