Note on a historic painted portrait

Recently, I was wandering around the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh, and a particular portrait caught my eye. It is an oil painting by the American artist, John Singer Sargent, and is called Lady Agnew of Lochnaw.


What struck me about this image is the expression on the woman’s face. In my perambulations round art galleries throughout the years, I’ve been very disappointed with how women’s faces are portrayed. Many of them lack detail and frequently all the women in a painting look the same. It seems obvious to me that painters concentrated their efforts on the faces of the men, and the women were an afterthought.

John Singer Sargent seems to be someone who bucked this trend, and a quick look through some of his portraits on Google shows that, if anything, his depictions of women were more detailed than those of men. This painting was commissioned in 1892 and shows Lady Gertrude Agnew, apparently while she was recovering from a bout of influenza. She is seated in an ornate armchair, with a background of draped fabric and an air of exaggerated languor. The sitter is dressed in plain pale mauve.

Lady Agnew is looking directly at the audience, in a way which seems much too modern for her era, in which gentlewomen were supposed to be modest, shy and retiring. Her expression is bold, slightly challenging, and there is a hint of a smile at the corner of her mouth. With her arm draped casually over the arm of the chair, my reading of the image is there is a strong attraction between the sitter and the artist, and she is overtly flirting with him. I don’t think I have ever seen such an obviously sexual painting posing under the guise of a commissioned portrait, and wonder what her husband thought of it.

I’m a bit of a Philistine when it comes to painted art, and the only other painting that I have seen that struck such a chord of appreciation is The Execution of Lady Jane Grey  by Paul Delaroche at the National Gallery. It seems too that my enthusiasm is shared by some others too. Phil Jupitus, in the blog post and video here is just as enchanted by it.



4 thoughts on “Note on a historic painted portrait

  1. teresalanham

    Hi Holly I love this painting but the subject was actually suffering from a fever or high temperature and that is why she looks so languid and heavy eyed – he’s caught the expression very well though and is an example of how easy it is to interpret something one way when the original context is not known. Still a great painting though !



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