Agnew of Lochnaw
Sargent -- American
Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh
Oil on canvas
124.5 x 99.7
x 39 1/4 in.)
with the aid of the Cowan Smith Bequest Fund 1925
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).
The painting was
in a "high key" and carefully finished. "It is a careful portrait, free
of any fine frenzy, sedately handled, and rather lacking in the force
fire of his daring technique" (Charteris,
The critics loved
it when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1898 and subsequent
exhibitions, and it is one
of my favorites:
masterpiece... not only
a triumph of technique but the finest example of portraiture in the
sense of the word, that has been seen here in a long while. (The
described it this way
in his book on Sargent:
engages in endless elusive play against her social type. Sargent has
her face almost schematic, yet within the regularity there is slight
nuances whose faintness blends nicely with the sitters languid pose.
Agnew's face seems all possibility, and consciously so. The moment of
right side of her lips look slightly drawn back, as if in doubt or
the left side seems almost to smile. And, as if to insist on her
of this ambivalence, her eyes are oddly calm.
I remember reading an
article on the
nature of beauty. It was trying to establish if there was some
objective yardstick in which we see things as beautiful. Their
were that indeed there is an objective measure of beauty, and it seemed
to lie within the idea of symmetry. (why
When I step
closer to Lady Agnew, it is apparent she is a beautiful
with a near perfect symmetrical face -- that is, when the face is at
-- "almost schematic" is what Ratcliff calls it. But the things that I
notice, and what Ratcliff points out are the things that are not
symmetrical and it is these things that give her character and
the picture to life for me -- Interesting.
Both Charteris and
with Elaine Kilmurry talk in their books about the nervous energy of
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
of the chair, leg crossed and angled from her left to right, there is
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
downward tilt of Lady Agnew's head (contrasted by the hint of upward
to Madame X's -- although
actually dosen't) -- the tension here is undeniable.
As with any
portrait painter, and
Sargent was no exception, he was often confronted by a patrons that
displeased with the image he gave them. "This happened so often
he used to define a portrait as 'a likeness in which there was
wrong about the mouth'" (Charteris, P157).
"More then once he
had occasion to
be embarrassed and also amused by the subsequent fate of his pictures.
Once one distinguished sitter had his hand painted out and later begged
that it might be painted in again. On another occasion a husband
at his wife's décolletage, had a water-colour representation of
tulle added in the name of propriety before it was exhibited." (Charteris,
Sargent was a man
of deep convictions
with his art and would not give in just to please his patron (Charteris,
P157). A letter from Sargent to a dissatisfied
is offered as a typical response from John. Although I have no
which painting this letter is referring to, I can read within it
Sargent's feelings about many of his portraits of women and maybe even
The thing that strikes
me over and over
about his life is that John Sargent loved women -- women who were
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
their presence. Yet John was not, by anyone's measure, a wilting
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
was incredible and he could push himself hard in work and he did. He
extremely bright, well read, and seemed to retain everything he read.
was opinionated, yet self abasing, and his manner was charming
humorous, though often incredably shy around those he didn't know. He
a skilled pianist and played often for friends and played while
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
that occupied many of his sittings. (Sargent's
received your kind letter
and if I thought an interview was of the slightest use and would not
to a further discussion I would of course welcome it.
point on which we differ
is one with which a long experience if portrait painting has made me
familiar -- I have very often been reproached with giving a hard
to ladies portraits, especially when I have retained some look if
in the face, besides amiability, as I consider myself forced to do in
's face in the portrait is kind and indulgent, with over and above
a hint at a sense of humour. If I take this out, it will become as soft
as anyone could desire. But as a matter of fact nothing will make me,
as I regret not meeting your wishes.
John S. Sargent
It has been often
said by his critics
that Sargent treated his subject's too kindly -- too flatteringly. That
I would think would gall Sargent, not so much in the obvious
although anyone would be galled by such remarks, but in the affront to
what his whole notion of art was for him. To understand his roots and
influences of his work, one would know that Romanticism
was the exact antithesis of what he considered himself to be. He
what he saw, he was faithful to what he's eyes took-in and the
composition that it revealed -- matter of factly -- even to the
detriment (see Daughters of Edward Darley Boit); and what
his eyes saw, more often than not it seems to me, were the inevitable
of a woman in the presence of a man who enjoys a woman's company.
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,
and comfortable in her femininity -- almost post-feminist -- a very
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,
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
too flattering? Is this one too evocative? Or is it the subtle
between a beautiful woman sitting before a very charming man --
captured -- truthfully told?
1998-2002 All rights
Royal Academy in
( . . .)
An Exhibition -- Whitney
Museum, NY & The Art Institute of Chicago 1986-1987
Forum on Lady Agnew
of Gertrude Vernon is Lady Agnew taken at the time of her
to Andrew Noel Agnew, and it is the only photograph of Lady Agnew known
to exist. This is from Portrait of a Lady; Sargent and Lady Agnew by
Julia Rayer Rolfe, et al which is available at www.amazon.com for $15.96
The following is
Julia Rayer Rolfe's
preferred to catch his sitters
in a characteristic pose. On her arrival at the studio Lady Agnew might
have well sunk exhausted into an armchair, leaving one arm hanging
over the side. This apparent passivity is belied by the self-assurance
in her expression and her hand is actually grasping the edge of the
Part of the allure of her portrait comes from the combination of the
gaze, the relaxed attitude and the quizzical lift of her eyebrow and
corner of her mouth. Sargent has selected a high viewpoint to make the
most of Gertrude looking upwards provocatively, secure in the knowledge
of her beauty, even though she may not have been in the best of health.
Did Sargent flatter Gertrude? Certainly she is not as striking in the
surviving photograph of her taken at around the time of her marriage,
she has the same tilt to her head and upward look, which suggests that
this pose was assumed naturally."
with Rolfe's comments
in that the photo is not as striking but photo's are funny, or can be.
Not all photographs tell the truth, but the bone structure is there, as
well as that adorable cocked eyebrow. If Gertrude Vernon were to put on
the dress Sargent had her model in, if she were to take the time to
herself and to pose in the same chair, the same way, I think we would
the same gorgeous woman.
. . . I purchased
banners, one of Madame X and one of Lady Agnew. . . each day as I
gaze into the eyes of Lady Agnew how I wish she were alive and looking
at me in such a way. I wonder if the picture did not inspire some
in Lord Agnew. (I'm sure she told him that Mr. Sargent asked her to
of her husband as he painted). Despite my unforgivable voyeurism in
regard, I do think that Sargent accomplished something in this picture
that few others could have done, namely, he combined his usual
treatment of rich fabric with and uncanny suggestion of relaxed tension
(is that possible?) in posture and a facial expression that is quietly
but undeniably seductive.
I fell in love
with Sargent at Harvard
at a time when he was held in low esteem by my professors, but I knew
my heart that his star would once again rise while some of their
were destined for the dustbin. I suppose I was destined to be attracted
to his subject matter, having likewise fallen in love with Italy as a
when my parents made a brief play at expatriates, mostly in Florence.
I wound up at Harvard in the town that reminded us that Sargent was an
'American' painter - I always thought England's greatest musician was a
German and her greatest painter an American. I had come to admire that
era in American painting through Winslow Homer in the Addison Gallery
I tried to escape the tyranny of Andover.
February 25, 2004
Lady Agnew is
also one of my favourites.
I am inclined to
disagree with your
opinion that Sargent did not idealize his sitters or make them more
as you have made out.
To me, it is
obvious from the paintings
that Sargent was portraying the ideal of the society woman and
setting down the sitters' 'good side'.
I am a painter here
in New Zealand,
mostly still lifes, but occasional portraits, and I thought I would
point out that Mr Sargent made a living from his paintings, he didn't
them to serve the greater good of Art. You can't make a dollar giving
a dose of reality when they commission portraits, despite the idea that
you have to somehow portray the sitters 'personality'.
Yes, the great
ones do, but probably
in spite of the fact that they are primarily to satisfy the people who
commissioned them. I suspect that this was no big conflict for Sargent
who loved beauty and fashion. He is not compared with modern fashion
for nothing, and what are they if not the essence of illustrating the
called ideal woman and her style? You can hear the frustration of the
artist in his famous quote. My Father said the same thing differently
"Quickest way to loose friends is to paint their portrait."
But I suspect
Lady Agnew could have
been as plain as the back end of a bus and Sargent would still have
her the way we see her now; not because she wanted it that way, but
You cannot fault
Sargent for this.
I don't believe the modern idea of Art serving some greater mysterious
good, where the artists must subjugate everything in the pursuit of
those days. Art with a capital A. It existed in some form that it
earlier - but nothing like today.
It's really a
modern invention, came
out somewhere inbetween Cubism and Surrealism. Picasso's got a lot to
Perhaps I'm wrong, I
Vasari describes a high, almost godlike reverence for the great
But perhaps the point I'm making is that we can't judge Sargent harshly
for painting his women prettily - it's us who have to paint everything
with the cracks and the grime showing, the sagging ugliness - otherwise
we are not being 'modern', we're being false to our god.
From: Graham Spence
<brou ght email@example.com>
Date: Tue, 14 Dec 2004
I have the
pleasure of living in Edinburgh, which means that I can (and do) vist
Lady Agnew at least once every couple of months. Whilst this has caused
problems with jealous girlfriends who seem unhappy about competing with
an oil painting of such perfect beauty, it has allowed me to study the
painting in depth, and would suggest you try this....
Get the portrait on screen, and cover one half of her face, and see
what the expression tells you. Now do the same with the other side, and
you get two completely different and conflicting mesages. Think of this
society beauty in a remote Scottish castle, a husband older than her,
and the presence of a real, passionate, masculine artist and the
relationship between artist and sitter. Now look at the pendant, how
heavy it seems to hang, and think of it's provenance. Can you see a
wedding ring? Why is her hand gripping the side of the chair? Is there
a reason she holds a flower in her lap?
Or have I read too much of the Bronte sisters.....
Regards, Graham Spence
In all living forms
there is some
elements of symmetry. There is symmetry between two sides of a leaf, or
lobs of a clover. There is symmetry to the arrangement of design in the
peacock tail. There is symmetry of one's face and one hand to the
other. There is symmetry of a nose, and to the mouth. It was their
that symmetry somehow plays an evolutionary indication of genetic
and survivability for a species and has been used by animals when
a mate for procreation -- and in turn -- this equates to
-- not to say that asymmetrical things can't be beautiful but in
this intrinsic desirability that we get from the animal kingdom, they
leads to a predisposition towards our subjective ideas of
-- at least in living things. I'm not sure if they went further to
this predisposition towards all things -- living and non-living.
They tested this
hypothesis by placing
pictures before people with images that were symmetrical and images
were not, and they asked people which one was more beautiful. It seemed
to bare out that indeed symmetry plays a part in what we subjectively
I wish I could site
the source of
this, but I pull this strictly from memory and I don't recall.