PERSONAL: Female. Education: Union College (Lincoln, NE), degree, 1973.
ADDRESSES: Home—16 Chester Road Montclair, NJ 07043.
CAREER: Writer, editor, and executive. Worked in film business as story editor and story analyst for Warner Bros., Columbia TriStar, Disney, and Miramax; worked for William Morris Agency.
SIDELIGHTS: Deborah Davis got the idea for her first book from the evening gown she decided to wear to a Hollywood film awards ceremony. "The instant I put it on, my posture changed, almost as if I were assuming a pose," said Davis in an interview for the Union College online magazine. "The dress reminded me of something, and I soon realized that it was John Singer Sargent's painting Madame X, famous for its depiction of a voluptuous, pale-skinned woman wearing a very similar gown." As Davis went on to note, "That moment with the black dress led me on—I had to know everything. When I couldn't find much information, that's when I realized there was a story waiting to be told. I gave myself three months, immersed myself, wrote a proposal, which went to auction and got picked up. I was given a year—that's when it got interesting."
In her book Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X, Davis focuses on the woman behind the famous painting by Sargent titled Madame X, which hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The painting created a scandal in Paris when it was first unveiled in 1884, leading to the portrait's being retouched to insert a strap covering the woman's bare shoulder. As noted by Joy Dunkelman, writing on the Best of Times Web site, "The implication was that the lady might be available to men other than her dull but wealthy husband." However, in an article in Magazine Antiques, author Davis and Elizabeth Oustinoff explained, "The French critics claimed the portrait was offensive because it was suggestive and revealing. Their moral outrage notwithstanding, it is also likely that the exhibition afforded an opportunity to express their growing resentment of American infiltration into their higher social circles." In her book, Davis gives the reader a look at the woman depicted in the painting. Virginie Amélie Avegno Cautreau came from an upper-class Creole family in New Orleans. She was taken to Paris and cultivated socially so she could find a suitable husband, which ended up being a much older man. Famous throughout Paris for her beauty, Cautreau suffered more from the ensuing scandal than Sargent, who sought to paint a portrait that would establish him as an artist. Cautreau eventually became a social nonentity and ended up a recluse.
Noting Davis's "diligent research," a Publishers Weekly contributor also commented that the author "imports tangential figures such as the seductive gynecologist Samuel-Jean Pozzi to deliver lusty intrigue." A Kirkus Reviews contributor called the book "a fascinating commentary on the evanescence of fame and beauty," while Library Journal contributor Paula Frosch noted: "With its intriguing set of circumstances, lively writing, and an eye for detail and nuance, the book offers art history, social commentary, and gossip." An American Artist contributor wrote that "Davis' discoveries reveal a story of the intersecting lives of artist and model, and how a calculated pursuit of fame brought one fortune and the other ruin."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
American Artist, September, 2003, review of Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X; December, 2003, Susan Lyons, review of Strapless, p. 7.
Kirkus Reviews, June 15, 2003, review of Strapless, p. 843.
Library Journal, August, 2003, Paula Frosch, review of Strapless, p. 76.
Magazine Antiques, November, 2003, Deborah Davis and Elizabeth Oustinoff, "Madame Speaks," p. 116. New Yorker, September 1, 2003, review of Strapless, p. 15.
Publishers Weekly, June 9, 2003, review of Strapless, p. 46.
Best of Times, http://www.thebestoftimesnews.com/ (September 14, 2005), Joy Dunkelman, review of Strapless.
Union College Web site (September 14, 2005), http://www.union.edu/ "A Peek behind the Canvas," article about author and book.