In 1874 he entered the Paris atelier of the stylish French portraitist, Auguste Émile Carolus-Duran, and developed a fluid painting style. It was remarkable for dazzling brush work and bold handling of shimmering light. The young Sargent combined the flamboyant style of his teacher with his study of old masters like Rembrandt and Velázquez, and he was also influenced by the Impressionists.
Examine The Greats: Masterpieces from the National Galleries of Scotland catalogue which accompanied the Art Gallery of NSW exhibition in 2015-16. It discussed how Sargent became the most fashionable portraitist working on both sides of the Atlantic in late C19th and in Edwardian society.
Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, 1892
Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh
In that same year in Paris, Sargent met American writer Henry James (1843–1916), who became a great supporter. Sargent and James were both Americans living in Europe, men who had spent most of their childhood abroad. James began to pave the way for the artist to cross the Channel.
When Sargent settled in London in 1886, he initially found it difficult to find clients; his Continental style of painting must have attracted suspicion. However his technical mastery and confident manner was seen as ideally suited for aristocratic patronage; he soon won over critics with his elegant, flattering portraits.
Lady Agnew (1865–1932) was born Gertrude Vernon, daughter of the Hon Gowran Charles Vernon and Caroline Fazakerly. In 1889 Gertrude married Sir Andrew Noel Agnew who came from an old Scottish family. Her husband, 15 years her senior, was a barrister and later an MP in Wigtownshire; he succeeded his father as 9th Baronet of Lochnaw in 1892, shortly before Sargent started this portrait. Work on the portrait progressed swiftly; it was painted in just six sittings.
Lady Agnew was 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. Lady Agnew, then 27, had a notably langorous pose, possibly because of her frail health; she recovered slowly from a severe bout of influenza in 1890 and was still convalescing and suffering from exhaustion when she sat for Sargent. Through her direct, frontal gaze and the informality of her pose, the subject forged a compelling connection with the viewer. Lady Agnew fixed the viewer with an intelligent, faintly amused gaze but it was her elegant white silk dress and lilac sash that grabbed the viewer's attention. There were brilliant highlights, reflections and coloured shadows that showed Sargent as a painter of surfaces and textures, the ideal artist for a gilded but superficial society.
The painting’s sheer glamour (ie its lush, fluid brush work, delicate colours, sense of opulence) meant it transcended its role as a depiction of an individual. It became an icon for an entire era, embodying the grace and decadence found in fin-de-siècle British society.
The connection with Sargent was probably forged through Gertrude’s friends, the Dunhams, a New York family based in London; James and Harriet Dunham had six daughters, two of whom were painted by Sargent in the early 1890s. Gertrude and Noel dined with the Dunhams and Sargent, and Gertrude sat for Sargent during a period of exhaustion and convalescence. Her pose was notably langorous, as she stared very intently at the artist.
Madame Pierre Gautreau (Portrait of Madame X), 1884
Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
The appeal of Sargent’s work was partially reliant on the lovely clothing and setting selected for his sitter. Lady Agnew wore a pearl-white satin and chiffon tea gown. A bold mauve sash complemented the trimmings on the sleeves. The pendant around her neck appeared to be surrounded by turquoises and seed pearls. Gertrude was seated on a Louis XVI bergère chair, a prop from Sargent’s studio that he had brought from Paris years earlier. The Chinese turquoise-gold silk hanging was another prop from the artist’s collection of luxurious items.
The painting’s appearance at the 1893 annual Royal Academy exhibition brought it to the attention of a wide public and prompted very enthusiastic reports from the critics. It confirmed his reputation for elegant, portraiture. The Times said in 1893 said “ 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”.
When the portrait of Lady Agnew was seen at the Royal Academy in 1893, Sargent was adored - he was now a society portraitist for the London elite. But more than that, the painting helped transform the newly elevated Lady Agnew into a society celebrity. The Agnews’ London life in the period leading up to WW1 was defined by parties, dinners, receptions and fashionable, lavish salons. Mind you, the cost of being a society hostess had to be met by the sale of Lochnaw land.
What happened to his paintings? Sargent hung the Madame X work in his own studies until 1916, when it was sold to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Lady Agnew picture was unsuccessfully offered in 1922 to Helen Clay Frick, a passionate collector-philanthropist who was the daughter of Henry Clay Frick. Lady Agnew offered it to the National Galleries of Scotland trustees in 1924 but they couldn’t buy works by living artists. Then Sargent died in 1925, so the work was immediately purchased by the Scottish National Gallery.
I will come back to Sargent's watercolours later. Sargent: The Watercolours was on at Dulwich Picture Gallery, London during 2017.