Madame X

art, Famous Victorians, Fashion

“Madame X” was an infamous portrait of Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, painted by John Singer Sargent. In the painting, Virginie, a Parisian socialite known for her beauty, is wearing a sleek black dress. She has perfectly styled hair, and the paleness of her skin beautifully contrasts with the dark background. It seemed that the piece would become a great success for both the artist and the model.

And yet, the portrait was met with a very controversial reception at the 1884 Paris Salon. The viewers commented on the revealing dress cut, the shoulder strap inappropriately falling down on the shoulder, the weird position of the model, and her morbid paleness. How could it be? After all, it was still the society that applauded the sickly look caused by romanticized tuberculosis. What is more, the dress design wasn’t more revealing than other popular evening gowns at the time. It seems that a large part of the scandal was … gossip.

The 1884 Salon was a particularly mundane exhibition with almost no notable paintings. Moreover, visitors had to go through many rooms to see “Madame X”, which could have altered their moods. Besides, the majority of the patrons belonged to the bourgeoisie and could have been more critical of the aristocratic Madame Gautreau flaunting her jeweled straps and high fashion. It was also enough for a few respected people to openly describe the piece of art as ‘immoral’ to create an atmosphere in which anyone who disagrees could be seen as ‘immoral’ as well. The newspapers quickly jumped on the bandwagon, criticizing the painting, Madame Gautreau, and Sargent. They even printed caricatures! As you can imagine, at that point, new Salon visitors were already expecting to see something scandalous, even before seeing the painting themselves!

The scandal was so blown up out of proportion that Virginie’s mother threatened Sargent with a duel, and Sargent himself moved to Britain (after repainting the unfortunate strap, as can be seen in the portrait today.). After the initial backlash, the lives of Gautreau and Sargent went back to normal. The first remained a fashionable Paris figure, and the latter became a highly sought-after artist.  

Check out this video by Karolina Żebrowska to find out more on the history of Madame X!

Princess Sisi

Cosmetics, Famous Victorians

Empress Elisabeth of Austria (1837 – 1898), more commonly known as Sisi, was famous for her extraordinary beauty, lavish hair, and fashion sense. To live up to her own standards, she practiced elaborate beauty routines with the use of a variety of products. Some of these products contained surprisingly weird ingredients… 

This comic was inspired by a great Sawbones episode: Wrinkles.

H. P. Lovecraft’s Birthday

Famous Victorians, Literature

🐙 Today marks the 130th birth anniversary of H.P. Lovecraft (August 20, 1890), an American weird and horror fiction writer. He is best known for the creation of what we now call Cthulhu Mythos, a universe that has inspired many popular novels, games, and movies.

This occasion inspired me to prepare a small watercolor piece of a young Lovecraft haunted by the cosmic horror. 🐙

Victoria and Albert’s Cruise

Everyday Life, Famous Victorians

In the summer of 1858, Victoria and Albert took a leisurely cruise down the Thames, unprepared for the severity of the Great Stink. It is said that they lasted on board only a few minutes, despite bringing scented handkerchieves with them. 🙊🙊

If you missed my previous post on the Great Stink itself, check it out! 

Also, here’s an awesome video on the Great Stink

Freud and Cocaine

Famous Victorians, Medicine

Sigmund Freud, best known as the father of psychoanalysis, spent a large portion of his life promoting cocaine as a miracle cure for almost everything. Not only did he prescribe cocaine to his patients, but also used it himself on a regular basis. Some scholars believe this has largely influenced his theories on the human psyche and treatments which are considered pseudoscientific today.

Wash Your Hands

Epidemiology, Famous Victorians, Medicine

While working in Vienna General Hospital in the 1840s, Ignaz Semmelweis noticed a curious thing – the mortality rate of new mothers was a lot higher in wards supervised by doctors 👨‍⚕️compared to those supervised by midwives 👩‍⚕️. After some investigating, he found the source of the problem – only doctors had access to both maternity wards and autopsy tables. Semmelweis quickly developed a theory of what he called “cadaverous particles” 🧟‍♀️🧟‍♀️ and introduced rigorous handwashing 🧼 in his clinics. Unfortunately, even though his method worked spectacularly well, he was ridiculed by most of the medical professionals until his death in a lunatic asylum. 💀

Original John Snow

Epidemiology, Famous Victorians, Medicine

John Snow was an English physician, 👨‍⚕️ best known for finding the source of a cholera outbreak in Soho,1854. By putting all known cholera cases on a map, he found the source of all troubles – a contaminated water pump. 💦 Why was it such a big deal? This discovery not only led to shutting down the pump, but also worked in favor of the budding germ theory of disease. 🦠🦠🦠 Even though Snow himself didn’t know that at the time, he contributed to the birth of epidemiology. 🔬

The third episode of the newest Victoria season talks about the Snow’s cholera investigation, so check it out! (the series doesn’t always stick well to the facts, though, you’ve been warned) 😀

Mary Shelley

Everyday Life, Famous Victorians, Medicine

After her husband’s death, Mary Shelley kept his calcified heart 💛 in a desk drawer. And even though some modern scholars believe it was just his liver, Mary herself was convinced that she had Percy’s heart. Quite a suitable keepsake for the author of Frankenstein! 🧟‍♂️

Interesting article on the subject: http://assets.press.princeton.edu/chapters/s7985.pdf