Step Closer
Lady Agnew of Lochnaw
20 x 16 in.

Lady Agnew, 1892-93

Mrs John J. Chapman, 1893

Lady Agnew of Lochnaw
John Singer Sargent -- American painter 
National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh
Oil on canvas
124.5 x 99.7 cm  (49 x 39 1/4 in.)
Purchased with the aid of the Cowan Smith Bequest Fund 1925
NG 1656

Jpg: Mark Harden's Artchive

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 done 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 and fire  of his daring technique" (Charteris, P136).

The critics loved it when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1898 and subsequent exhibitions, and it is one of my favorites:

A masterpiece... not only a triumph of technique but the finest example of portraiture in the literal sense of the word, that has been seen here in a long while. (The Times, 1893)
Carter Ratcliff described it this way in his book on Sargent: 
Lady Agnew's personality engages in endless elusive play against her social type. Sargent has made her face almost schematic, yet within the regularity there is slight departures, nuances whose faintness blends nicely with the sitters languid pose. Lady Agnew's face seems all possibility, and consciously so. The moment of the right side of her lips look slightly drawn back, as if in doubt or weariness, the left side seems almost to smile. And, as if to insist on her control of this ambivalence, her eyes are oddly calm.
(Ratcliff, P159-161)
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 conclusions were that indeed there is an objective measure of beauty, and it seemed to lie within the idea of symmetry. (why symmetry?)

When I step closer to Lady Agnew, it is apparent she is a beautiful  woman  with a near perfect symmetrical face -- that is, when the face is at rest -- "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 brings the picture to life for me -- Interesting.

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. 

As with any portrait painter, and Sargent was no exception, he was often confronted by a patrons that were displeased with the image he gave them.  "This happened so often that he used to define a portrait as 'a likeness in which there was something 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 alarmed at his wife's décolletage, had a water-colour representation of tulle added in the name of propriety before it was exhibited." (Charteris, P160)

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 husband is offered  as a typical response from John. Although I have no idea 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 Lady Agnew.


Dear -----,

I have received your kind letter and if I thought an interview was of the slightest use and would not lead to a further discussion I would of course welcome it.

But the point on which we differ is one with which a long experience if portrait painting has made me perfectly familiar -- I have very often been reproached with giving a hard expression to ladies portraits, especially when I have retained some look if intelligence in the face, besides amiability, as I consider myself forced to do in this case.

The expression of         's face in the portrait is kind and indulgent, with over and above this, 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, much as I regret not meeting your wishes.

Yours truly,
John S. Sargent
(Charteris, P160)

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. (Sargent's Musical Talents)

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 condescension, 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 the influences of his work, one would know that Romanticism was the exact antithesis of what he considered himself to be. He painted what he saw, he was faithful to what he's eyes took-in and Daughters of Edward Darley Boitthe composition that it revealed -- matter of factly -- even to the composition's detriment (see Daughters of Edward Darley Boit);  and what his eyes saw, more often than not it seems to me, were the inevitable blossoming 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, 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?

By: Natasha Wallace
Copyright 1998-2002  All rights reserved.



Royal Academy in 1898

( . . .)

John Singer Sargent, An Exhibition -- Whitney Museum, NY & The Art Institute of Chicago 1986-1987

Forum on Lady Agnew
From: Wonsug Jung

The Photo of Gertrude Vernon is Lady Agnew taken at the time of her engagement 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 for $15.96

The following is Julia Rayer Rolfe's comment:

"Sargent 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 weakly 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 chair. Part of the allure of her portrait comes from the combination of the direct gaze, the relaxed attitude and the quizzical lift of her eyebrow and the 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 only surviving photograph of her taken at around the time of her marriage, but she has the same tilt to her head and upward look, which suggests that this pose was assumed naturally."

From Natasha

I agree 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 ready herself and to pose in the same chair, the same way, I think we would see the same gorgeous woman. 

From: Ransford Pyle
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Date: 6-6-00 

. . . I purchased the advertising 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 jealousy in Lord Agnew. (I'm sure she told him that Mr. Sargent asked her to think of her husband as he painted). Despite my unforgivable voyeurism in this regard, I do think that Sargent accomplished something in this picture that few others could have done, namely, he combined his usual exquisite 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 in my heart that his star would once again rise while some of their favorites 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 child when my parents made a brief play at expatriates, mostly in Florence. And 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 where I tried to escape the tyranny of Andover. 

From: James Passmore 
<j. apass>
Date:Wednesday, 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 comely as you have made out. 

To me, it is obvious from the paintings that Sargent was portraying the ideal of the society woman and obviously 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 just point out that Mr Sargent made a living from his paintings, he didn't do them to serve the greater good of Art. You can't make a dollar giving people 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 photographers for nothing, and what are they if not the essence of illustrating the so called ideal woman and her style? You can hear the frustration of the portrait artist in his famous quote. My Father said the same thing differently once; "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 painted her the way we see her now; not because she wanted it that way, but because he did.

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 ultimate truth
and self-fulfillment existed in those days. Art with a capital A. It existed in some form that it hadn't earlier - but nothing like today. 

It's really a modern invention, came out somewhere inbetween Cubism and Surrealism. Picasso's got a lot to answer for.
Perhaps I'm wrong, I just remembered Vasari describes a high, almost godlike reverence for the great artists. 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. 

Kind regards

From: Graham Spence 

<brou  ght>
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

Why Symmetry
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 postulation that symmetry somehow plays an evolutionary indication of genetic health and survivability for a species and has been used by animals when soliciting a mate for procreation -- and in turn -- this  equates to desirability -- not to say that asymmetrical things can't be beautiful but in humans, this intrinsic desirability that we get from the animal kingdom, they claim, leads to a predisposition towards our subjective ideas of  "beauty" -- at least in living things. I'm not sure if they went further to claim 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 that 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 call beauty. 

I wish I could site the source of this, but I pull this strictly from memory and I don't recall.


Created 12/8/1998