John Singer Sargent was born in 1856 in Italy, although his parents were American. He studied painting in Europe, and exhibited portraits in Paris while he was still in his 20s.
In 1884, however, the public reacted badly to one of his paintings, the Madame X; which at the time was considered a scandalous portrayal of one of Paris’ leading celebutantes.
But before you shake your head in disbelief at the prudishness of the Parisian society, you need to realize that Madame X was originally painted by Sargent with one of the gown’s straps hanging loosely off her right shoulder.
That, combined with the plunging neckline, cinched waist, and impudently turned wrist makes it easier to understand the reaction of the 19th century French upper crust.
But the reaction of the public was too much for Sargent, and he left for London soon after. He chose to begin his artistic career over again and had little trouble picking up where he left off, painting almost exclusively for wealthy English aristocrats.
Many of his portraits were actually of the wives of those noblemen, and show Sargent’s amazing skill at painting not only the physical characteristics of his sitters, but also the rich fabrics and environments in which they lived.
Mrs. Louis E. Raphael (Henriette Goldschmidt) is one such example. Shimmering, translucent cloth, carved marble, and rare figurines all appear in one painting, yet Sargent’s skill as a painter is what kept the focus on the woman herself.
Part of that is in the way the woman’s hands and body engages her surroundings—leaning on the mantle, one hand slightly gathering up cloth, the other playing unconsciously with her necklace of pearls.
Sargent was such a painter that he could set the stage, so to speak, and make any woman a star.
With the Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, he did just that, turning this young wife of the Baron of Lochnaw into something of a celebrity after painting her portrait.
Granted, it’s considered one of Sargent’s best, full of all the beautiful fabrics a woman of that era could want and a gorgeous, lilac colored sash to cap it all off. . . yet it’s the face of Lady Agnew that captivates me.
One slightly raised eyebrow, a knowing, almost careless gaze and set lips—it shows a subtle sort of boredom, which is actually somewhat understandable considering how long she must have sat to be painted.
Because of his tremendous skill, it’s no wonder that John Singer Sargent became wealthy himself, to the point where he eventually stopped painting portraits all together in his later years.
Perhaps he too was a bit bored of painting wealthy women like the Lady Agnew in all their finery.
Sargent died in 1925 at the age of 69, having made nearly 3000 paintings, including thousands of watercolors in addition to his many famous portraits.