This is Madame X, painted by John Singer Sargent in 1864, it is one of my favorite paintings. I bought the print at the Metropolitan Museum of Art when I was in college, and have had it with me since then. To me Madame X is incredibly beautiful, and also not. She looks haughty and aloof, haunted and distant. She also looks regal, poised and elegant. Why do I love this portrait so much? I don't think of myself as sharing any of her qualities; neither the appealing or the unattractive; I don't identify with her, yet from every home, since my cinder-block dorm room in Weinstein Hall at New York University to my current home she has been a constant and oddly comforting presence.
One of the things I love about Madame X is her duality. In each of us is a range of great beauty to ugliness. And saying that, the few people I think of as ugly (and I use that word with some hesitation) are people who have shown their character, or actions to be ugly. Not one of those people is someone whom I found ugly when I first encountered them! I have also known people who I found marginally attractive who became more and more attractive as I got to know them—as I became acquainted with their character. My daughter tells me often that she thinks I am beautiful, and I believe that to her I am, yet it is hard for me to think of myself in that way.
Maybe you think I am shallow to worry about whether or not I am beautiful, but I assure you (and myself) I am not. I am part of the human race, a female part, I have been loved and rejected, my heart has been broken more times than I care to count. Like almost everyone I know I did not escape childhood unscathed. I know that every mirror in my house functions like a fun-house mirror at a carnival, distorting my image. Sometimes I am tall and wiggly, other times short and bumpy in all the wrong places. My image changes constantly, yet it's never what I hope it will be.
Flaming June by Frederick Leighton is another of my favorites. She is asleep, but so relaxed and unguarded, the colors both vivid and soft, her features both lovely and sharp. As much as I wish I had the regal carriage of Madame X, I wish just as much to have the languid beauty of June. What do I wish I could look like? Almost anything but like myself, and yet when I was in my twenties and a dentist suggested a horrible and painful sounding surgery to me, my first response wasn't 'that sounds so painful' but 'that would change the shape of my face'... Clearly the thought of changing my face was more frightening to me than pain, or cost.
And so, like June and Madame X, in my own way I am both beautiful and ugly. To those who can see me, all of me, the best of me, I am beautiful, and to those I have wronged or hurt, or who just don't like me, I am ugly. All of them see me clearly. All of them see me more clearly than I see myself. Each day I work to gain membership in the group that sees my beauty, rather than aligning myself with my 'enemies'. Why would I want to be my own enemy? That seems like a pretty poor strategy! I have often been asked, what would happen if I just decided I am beautiful? Keeping with the theme of duality, everything and nothing.
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