Practice English Speaking&Listening with: 'Lady Agnew of Lochnaw' by John Singer Sargent

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This is the portrait of Lady Agnew by John Singer Sargent. Its one of the most popular

portraits in the gallerys collection. It was the portrait that helped launch Sargent

as a portrait painter in Britain and was also the portrait which

launched Lady Agnew in society.

According to legend, she walked into the studio one day and slumped down in a chair and Sargent

really liked to capture the most naturalistic pose for his sitters and so he decided to

paint the portrait exactly as she was on that first day.

The painting was a hybrid of English aestheticism and French impressionism and one was expected

to look at the portrait and think of it not just as a portrait

but as a pleasing aesthetic object.

What we get here is an almost effortless paint application. It appears hes gone in hes

understood the sitter hes applied the paint and its just sort of happened. But as is

generally the case with works by Sargent, when you start looking more closely you realise

there has been a struggle within the process and that there is a myriad of small adjustments,

small changes. For example on Lady Agnew, when you start looking closely round the sash

area you start to see where the artist has made changes. Where is, how high did the sash

go up, how tight, how small was the waist? Is this an exaggeration? We dont know but

he has certainly spent some time redefining that area. Similarly with the pendant you

can just about see a slight shadow which indicates the pendant at some point was actually hanging

lower so he obviously felt from a visual perspective it made more sense, it balanced better by

having the pendant hanging at a higher height. We also see some alterations in this area

here and also some repositioning round the neckline where the artist has gone back and

redefined the outline and possibly even down the side of the face.

The face is much more carefully painted than the rest of the portrait. However, the portrait

is generally designed to be seen at a distance so if you look very closely at the detail

you see that its, the detail like the flowers on the chair are very roughly painted but

when you move away from the portrait they come together and they look like proper flowers.

When this was first painted it was in high demand for loan. Allegedly the story goes

that on loan to the Grafton Gallery on its return it sustained a damage, a tear in fact

in this part of the painting. Close examination now we know there is a tear there; its

obviously been repaired a long time ago. The owner was really quite annoyed and theres

an excellent quote where he saysThey (that is the Grafton Gallery) they were anxious

enough to get my most valued picture and to reap the benefit of its presence on their

walls. But as soon as they have done with it they show a singular indifference to the

safe delivery to the owner

Lady Agnew was around about 26 or 27 when this portrait was done and she has this very

kind of dominating presence. A lot of people find her pose very seductive although we know

that at the time she was suffering from this very long illness. Despite the fact that she

looks quite fragile in this painting she was really quite a feisty individual and she was

what one might describe as a new woman of the late 19th century. She led a very extravagant

lifestyle and in fact she spent a lot of the Agnew fortune and in the end she was rather

sadly obliged to sell the painting in order to make some money for herself.

The Description of 'Lady Agnew of Lochnaw' by John Singer Sargent