John Singer Sargent
Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, 1892-1893
From an essay by Natasha Wallace at jssgallery.org:
In late 1892 John began work on the portrait of Lady Agnew, commissioned by Andrew Noel Agnew, a barrister who had inherited the baronetcy and estates of Lochnaw in Galloway. The sitter was to be of his young wife, Gertrude Vernon (1865-1932)…
Both Charteris and Richard Ormond with Elaine Kilmurry talk in their books about the nervous energy of the women in Sargent’s portraits. Lady Agnew is no exception here. Although she sits with a total comfortable familiarity with her surroundings and takes ownership of the room — the “languid pose”, her back to the corner of the chair, leg crossed and angled from her left to right, there is an energy (subtle though it is) which is palatable.
Besides the mouth and her cocked eyebrow, I notice also the hand that grips the chair, the ever so slight downward tilt of Lady Agnew’s head (contrasted by the hint of upward tilt to Madame X’s — although it actually dosen’t) — the tension here is undeniable.
The thing that strikes me over and over about his life is that John Sargent loved women — women who were strong in character, intelligent and of course beautiful women. He didn’t feel threatened by strong women (as some men can), and above all he truly enjoyed their presence. Yet John was not, by anyone’s measure, a wilting violet. In fact, he was a true man’s man (this comes from many sources) — over six feet tall and strong in physique and sporting a full beard. His constitution was incredible and he could push himself hard in work and he did. He was extremely bright, well read, and seemed to retain everything he read. He was opinionated, yet self abasing, and his manner was charming and humorous, though often incredably shy around those he didn’t know. He was a skilled pianist and played often for friends and played while painting with sitters, moving back and forth between piano and painting. It was from music that he seemed to draw his energy for painting and it was music that occupied many of his sittings…
Although I can not speak with authority here, to me, the painting of Lady Agnew shows John at one of his best and is among my personal favorites. Like Madame X, Lady Agnew shows herself to be confident in her ability, bright and comfortable in her femininity — almost post-feminist — a very modern woman (hey, it’s my opinion).
Can you imagine John Sargent in his studio sitting across from her? Can you see him playing on a piano, then moving between music and portrait working in bursts between Mozart and an inspiration as he paints her? I can. Lady Agnew is looking right at him. And it is through him that she looks at us.
Are John Singer Sargent’s portraits too flattering? Is this one too evocative? Or is it the subtle interplay between a beautiful woman sitting before a very charming man — faithfully captured — truthfully told?