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Philosophy at the Virtual Art Museum

Using art to prompt philosophical discussions in the high school classroom.

Teacher Guide

Portrait of Madame X

John Singer Sargent, 1884
FILTERS: Portraiture

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Questions for Philisophical Discussion

 

Portrait of Madame X

  1. What strikes you most prominently about this portrait?
  2. What attitude towards Madame X does the painting convey?
  3. Do you think this is a beautiful painting? What accounts for its beauty?
  4. If you discovered that this painting caused a scandal, how would that change your understanding of it?
  5. Portrait of Madame X upset many viewers because it violated their standards of decency. Do you think that this makes this a bad work? Should works of art have to be consistent with a community’s standards of taste? Should obscene works be censored?

Compare and Contrast

Open the discussion guides for some of the other portraits on this site: Woman with HatMichael Borges Study, and Rembrandt’s self portrait. After you’ve studied those images a bit, discuss the questions below.

  1. Which of the portraits/self-portraits you looked at is your favorite? What makes it your favorite?
  2. Why do you like it better than the other ones?
  3. Do you think that painting is beautiful? Which features of the painting contribute most to its beauty? For example, the colors, the detailed representation of the person, or its accuracy? Would you say that all works that have that or those features are beautiful?
  4. Can a painting be beautiful even if its subject is not? That is, if the person who is featured in the portrait is not beautiful or handsome, can the painting still be? What is the relationship between the person portrayed and the portrait itself?
  5. Is beauty the only term you would use to praise your favorite portrait? Try to think of other terms that evaluate that painting but that go beyond merely calling it beautiful? For example, might you praise your favorite portrait for being accurate, expressive, intimate, etc.? Are these other terms important to your understanding of the painting?
  6. Some philosophers maintain that our knowledge of our own minds is different than our knowledge of the minds of others. Do you think this is true? That is, do you know your own state of mind in a different way than you know the state of mind of others? Is your knowledge of yourself more certain than you knowledge of others? In what ways if any? Are there features of a self-portrait that distinguish it from a portrait of someone else? Are these related to the difference between self-knowledge and knowledge of other people’s minds?
  7. Jean-Paul Sartre, the famous Existentialist philosopher, thought that the “look of the other” was always objectifying. Based on the paintings you have looked at, do you think that painters necessarily objectify their subjects? Do we always objectify others? Is that necessarily a bad thing? Does this claim apply any differently to a self-portrait? Justify your answers.

Additional Resources

John Singer Sargent made significant changes to Portrait of Madame X. Read more about the original image.

Learn more about the image with an audio guide from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Portraiture Overview and Resources

Portraits are visual representations of individual people. Painted portraits were common until the invention of photography in the middle of the nineteenth century. When looking at portraits, it’s important to engage not only with the person depicted in the work of art, it’s also important to discuss the artistic choices the portraitist made when creating the image.

Tate Modern on Portraiture


Three issues are raised by the philosophical questions in this unit: the nature of beauty; how self-knowledge differs from the knowledge we have of others; and whether objectification always enters into our perception of others. These are difficult and interesting questions. Here are some resources to help students grapple with these questions.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on beauty

Philosophy Talk episode: “What is beauty?

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on self-knowledge

Philosophy Talk episode on the self and self-presentation

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Sartre and objectification

Statement of Intent: This website was developed for non-commercial, educational purposes. Every effort has been made to prioritize using images currently in the public domain, and to correctly attribute all images, including those still under copyright. Contact us if you find an image to be in violation of copyright, or in violation of a donor agreement. Images will be promptly removed while the claim is investigated.

John Singer Sargent, Portrait of Madame X, 1884
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John Singer Sargent, Portrait of Madame X, 1884
Download & Print Send Via Email
John Singer Sargent, Portrait of Madame X, 1884

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