Sargent’s dazzling and unforgettable image of Lady Agnew is one of the most famous of his many portraits of fashionable London society. For both the artist and his sitter, the painting was an instant success, establishing Sargent’s reputation as the portrait painter of choice for the London elite and immediately transforming the newly elevated Lady Agnew into a society celebrity.
Sargent was born in Florence and spent his childhood travelling across Europe with his wealthy American parents who restlessly followed the changing social seasons. In 1874 he entered the Paris studio of the stylish French portraitist, Carolus-Duran. The young Sargent combined the flamboyant style of his teacher with his study of old masters such as Rembrandt and Velázquez but was also influenced by Monet and Impressionism. His provocative and unconventional Portrait of Madame X caused a scandal at the Paris Salon exhibition in 1884; and, when Sargent settled in London in 1886, he initially found it difficult to find clients as his bravura, continental style of painting attracted suspicion. However, his dashing technical mastery and confident manner were ideally suited for aristocratic patronage and he soon won over his critics with his elegant, flattering portraits. When his portrait of Lady Agnew was shown at the Royal Academy in 1893, one contemporary observed: ‘London is at his feet … he has had a cracking success.’
The sitter was born Gertrude Vernon and married Andrew Noel Agnew in 1889. Her husband, fifteen years her senior, was a barrister and later an MP and deputy-Lieutenant in Wigtownshire; he succeeded his father as 9th Baronet of Lochnaw in 1892, shortly before Sargent embarked on this portrait. The exact circumstances behind the commission are not known, but the Agnews may have met the artist through mutual American friends. According to notes in her husband’s diary, work on the portrait progressed swiftly, and Sargent later recalled that it was painted in just six sittings.
Lady Agnew is shown seated in a Louis XVI chair against the backdrop of a Chinese silk hanging, both of which were standard props in Sargent’s studio. She is reported to have been of frail health; she recovered slowly from a severe bout of influenza in 1890 and was apparently still convalescing and suffering from exhaustion when she sat to Sargent, which may account for her slightly ghostly pallor in the painting. Lady Agnew fixes the spectator with an intelligent, faintly amused gaze but it is her elegant white silk dress and lilac sash that threaten to steal all our attention. There are brilliant passages of painting in the highlights, reflections and coloured shadows that show Sargent at his best as a painter of surfaces and textures, the ideal artist for a gilded, polished yet ultimately superficial society.
Sargent’s image of Lady Agnew helped her to become a leading light in fashionable circles, holding lavish salons in her London home. Ironically, the high costs of this hospitality meant that she was eventually forced to sell some family pictures including this portrait which was purchased by the Scottish National Gallery in 1925.
This text was originally published in 100 Masterpieces: National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, 2015.