Lady Agnew of Lochnaw is an oil on canvas portrait by the Florence-born artist John Singer Sargent. Commissioned by Sir Andrew Noel AgnewSir Andrew Noel Agnew, 9th Baronet of Lochnaw (14 August 1850 – 14 July 1928) was a descendent of an old Scottish family whose main seat was Lochnaw Castle in Wigtownshire, Scotland. , 9th Baronet of Lochnaw Castle in Wigtownshire, the work was completed in six sittings during 1892.
It depicts Gertrude AgnewThe socialite Gertrude Vernon, Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, gained prestige and notoriety from her portrait by artist John Singer Sargent. (née Vernon), Sir Andrew’s wife, a few years after the couple married. She had suffered ill health before the work was undertaken and was still convalescing; historians suggest this may account for the sense of languor captured in the portrait.
The portrait was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1893, greatly contributing to the artist’s success and acceptance in England. Born in Italy to American parents, Sargent trained in Paris with Carolus-Duran and was well recognised for his work in France. After a scandal over the exhibition of one of his portraits, that of Madame X, at the Paris salon in 1884, he re-located to London. Gertrude also secured additional prestige and notability from the triumph of the painting.
Possibly due to financial difficulties faced by the Agnews, in 1922 there was a failed attempt to sell the painting to the Trustees of the Frick Collection. In 1925 it was acquired by the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh, Scotland, through the Cowan Smith Bequest Fund.
John Singer Sargent was born in the Italian city of Florence probably on 12 January 1856 although some family papers quote 10 January as the correct date. Both his parents were American; his father, Fitzwilliam Sargent (1820–1889) was a surgeon and his mother, Mary Newbold Singer (1826–1906) belonged to a wealthy merchant family. Following the death of their first child in 1853, the couple led a nomadic lifestyle travelling throughout Europe. Sargent was at ease conversing in several European languages and developed an interest in music and architecture as well as art. His prowess at the piano was such that later, when his art career was at a low ebb, he considered developing his musical talents instead.
In 1874 Sargent commenced studying art in the Paris studio of Carolus-Duran, continuing his studies by enrolling at influential art schools. Within a few years, in 1877, he exhibited a portrait at the Paris Salon and worked with Carolus-Duran to provide a decoration for the ceiling of the Luxembourg Palace. He successfully submitted pieces to Salon exhibitions for several more years varying between portraits and subject paintings. In 1883 he established his own studio but caused a scandal at the Salon with the exhibition of his painting Madame X the following year. The painting received mixed reviews but set the Establishment against him and cost him his reputation; humiliated, he relocated to London with the move completed by 1886.
Initially Sargent struggled for acceptance as people in London were wary of his continental style but he quickly gained admiration for his technical abilities, the elegance conveyed by his portraits and the flattering characteristics the pieces highlighted. He was commissioned to paint portraits of members of the Dunham family from New York, who were resident in London, including their daughter, Helen.[a] The Dunhams introduced the artist to the Agnews. When he exhibited Lady Agnew’s portrait in 1893 his British career began an upward trajectory.
Sargent died on 15 April 1925 after having a heart attack whilst asleep. He had remained a bachelor throughout his lifetime.
Main article: Gertrude AgnewThe socialite Gertrude Vernon, Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, gained prestige and notoriety from her portrait by artist John Singer Sargent.
Gertrude VernonThe socialite Gertrude Vernon, Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, gained prestige and notoriety from her portrait by artist John Singer Sargent. was born in 1865, the daughter of the Hon. Gowran Vernon and granddaughter of Robert Vernon, 1st Baron Lyveden. She married Sir Andrew AgnewSir Andrew Noel Agnew, 9th Baronet of Lochnaw (14 August 1850 – 14 July 1928) was a descendent of an old Scottish family whose main seat was Lochnaw Castle in Wigtownshire, Scotland. , 9th Baronet of Lochnaw Castle in Wigtownshire in 1889. A few years later, during 1892, he commissioned John Singer Sargent to paint her portrait. The success of the painting added to her notability and prestige. There is speculation that the family may have met with financial difficulties resulting in an attempt to sell the painting to the Trustees of the Frick Collection in 1922, but the offer was rejected by Helen Clay Frick.[b] Lady Agnew died in London in April 1932 following a lengthy period of ill health.
Completed in six sittings, the oil on canvas measures 127 × 101 cm (50.0 × 39.8 in). Lady Agnew is seated in an 18th-century French bergère and, according to art historian Richard Ormond, the back of the chair is used as a “curving, supporting space to contain the figure, creating a distinctive, languid elegance”. Sargent pictured her in a three-quarter length pose, dressed in a white gown with a silk mauve sash as an accessory round her waist. Mauve was one of Lady Agnew’s favourite colours; the bows on the sleeve of her dress are of the same shade. She holds a white flower on her lap – possibly a rose, magnolia or camellia – which mirrors the blossoms included on the pastel upholstery of the bergère.
The wall behind Lady Agnew is draped with Chinese silk of a blue colour. She looks directly and appraisingly, her expression capturing the impression she is participating in an “intimate conversation” with those observing the painting. Ormond and Kilmurray remark that she was convalescing from influenza at the time, which may account for the languor in her pose. They describe her gaze as “quietly challenging” and “something withheld and inviting in her quizzical half-smile”. The chair she sits in and the silk wall-hanging were conventional components from Sargent’s studio, which he had brought to London from his workroom in Paris. He used them again in another portrait, Mrs Ian Hamilton, in 1896, in which he placed the sitter in a similar posture to that of Lady Agnew but without capturing the same intensity of character.
According to an unattributed article in The Times dated 29 April 1893, the portrait was “not only a triumph of technique but the finest example of portraiture, in the literal sense of the word, that has been seen here for a long time. While Mr Sargent has abandoned none of his subtlety, he has abandoned his mannerisms, and has been content to make a beautiful picture of a charming subject, under conditions of repose.” The writer also felt it was a “masterpiece”.
Exhibitions and provenance
The portrait was exhibited at the Royal Academy, London, in 1893 and may have been influential in the artist’s acceptance as an associate of the Academy the following January. The following year, 1894, it was included in the Fair Women exhibition held at the Grafton Galleries in London from October to December. The canvas was torn when being transported after the show finished; the gallery was tardy in accepting responsibility for the damage until correspondence appeared in The Times concerning it. Other exhibitions it featured in were at Boston’s Copley Hall in 1899 and the Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh during 1924. Following Sargent’s death, it formed part of the winter display of the Royal Academy, Works by the late John S. Sargent, in 1926. The portrait featured in the exhibition entitled John Singer Sargent and the Edwardian Age held in Leeds, London and Detroit during 1979. It has also been included in displays in New York, Chicago, Washington and Japan.
The painting still hangs in its original antique French rococo frame. It is not known if this is the same frame Sargent described in an 1893 letter to Sir Andrew: “Today I saw an old frame which I think might suit the picture … It is expensive, I think £20, and unless the picture should look remarkably well in it, hardly worth the money”.
According to the Scottish National Gallery, “the cumulative cost of sustaining celebrity with style obliged Lady Agnew to sell her own portrait”. The painting was acquired with assistance from the Cowan Smith Bequest Fund in 1925. It was retitled as Lady Agnew of Lochnaw at her request (formerly it had been titled simply Lady Agnew). There are two letters from her about the sale of the painting in the gallery’s archives. The first of these indicate that she had decided against letting it go to an American in New York and had offered it to the gallery for £4,000. At the time Agnew commissioned the portrait, Sargent’s fee for a three-quarter length portrait was about £500. After the gallery was extended in about 1978, the additional area allowed space for the portrait to be displayed.
- Helen Dunham later married Thomas (or Theodore) Holmes-Spencer, a London eye surgeon; Sargent’s painting of her, Helen Dunham, was commissioned in 1891-1892 by her father, James H. Dunham. It was purchased in 1931 by the American art collector, J. F. Braun.
- The source states Lady Agnew was a widow at the time of the offer in 1922 but her husband did not die until 1928