A Lesson in Suspense


One of the great things about science fiction and fantasy is that it takes us to new worlds and gives us new perspectives on things that we never had before. With science fiction that can also include time travel — traveling into the past and getting new insights and new perspectives on things events or ideas that we didn’t have before. It allows us to see familiar objects in a new light.

So let`s travel back into the past, you and I, to Paris in 1884, and let`s take a fresh look at one of the most iconic pieces of art and perhaps gain some new perspectives on it, and perhaps learn some of its secrets


Portrait of Madame X, painted in 1884, is the informal title of a portrait by John Singer Sargent of a young socialite named Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau. Madame Gautreau was an American expatriate who married a French banker, and became notorious in Parisian high society for her beauty and rumored infidelities.

As it was originally painted the portrait caused a scandal because of one shoulder strap that was off the subject’s shoulder. The portrait, which, you must remember, was merely canvas and paint, was the cause of much consternation among Paris society. There were calls for Sargent to remove the painting from the exhibition.

Imagine that we are there, at the exhibit in Paris in 1884. Imagine seeing the crowds of young Parisian men gathered around the canvas in breathless anticipation of the moment when gravity does it’s thing and causes Madame X’s dress to fall to the floor. Of the painting one critic wrote: “One more struggle and the lady will be free”. It is sexual titillation at it’s most piquant and it all happens in the mind of the viewer.

Above you see the painting as it was repainted by Sargent with the strap back in its safer position. Here a photo shows the painting as it hung at the salon of ’84 with the strap off her shoulder:


With Sargent repainting the strap, he successfully took much of the sting out of the painting.

To see how the painting might have looked, take a look at an altered image done by Mike Pieczonka (note: the website michaelpieczonka [dot] com is reported has having malware.  This link has been removed for security purposes.)


To me, the whole incident is amazing and shows just how powerful a painting can be. How provocative are these images made up of an arrangement of pigments! In and of itself the object is harmless, yet what it depicts enflames desire or outrage. Whether it is a Sargent portrait or a controversial comic in a French newspaper, images have amazing power.

And yet, as Robert Crumb observed almost 100 years later “It’s only lines on paper, folks!”

I know that last week I said I would return to the topic of favorite pulp cover artists, and I will. I will eventually get back to talking about Walter Baumhoffer and Raphael DeSoto and the art of the hero pulps, but I just wanted to take this nice diversion, a little stroll through the streets of Paris of a bygone time.

That`s the beauty of science fiction and fantasy, all of time and space is our playground and we can go where we want.

As usual, if you think I’m wrong about something, or right about something, or off my nut or you just want to join in, please leave a comment.

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