Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, by John Singer Sargent (1892)

We continue our look at several pictures in the current exhibition at The Frick Collection, showcasing 10 masterworks from the Scottish National Gallery, with the picture in the show I loved most, Lady Agnew Of Lochnaw, painted in 1892 by your correspondent’s favorite painter, John Singer Sargent (1856-1925).

Sargent was one of the greatest, and most prolific, of fin de siècle artists.  A gifted portraitist, Sargent was also painter of many magnificent landscapes, a champion draughtsman and watercolorist, and he also painted the mighty frescoes found in the Boston Public Library and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Contemporary art historians and critics – largely a benighted lot – are troubled by Sargent and his achievement.  His talent is too prodigious to dismiss, but he does not comfortably fit with either within the Academic establishment or inside the Impressionist movement, both of which were dominant at that time.  What Sargent was, in short, was his own thing, an artist unique to himself who managed also to wonderfully illustrate his own time.

John Singer Sargent was born in Florence, Italy, to American expatriate parents.  He would study in Florence and Paris, and live in London and Boston.  He was one of most celebrated artists of his time, famous for his “society portraits.”  Near the end of his life, he visited the battlefields in World War I France as an official British War artist.  His frescoes for the Boston Public Library occupied his later years; they are both magnificent and completely unlike his other work.

The painting visiting the Frick is a portrait of Lady Gertrude Agnew, the wife of Sir Andrew Agnew, 9th Baronet.  She was born in 1865, and was all of 27 when Sargent immortalized her.  There is some irony in the portrait hanging in the Frick: in 1922, when the family hit financial troubles, they tried to sell the work to Helen Clay Frick in 1922.  Foolish woman – she turned it down.  Lady Agnew herself would die in 1932, following a long illness.

This is, by any critical and aesthetic yardstick, a magnificent picture.  It is easily the most striking piece in the exhibition – and is strategically placed in the center wall facing the viewer upon entering.  (The magnificent Constable, covered in these pages last week, is lost instantly – such is the power of the Sargent.)

Among the many component parts of Sargent’s genius was a deep and abiding understanding of the color blue.  It is the dominant color in his work, and he uses it to great effect both alone and in combination and contrast to other colors.  His use of blue here is nothing short of splendid, morphing through different shadings, contrasts with white, gold and pale red, and setting the mood of elegant repose.  The notion of Sargent the colorist is essential to understanding his sense of composition and how he saw the world around him.

Typical of the time, there is an Asian influence, consistent with the then-current Aesthetic Movement of things Japanese and Chinese.  This underscores that Lady Agnew is not only a lady of taste and refinement, but up-to-date with current modes of aesthetic expression. 

Let us look also at some of the things perhaps not blatant at first glance:  note, for example, how Sargent suggests the flesh of her left arm under the gauzy material of her dress.  Look at how the pattern on the chair is beautifully rendered without being stuffy or academic; much is suggested, but all that is necessary is said.

The pose is quite special.  Notice how her body is twisted to face one way, while the chair is adjusted to face the other – both creating the tension of a V.  (The power of this pose is underscored by how Lady Agnew clutches the base of her chair.)  And in the center of that V, Lady Agnew looks straight out at the viewer with a gaze frank, strong and enigmatic.  Last week we were looking at the portrait of Allan Ramsay’s wife; both Ramsay and Sargent are able to write volumes with the expressions of their subjects.  Where Ramsay relates a placid and affectionate beauty, Sargent paints a woman elegant, commanding and hypnotic.  She is fully aware of her status in life, her own intellectual and artistic attainments, and her own power as a woman. 

Finally, Lady Agnew holds a blossom in her lap, the white of the petals offset by her lilac sash.  Though literally draped in beauty, Sargent paints a figure of power and presence – a formidable woman indeed, and a perfect centerpiece to this splendid show.

Tomorrow: A special Thanksgiving message!

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