The Empathy of John Singer Sargent’s Portraits

Morgan Meis in The Easel:

It was often the case in the late 19th century that if you wanted to add a little prestige to your life you had your portrait painted by a notable portrait painter. Or you had your family painted, or just your wife. This latter idea was the thought that occurred to Sir Andrew Agnew, the 9th Baronet of Lochnaw Castle in Wigtownshire, Scotland. He was proud of his wife, perhaps in the way one is proud of a horse, or an elegant piece of furniture. He wanted others to be proud too. There was a lot of pride going around.

So, Sir Andrew hired a fashionable portrait painter and, in 1892, a portrait was painted. The painting is known today by the name of its sitter, Lady Agnew of Lochnaw. The painter was a Mr. John Singer Sargent.

The portrait shows a person of great wealth and privilege engaged in the act of enjoying that wealth and privilege. To this, we might respond with complete indifference or even hostility. We’re also given, in the portrait, all the trappings of docile femininity. The soft gauzy fabrics of the chair, backdrop, and dress highlight the soft gauziness that adheres to Lady Agnew herself. The painting is staid in every possible meaning of the term.

And yet, I want to say that the painting is also exciting.

More here.