|Ms Keogh, my more
significant other of eighteen years, and I were
traipsing around downtown Philadelphia one recent
evening. As it grew late we returned to the car,
which I had left parked in front of the Jefferson
Alumni Hall of Thomas Jefferson University. Before
climbing into the car, we went into the Alumni Hall
to peek into the Eakins Gallery. Although one is not
allowed to enter the gallery at that late hour, you
can peer into the gallery from the adjacent Eakins
Lounge. During the day all you need do is ask and the
guard will unlock the gallery's door and let you
visit. These areas are named for Thomas Eakins, often
acclaimed my Nation's greatest painter, and a native
son of Philadelphia.
One side of the lounge is a wall of glass looking
into a garden. The other side is a wall of bricks
with a towering Romanesque archway into which a heavy
iron gate has been installed. Through the widely
separated grating is a view into the heart of the
Across the gallery should have been Thomas Eakins'
large painting, The Gross Clinic. Eakins had a strong
affiliation with the Jefferson Medical College at the
University. He attended their anatomy classes and
dissected cadavers to develop his skills as a
painter. This immense group portrait, more than six
feet wide and eight feet high, centers on Doctor
Samuel D. Gross. In the painting Professor Gross has
momentarily turned away from the surgery to instruct.
He is removing a sequestrum from the left thigh of an
adolescent - whose mother is present, though I can't
imagine why. She is covering her face, obviously
distraught. The painting, completed in 1875, was a
flop. The public and critics felt it was too - um -
"gross". Jefferson Medical College bought
it for two hundred dollars in 1878. The Gross Clinic
was recently on loan to the Philadelphia Museum of
Art for a fantastic exhibition, Thomas Eakins:
American Realist. During that time the wall in the
Eakins Gallery had remained bare. That show concluded
on the sixth of January and the painting should have
long since been returned, or so I figured.
Shock! It had not been returned. Instead in its place
hung another painting. Not just any painting, but
perhaps Ms Keogh's favourite painting, Madame X by
John Singer Sargent. Who does not know this painting?
What the HELL was Madame X doing in
Philadelphia?!?!?! Had there been any kind of
announcement of her visit? Did the Metropolitan
Museum of Art in Manhattan know she was slumming it
here on Locust Street in Philadelphia?
I called to Ms Keogh to hurry over. With typical
contrariness to any perceived demand of supposed
authority, she didn't come but called out, "What
is it?" But I didn't want to tell her. I wanted
to surprise her. Besides, I didn't think she would
believe me. She came reluctantly, dragging her feet.
When she reached my side by the iron gate, she was
stunned. "Is it a copy?" she asked. We were
both incredulous. How could she be here unannounced?
The painting, for those few of you not familiar with
it, shows Madame Pierre Gautreau in her twenties. She
is standing before us in a scandalous low-cut gown
that reveals her hourglass figure. In contrast to the
blackness of her gown is the stark whiteness of her
practically bare shoulders, her long neck, her head
turned in profile; it has the appearance of a cameo
in white marble. She wears her hair in a chignon and
this makes visible a small ear that looks as though
it has been carved from red coral. I have since
learned that these colours resulted from her curious
sense of makeup, but it does make for an interesting
painting. She wears no jewelry, except the thin
straps of her gown are bejeweled.
She is a woman I want to know, flamboyant and proud,
and also daring. In the original version of this
painting one of the straps has fallen off her
shoulder. It was just too risqué. Sargent had shown
the painting at the Paris Salon the year he completed
it, 1884. The public mocked it. The critics panned
it. Madame's family asked him to withdraw the
painting. When the show was over, Sargent revised the
painting, rearranging the strap back to her shoulder.
There exists a photograph that shows the painting
before he altered it. I would have preferred it if he
hadn't acceded to the prudes. The resulting notoriety
caused Sargent to leave France and set up his studio
in England. He kept the painting, but wouldn't show
it again for another twenty-one years. He sold it to
the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1916.
On an afternoon I went back to visit with Madame X.
The guard let me into the Elkins Gallery, but he was
required to remain with me. I felt I was
inconveniencing him, so after a bit I let him lock
the place back up. I returned to the iron gate in the
brick wall and stood outside the gallery looking in.
I pulled up a chair and rested my feet on one of the
gate's crossbars. She was well-lit and I could see
the whole of the painting which is higher than six
and a half feet, wider than three and a half feet.
For the next hour and a half I was alone with Madame
X. No one else entered the area to disturb us. I took
out my carnet and attempted to sketch her with my
ballpoint pen. It is an awful sketch. I made so many
corrections with my penknife that the page is just
about scraped through.
The Gross Clinic stayed with the Thomas Eakins:
American Realist exhibition as it traveled to the
Metropolitan Museum. In the meantime the Jefferson
Alumni Hall is holding Madame X hostage. Shouldn't
she be regarded a guest of the city? But America's
Mona Lisa remains tucked away, unannounced. We've
since had several trysts.