Masterpieces from the Scottish National Gallery, Frick Collection, November 14- February 1, 2015
by Jai Imbrey, PhD.
The Frick blew it. In 1922, Lady Agnew of Lochnaw was in straightened circumstances. Years as a leading society hostess had taken their toll. She quietly offered Sargent’s famed portrait of herself to Helen Clay Frick, but the institution was not acquiring at the time. Instead, the Scottish National Gallery walked off with the prize.
Today, the tables have finally turned. Now John Singer Sargent’s famous portrait of Lady Agnew occupies center stage at the Frick Collection alongside nine other masterpieces on tour from the Scottish National Gallery. Unsurprisingly, Lady Agnew seems right at home. Lounging informally against the back of an armchair, she appears more like a typical American than a proper straightlaced English beauty. Crossing her legs (quite unladylike at the time), she gazes out at us with her formidably direct bedroom eyes. Painted in 1892, after the young bride met Sargent at a dinner party hosted by American socialite Harriet Dunham, the portrait retains a remarkable freshness.
Lady Agnew’s easy-going pose masks a certain tension that Sargent has captured in the zigzag thrust of her torso and her steely rotated grip on the arm of the chair. Her dark head with its quirked brow and full red lips contrast with the pale blue silk background and her filmy white tea gown. She is a virtual symphony of whites, yet there is an undertone of darkness in the corpse-like pallor of her brow, the shadow beneath her eyes and around the perfect oval of her face.
She would appear to be Sargent’s atonement for his recent scandalous portrait of Madame X that had him virtually on the run from Paris just a few years earlier. Surely this demure young woman clothed all in white, the young wife of Andrew Noel Agnew, 9th Baron of Lochnaw, would take London by storm, reversing the course of Sargent’s botched Paris debut. Accomplished in six brief sittings, working alla prima (with no intermediary sketches) the portrait deftly captures Sargent’s keen sense of psychology and drama. All London agreed. The author Vernon Lee, a friend of both Sargent and Henry James neatly summed their mutual success: “A very pretty woman whom John Sargent has just made into a society celebrity by a very ravishing portrait.”1 After her showing at the London Academy, Sargent went on to paint scores of portraits, charging upwards of 500 lbs. for his efforts.
Yet this rapturously beautiful woman née Gertrude Vernon (1865-1932) was full of contradictions. Emerging from months of mental exhaustion termed neurasthenia at the time of the sitting, she was married to an older man and would eventually lead a separate life. The portrait’s many subtle shifts— the angling of the chair, the dip of the shoulders, the transparent chiffon top and, most eloquently of all, the great lavender sash swinging to one side— captures the sitter’s seductive restlessness, the dark energy simmering beneath the indolence. The brilliant loose brushwork of the dress with its lilac reflections liberates this seated portrait from any static. Sargent’s painting seems to foretell a new wave of keenly observed psychological portraits by artists such Thomas Eakins in Philadelphia or Klimt in Vienna. Lady Agnew is the living testimony to a certain fin du siècle malaise.
The show curated by Susan Grace Galassi does full justice to the loan of paintings from the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh, each a masterpiece in its own right. The exhibition allows you not only to see such rare paintings as Botticelli’s Madonna and Child (ca. 1480) and early works by Velázquez, but to view them within the context of the Frick’s own stellar collection. In the adjacent room, a somber portrait of Mrs. Frances Leyland (1871-74)by James McNeill Whistler, Sargent’s friend and rival, is an illuminating parallel to Lady Agnew . Or, venturing into a nearby gallery, you can note the transformation of Velázquez from a young painter of Bodegones (earthy genre scenes) to court artist with his Portrait of King Philip IV. The Frick has taken the opportunity to move around a number of its paintings, injecting a breath of fresh air and a new vitality into its majestic collection.
1 Letter of July 16, 1893, Vernon Lee’s Letters, 1937, p. 352.