John Singer Sargent may rightly be considered the king of portrait painting. He worked in a style that loosely filled in figures’ backgrounds, while carefully depicting their faces. Most of his portraits were commissions, made either for the person pictured or else someone who loved them. “Portrait of Lady Agnew of Lochnaw”, is a case in point: commissioned by the lady’s husband, the 49″ x 49″ canvas carefully states the face, while suggesting the details of everything else.
Sargent’s strokes are bold and fluid. Once he settled on a composition, he would practice the particular brushwork until it was perfect; only then would Sargent touch the canvas. His paintings come in and out of focus, materialize into an object and dissolve again into broad strokes of pigment. His paint application is primarily thin; these portraits read more as images of people than as recognizable swathes of paint.
However, if you look closely at the highlights of Lady Agnew’s skirt, you can see the white brushwork, unblended, sitting on top of the slightly darker white of the garment. Similarly, if you closely examine any aspect of the chair, the floral print dissolves into a series of dashed off blotches of blue and red, the buttons look like so many daubs with a dull grey paint, and the wooden edging becomes four long strokes of thin, dark paint. Look away for but a moment, and everything resolves itself again: your mind accepts the cues, and fills in all the gaps in the paint.
The sitter’s face is, naturally, the focal point of the portrait. She looks straight at us, tilting her head down slightly and raising her eyes. One eyebrow is raised interrogatively. A half-smile plays about her lips. Her expression is friendly, but bemused. Her right eye seems languid while the other challenges our gaze. Her face is difficult to read; it is complex, offering confidence and relaxation, intrigue and, perhaps, boredom. Sargent prided himself on capturing intelligent and complex expressions, and this portrait is no exception.
The similarities between the poses of this “Portrait of Lady Agnew” and Bonnard’s portrait last week are striking. Each figures a young woman in an arm chair, one arm folded into her lap, the other extended at her side, legs crossed, shoulders facing forward. Each wears a white garment, a pendant necklace, and her hair up. Both compositions emphasize a vertical axis, while offsetting it with occasional diagonal elements.
The differences between the two painters, however, could hardly be more staggering. Sargent’s pieces are show pieces: they display what can be done with a brush and pigment, and trumpet the confidence of the artist. Bonnard’s are sustained and almost timid investigations into the color and shape of particular bits of the world. Both were excellent painters, but their own attitudes towards the model and material world are embodied in their paintings. ‘