Angry press, furious public, kilometer-long lines to the exhibition, record prices at auction – the hype surrounding the paintings can ruin an artist’s nerves or make his name and career. Art Plays talks about the scandalous past of ten masterpieces. And about which artists were able to benefit from the scandals.
John Sargent. Portrait of Madame X
In 1884 John Singer Sargent completed a portrait of Virginie Gautreaux. By this time the American Sargent had been living in France for ten years. He built his career long and carefully: Sargent was not only an excellent artist, but also a born marketer. Paris was favorable to him: Sargent enjoyed success as a portrait painter and was doing very well.
Virginie Gautreaux was a professional charmer. As the wife of a Parisian banker, she had a stormy personal life, was reputed as a style icon, lioness of the upper class, “a symbol of a beautiful era,” and so on. The regular heroine of society chronicles, she equally provoked the public’s lust and irritation, morbid curiosity, admiration and righteous anger. Sargent believed, not unreasonably, that a portrait of such a prominent media personality would be a weighty item in his portfolio. There was another reason: Sargent, far from being a puritan, was himself fascinated by Madame Gautreaux.
Having exhibited Portrait of Madame X at the Paris Salon of ’84, Sargent suddenly reaped a storm. The public was outraged. The critics raged – they were unnerved by the “overt shamelessness” (in the original version of the portrait one of the straps of Madame X’s dress was flirtatiously down) and the “dead” hue of the heroine’s skin, the fact that her nose was unnaturally long and her ear too red. Caricatures were published in the newspapers and referred to Madame Gautreaux as “the lady of spades,” alluding to the shape of her cleavage. Sargent later rewrote the strapline, returning it to its place, but it was too late. Virginia’s already controversial reputation was damaged terribly (she licked her wounds for several years away from social gatherings). Sargent’s Parisian career was in ruins and he was forced to leave France.
Today there are many explanations for this marvelous scandal – one more ridiculous than the other. Some believe that the pale skin and flaming ear gave away Virginia’s predilection for cosmetics, the use of which was in those years the lot of commoners, and in high society was considered bad form. Others pay excessive attention to the unfortunate strapless – they even staged a ballet in her honor in England called Strapless. All this, of course, sounds naive. If Virginia abused cosmetics, her glittering entourage knew it even without Sargent’s portrait. And the fact that Parisians who had already seen paintings by Gustave Courbet or Edouard Manet, could be shocked by a woman’s shoulder strap, somehow it is not believable.
Most likely, it was not Virginie’s attire, but her own. Sargent, who was counting on a public outcry, was not wrong in his choice of model. He simply did not guess in which direction the pendulum of public opinion would swing this time. There is no greater joy for the common man than to trample into the dirt of someone successful, beautiful and rich. As for the Parisian aristocrats and art critics, they have not forgiven Sargent for his affectation and his attempt (all the more successful) to bring salon gossip into the context of high art.
A loose strap, a sensually flaming ear, the overly progressive (by the standards of those years) lifestyle of Virginia Gautreaux – all of this was appropriate and acceptable in the tabloids, but not at the Paris Salon. And there was more muted coquetry in Sargent calling a public, wholly recognizable persona “Madame X” than in all the straplines of Paris. As if, for example, Nikas Safronov had drawn Olga Buzova, called it “Portrait of Madame X,” and displayed it in the Hermitage. Even with the correction that Sargent was really talented and Virginie Gautreaux was really good-looking.
Arkhip Kuindzhi. A Moonlit Night on the Dnieper
In the fall of 1880, St. Petersburg hosted the first exhibition in the history of Russian painting of a single painting: A Moonlit Night on the Dnieper by Arkhip Kuindzhi. The excitement that accompanied it today can only be compared to what happens at rock concerts or Black Friday sales. From dawn until dusk, a motley crowd jostled for miles in line, and the newspapers proclaimed that “all literate St. Petersburgers have gathered here. Ilya Repin recalled how “… a continuous mass of carriages besieged the entire street, the public stood in a long tail on the stairs, waiting to be admitted, and from the street, on both sides of the sidewalk. Poets wrote poems under the impression of the painting, musicians arranged it on the music stand.
The exhibition was organized according to all the rules of modern PR – the fact that only one painting was on display was not only a precedent, but also gave it special weight. It was shown in artificial contrasting light, something no one had done before Kuindzhi. In addition, even before the exhibition the painting was bought by the Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich for a fantastic 5,000 rubles, which, of course, added fuel to the fire of public interest. And the painting itself was surprisingly good.
Notwithstanding the fact that the newspapers regularly reported that some celebrity from St. Petersburg had gotten in the way again and that the door of the Art Encouragement Society where the marvel was on display had been broken down, the exhibition was not likely to become a real scandal. However, many visitors have become scandalized, looking behind the frame in the hope to find hidden there electric light bulb – so authentic in Quindzhi turned out the moon.
Edouard Manet. Breakfast on the grass
In 1863 Édouard Manet presented his new work, Breakfast on the Grass, to the jury of the Paris Salon. Two years earlier, Manet had already conquered the Salon with his Spanish Guitarist (the portrait of Auguste and Eugénie Manet – the artist’s parents – also received favorable reviews) and this time he had no doubts about his success. The fact that the painting was not included in the exhibition upset him. Manet did not suspect that the jury, which had made every effort to ensure that Breakfast on the Lawn went unnoticed, had been charitable – his troubles had only just begun.
Napoleon III initiated the organization of an alternative exhibition – the notorious Salon of the Disowned, which found a place for the ill-starred Breakfast.
The idea proved successful – the Salon of the Rejects soon outstripped the main exhibition: journalists joked that next year many artists would probably try to paint worse in order to avoid going to the Salon de Paris. As for Manet’s painting, it was the unqualified highlight of the program. It was anathematized and mocked. The exhibition staff had to redouble their vigilance – not a day passed without some champion of morality trying to pierce the “shame” with his punishing cane. Critics tried in vain to unravel the meaning of “this obscene riddle,” called the painting “a slap in the face to good taste,” and compared it to “an ugly sore exposed.
It was, indeed, a very strange work. The screaming size, the provocative content and the defiantly inept execution – it was simply impossible not to notice it. Emile Zola, who was among the defenders of the painting (of course, there were few of them), wrote: “We see here, deplorable as it is, the most ordinary people whose fault is that they, like every man, have muscles and bones. I can understand the disappointment and mirth that you feel at the sight of this painting; perhaps the artist should have delighted your eyes with a picture like the ones on bonbonnières.
If we accept Zola’s arguments, the question remains why did Manet need to cite Raphael, Giorgione and Titian and sit “the most ordinary people” in poses of shepherds or nymphs. And there is absolutely no “truth of life” to explain why this composition has such an inanimate staged look, the perspective is ruthlessly distorted, and the bathing young lady in the background is at least five meters tall.
One way or another, Breakfast on the Grass became synonymous with art scandal, the epitome of a standard artistic provocation, an unquestionable landmark. Over time, its historical value completely overshadowed any other merits (assuming that there were any). Although Auguste and Eugénie Manet did not boast as vociferously about their son this time as they had in 1861, Edouard succeeded in his epatage.
Edouard Manet. Olympia
“Breakfast on the Grass” made Édouard Manet a total celebrity. His Olympia, written in the same year, solidified this scandalous fame. Like any truly artistic nature, Manet was torn by contradictions. Rebellious against the foundations, he craved recognition. He was an idol and role model for the “outcasts” and wanted to conquer the Paris salon, and necessarily “from the front door. He, now and then, striving to slap the public on the cheeks, and not in a joking way upset when he was given back. Working on “Olympia”, he was well aware that he was going far beyond not only the tradition that existed at the time, but also elementary decency – because it was designed that way. But he decided to show it only two years later (they say he was finally prompted to do so by Baudelaire, a man who also had firsthand knowledge of public censure). In 1865, Olympia was exhibited at the Paris Salon: Manet’s wish came true again, although not quite in the way he had hoped.
The audience, who remembered how much fun it was in ’63, went specifically to see Manet and in high spirits – so an experienced moviegoer goes to the sequel to his favorite comedy. The viewer wanted to be outraged, perplexed, laughing, experiencing a piercing sense of Spanish shame and waving the judge’s gavel. And Manet more than met expectations: the scandal surrounding “Olympia” was little inferior to the excitement associated with “Breakfast on the Grass.
On the whole, Mane stuck to the same course; like a good boxer, he punched where he had punched in the last round. Female nudity was again the main course, the heroine again shamelessly looked the viewer straight in the eye, she was again not covered by any clothes or mythological subject, and the features of Victorine Meran (Manet’s constant model and mistress) were still discernible in her – this certainly added spice to the scandal. The space of the painting was once again lifelessly flat-Manet was again scolded not only for his decadent shamelessness, but also for being a bad painter. “Never and no one has ever seen anything more cynical than this Olympia. It’s a female gorilla made of rubber and depicted completely naked, on a bed,” is a typical statement from the contemporary “Olympia” press.
Not surprisingly, the public once again lashed out at Manet’s painting, even though armed guards were posted outside. In the end, the Salon management had to take desperate measures: the painting was moved to the farthest room, to a height where it could be neither spat at nor reached with the longest cane, nor even properly seen.
“The fame that Manet won with his Olympia and the courage he displayed can only be compared to the fame and courage of Garibaldi,” said Edgar Degas, a devoted friend and probably the most patient and benevolent critic of Edouard Manet.
Claude Monet. Impression. Sunrise
In 1874, a group of artists of the so-called Batignolles School decided it was time to go their own way. Another economic crisis was looming, most of them were in dire need of money. The ideological leader of the “Gang of Manet” was at that time Edgar Degas, who replaced his friend in this “position” (Manet himself continued to storm the Paris Salon and was fully absorbed in it). And Degas hated everything associated with the official Salon. In short, it was decided to organize his own vernissage.
Preparations revealed a number of disagreements among like-minded people. Degas wanted to invite outside artists (so as not to be branded as radicals and save on rent), while his young colleagues craved a revolution. The socialist Pissarro wanted to organize a cooperative along the lines of the Parisian bakers. Edouard Manet, who, of course, was invited, demanded that Cézanne be removed from the list.
And Auguste Renoir’s brother Edmond, who was tasked with hanging the works, lamented the monotony of the titles. When, driven to despair by the abundance of Monet’s morning landscapes, he asked him to come up with another title for at least one of them, he replied: “Write ‘Impression.
Perhaps the Capuchin Boulevard exhibition would have gone unnoticed if art critic Louis Le Roy hadn’t latched onto the title, burst into a caustic article and coined the term “Impressionism.
Leroy’s scathing text made the exhibitors and himself famous. It took a long time before the word “impressionism” ceased to sound like mockery in the context of fine art and the veil of scandal around it finally dissipated.
And it was Auguste Renoir who was the most worried about Leroy’s article. In fact, according to the recollections of his son Jean, he was the least reviled there.
Vasily Vereshchagin. The Holy Family
Vasily Vereshchagin was not accustomed to scandals – as a rule, they flared up around his battle paintings. He was often reproached for his lack of patriotism. The future Emperor Grand Duke Alexander Alexandrovich once said: “His constant tendentiousness is repugnant to national self-love, and one can conclude from it one thing: either Vereshchagin is a beast, or a completely insane person.” Well, Vasily Vasilievich really knew how to show any war without pathos and embellishment.
However, the loudest scandal happened to him in Vienna and provoked his quite peaceful paintings.
Vasily Vereshchagin. Resurrection of Christ
Cardinal Ganglbauer, the local archbishop, was furious after he examined Vereshchagin’s evangelical cycle. He was especially enraged by the paintings of The Holy Family and The Resurrection of Christ. While the case of the Family could have been settled by a theological discussion of whether Christ had brothers and sisters, looking at the reproduction of the Resurrection (the fate of the original is sadly unknown), His Eminence can understand: it is a very vigorous, but still a caricature.
In any case, the cardinal issued an open letter to the press, informing them that he was “sorrowfully saddened by such profanation” and urging good Catholics to boycott the exhibition. A better advertising campaign could not have been imagined: the exhibition, held for 28 days in the building of the Künstlerhaus Society of Artists, was accompanied by an unprecedented frenzy. “The exhibition of paintings by V. В. The exhibition of Vereshchagin’s paintings was an unprecedented spectacle in Vienna,” they wrote in the newspapers. – It made as if leveling effect: a prince, and a peasant, and a millionaire banker, and a simple worker – all in a hurry to each other in a hurry to pay 30 kreutzer to the cashier, so as soon as possible to look at the works of a mighty talent.
Of course, it was an unhealthy frenzy. A certain landlord named Lec fell on his knees in front of the paintings and, claiming that he had been sent here by God, called for the “sacrilegious” paintings to be burned (preferably together with the author). Another fanatic carried acid into the hall and managed to damage eight paintings before he was pacified by security.
The local Catholic diocese was going to hold a procession outside the Künstlerhaus, but it restricted itself to three days of penance. As for Vereshchagin, he felt like a fish in water in such an environment. The general hysteria and threats only roused him, and he wrote to his wife that “there was no cause for alarm, for he had already moved his revolver from his back pocket to his side pocket.
In a reply letter, which Vasily Vasilievich published in the newspaper, he thanked Cardinal Ganglbauer for the promo-campaign. Vereshchagin was now an artist of international renown. Soon after the Vienna exhibition he met a certain American businessman who offered him half a million dollars for a similar exhibition in the United States.
Mikhail Vrubel. Princess Dream
In 1896 Savva Mamontov, who was in charge of the decoration of the All-Russian Industrial Exhibition in Nizhny Novgorod, ordered Vrubel two large-scale panels. Vrubel made sketches of “Princess Dreams” and “Mikula Selyaninovich”, the emperor nodded approvingly and work began. When the panels were almost finished, they were examined by Alexander Benois, who supervised the project. A telegram, which he hastily sent to the Academy of Arts, said: “The Vrubel panels are monstrous and must be removed. A convened commission found the work to be “poorly artistic” and rejected the panel. Savva Mamontov bought them back for 5,000 rubles and organized a kind of “Salon of the Neglected”. He built a pavilion right at the entrance to the exhibition with his own money and exhibited “Princess Greza” and “Mikula Selyaninovich. In huge letters above the door was written: “The exhibition of decorative panels by the artist M.A. Vrubel, rejected by the jury of the Imperial Academy of Arts. Later everything after the comma had to be painted over, but the attraction was a success all the same. Its scandalousness had a slight political connotation: after all, the Academy wrapped the project, approved by the tsar himself.
Among other things, Vrubel was criticized for the same things as Manet: decadence, irrelevance and pretentiousness. Criticism, meanwhile, came mostly from his colleagues and functionaries, while the common public liked the panels. And if in the case of Manet, a sophisticated audience sincerely puzzled, then here definitely did not do without envy and creative jealousy. Even Vrubel’s unfinished panels too dominated everything else. For example, art historian Nikolai Prakhov wrote: “As soon as the canvases were hung up it became clear that both Vrubel’s canvases literally “killed” the works by other artists laid out below in their originality and freshness of their lettering and colours in the gilded frames.
Vulnerable, mentally unstable Vrubel, of course, suffered terribly. “Working and coming to despair,” he wrote to his sister, “In addition, the Academy erected on me a real harassment; so that I always heard the hissing behind me. Later, when passions have subsided and hissing subsided, in a move was anecdote, retold in the memoirs of Konstantin Korovin.
Once Nicholas II saw Vrubel “Lilac” and praised the work:
- How beautiful it is, I like it. Who is the author of this painting?
Vrubel, answered the czar. Turning to his retinue and seeing Count Tolstoy, vice-president of the Academy of Arts, the Czar asked:
- Count Ivan Ivanovich, isn’t he the one who was executed in Nizhny?
Leonardo da Vinci? Savior of the World
“Savior of the World” (a painting only supposedly by Leonardo da Vinci) became scandalously famous some 500 years after it was painted. For a long time it was considered a Leonardesque, the work of an imitator, at best one of Leonardo’s pupils. In this status at the beginning of the last century, the painting was acquired by the famous English collector Baronet Frederick Cook. In 1958, the heirs of Cook sold the “savior of the world” at auction Sotheby’s – they managed to get a triumphant 45 pounds.
In 2004, the painting (for about $10,000) was purchased by a group of art dealers, after which it was sent for restoration. The work has had numerous corrections over the centuries – for example, during the Counter-Reformation an overly feminine Savior acquired a mustache and beard. Clearing away the layers of late corrections, restorers found two thumbs on his right hand – the original position of the fingers had been changed, which at least indicated the seriousness of the author – imitators do not usually abuse this. For the first time in recent history, the Savior of the World was talked about as a work, to which Leonardo could be involved not only as the inspirer. Restored canvas underwent examination in museums in the United States and Europe, in 2011 in London, it is not unanimous, but still attributed to da Vinci.
In 2013, the Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev bought the painting for $ 127 million. And two years later a full-fledged scandal broke out. Rybolovlev accused his art dealer Yves Bouvier of overcharging. In addition, Rybolovlev claimed that Bouvier was in a fraudulent collusion with the auction house Sotheby’s. Against the background of the process the doubts of some experts in the authorship of Leonardo da Vinci sounded even stronger. But when Rybolovlev put the painting up for auction (to somehow make up for the damage), it suddenly sold for 450 million. The price move at the Christie’s auction was an unprecedented 40 million, and the final price was an absolute record. If those in attendance hadn’t been so engrossed in the bidding, they probably would have noticed the Savior smiling, winking and holding up his thumbs – all three of them.
The painting was purchased anonymously. It was rumored to have been purchased by Saudi Prince Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan Al Saud. Immediately after the auction, the “savior of the world” disappeared. Another of its arrivals in vain was expected at the exhibition in the Paris Louvre, timed to coincide with the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo. The painting was to be exhibited at the Louvre branch in Abu Dhabi, but it did not appear there either. There have been many hypotheses about the real motives for its purchase, including some quite paranoid. It was said that the Christian shrine was bought by religious fanatics in order to destroy it. Or that the prince needed the “Savior” for political blackmail. And, for example, French expert Jacques Franck believes that the painting is hidden in order to hide the greatest scam in history – the most expensive painting in the history of mankind was a mediocre imitation of Leonardo.
Gustave Courbet. Bathing Girls
It is said that when Napoleon III saw Breakfast on the Grass, he merely pursed his lips in contempt and passed on without uttering a word. The experience was telling – by that time the Emperor had, as they say, seen it all. According to eyewitnesses, before that Napoleon had been less restrained and had reacted far more emotionally to the grimaces of “modern” art. For example, in ’53 (ten years before he became acquainted with the works of Edouard Manet) at the Paris Salon, he was so exasperated that he hit one of his pictures with his whip. It was Gustave Courbet’s Bathers, a painting that seems not only chastely asexual but also quite traditional. A bucolic subject, a tranquil landscape. Having depicted one of the “nymphs” as defiantly weighty, Courbet mercifully covered her powerful rear with a piece of cloth. What was it that so enraged Napoleon (and certainly not him alone)?
Of course, Courbet was reproached for the fact that his heroines had an “unromantic” constitution. Napoleon’s wife, Empress Eugenie, is said to have previously looked at a painting of Percheron horses and asked: “Is that a Percheron, too?” “Even Courbet’s friend Eugène Delacroix noted “the disgusting vulgarity of form and design. And Theophile Gautier, without resorting to metaphors and sarcasm, simply used the phrase “monstrous ass” in his review.
However, this was not the only and, perhaps, not the main complaint. The aristocrats could not forgive Courbet that the maid on his canvas – sloppily unbuttoned sock and also dirty feet. Going to the Louvre with dirty feet was too much: one guessed socialist pathos in such realism, and that was worse than the most monstrous forms.
Courbet was a long-standing scandal and was no stranger to bitter criticism. His earlier work, Funeral at Ornan, had already caused a storm of indignation at the same Paris Salon. Critics have not missed a chance to kick Courbet practically since the beginning of his career. Had they known what Gustave would write in the 1960s (1, 2), they would have saved their strength.
James Whistler. Nocturne in Black and Gold
In 1877 James Whistler exhibited at London’s Grosvenor Gallery a painting called Nocturne in Black and Gold – Falling Rocket. Painted in a distinctly Impressionist manner, it best characterized the view of painting that Whistler held at the time. He believed he had the right to paint not the Thames, not the park on its banks, not the night fireworks, but the feeling of it all. Vague, indistinct, fading, like a dream or a trail left in the dark sky by a missile – if he had wanted clear silhouettes and intelligible statements, he would have become a photographer rather than an artist.
Not everyone shared these views. For example, a respected art critic John Ruskin published a review in a London newspaper, in which he wrote: “I have heard a lot about the shamelessness and conceit of Cockney. But I did not think that I would see how smug joker will demand two hundred guineas for what splashed with a pot of paint in the face of the public.
The review was not in itself a full-blown scandal. But Whistler decided to fight back, and sued Ruskin for libel. After all, he didn’t paint anyone. And the London-born Reskin was far more Cockney than the American Whistler.
The trial lasted about a year. Whistler’s reputation was severely damaged and he was abandoned by many customers and patrons. His already precarious financial situation was finally undermined by the costs of litigation. Whistler had to declare bankruptcy and sell his assets under the hammer.
In the end, he won a Pyrrhic victory: the court ruled in his favor, awarding the artist a humorous compensation of a quarter pence (Whistler demanded 1000 pounds). James Whistler would later write a book based on this art scandal, The Fine Art of Making Enemies.
As for Ruskin, he never appeared at the hearing. His mental health was severely impaired – perhaps Nocturne in Black and Gold played a role in this.