Updated: Mar 13, 2022
John Singer Sargent is the greatest portrait painter who ever lived. Change my mind.
If you’re familiar with Sargent, you may wonder why I didn’t use Madame X. I am positive I'll say something about that one later, trust me. Lady Agnew of Lochnaw is my subject today because this is the painting that launched him as a portrait artist in the UK. It launched her celebrity in high society, too, and she lived that celebrity status up well. She and her husband blew so extravagantly through the Agnew family fortune that they eventually had to sell the portrait to shore up their finances.
If you don’t think of portraits as terribly interesting art, give Sargent a chance to persuade you otherwise. He always delivered something far more aesthetic and interesting than vanity on canvas. Lady Agnew’s face is a really good example. He had a way of capturing personality and there is a lot of it in her expression. It doesn’t even feel like a formal pose, does it? It’s more like something a camera captured by happenstance at a social gathering, but this is a painting that took 6 sittings and several hours. Her face happens to be the part that is painted the most carefully and precisely, everything else is impressionistic. Look at her dress, the sash, the chiffon sleeves, and the flower pattern on the chair to see what I mean. The brush strokes there are loose and uncontrolled, some even look haphazard. As you back off, though, they come together. The whole thing is designed to be viewed from far away, where your eyes can merge the meticulous face with the freer composition of everything else. It gives us both realism and artistry.
Lady Agnew had a variety of health issues during the time she sat for this portrait, nervous exhaustion and the flu, for sure. She died in 1932 of complications from pernicious anemia, a reduction in red blood cells from not absorbing enough vitamin B-12. Symptoms include chronic fatigue, stomach pain, weight loss, and pallor. I include that because you can see her ill health in her slouched and lethargic pose, which apparently was not staged, and in her complexion. At first I thought that was because of her native climate but it very well could be her anemia instead.
This one was fun since I could talk art and medicine in the same piece. I’ll have to think of others that would allow for that. Any suggestions?