Art Chowder May | June 2017, Issue 9 - Page 39

When Sargent’s Lady Agnew of Lochnaw (1892) was exhibited at the British Royal Academy in 1893 it stole the show, capturing the hearts of both the critics and the public. The Times called it “not only a triumph of technique but the finest example of portraiture seen here for a long while.” Little wonder—painted in only six sittings, the artist’s assured brushwork fittingly embodied the young wife of a Scottish baronet’s beauty and confident yet easygoing grace and dignity. In the words of Sargent scholar Trevor Fairbrother, “Sargent’s exe- cution in Lady Agnew has the same effortless grace and refinement as the subject herself.” When I was in school an idea in circulation was that Sargent drew in and painted the subject aca- demically and then loosened up the brushwork on top. Not so. Recollections of his former students and others who knew him offer insight into his working method.2 Rather than work from finished drawings or even by first establishing outlines, he had a systematic alla prima approach, laying in the larger masses before getting to details. He pur- sued a path of great economy of means, “the few- est strokes possible to express a fact,” and would never allow a mere detail to detract from the unity of the whole. Sargent would always paint a head in one process, though this would be repeated over multiple sit- tings. He once said that he had repainted the head of the portrait of Mrs. Hugh Hammersley (also ex- hibited in London in 1893) no less than sixteen times. According to another report, he “could paint for a week on one head and never retrace his steps — but he never attempted to correct one.” He nev- er hesitated to rub out what he had done if he was dissatisfied. “The lightness and certainty of his touch was marvelous to behold. Never was there any painter who could indicate a mouth with more subtlety, with more mobility, or with keener dif- ferentiation. As he painted it, the mouth bloomed out of the face, an integral part of it, not, as in the great majority of portraits, painted on it, a separate thing.” Always keeping the structure of the whole in view and never tinkering with something that was wrong, he was able to keep the whole process fresh. Though he could work quickly and near per- fectly, the speedy work would often have to be done over many times. But this also gave the artist time to discern the subject’s personality and char- acter. Sargent would at times come to a point of near de- spair of getting it right. On one occasion he had to give up over the impossibility of capturing “the John Singer Sargent Lady Agnew of Lochnaw 1892 oil on canvas 49 x 39 1/4” National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh variable and fleeting charm” of his friend Eliza Wedgwood’s mother af- ter twelve sittings. Some time later he saw Mrs. Wedgwood in town, and struck with a new aspect he said, “If you will come up next week we will fin- ish that portrait.” Here was his genius at work. He knew when he had to stop, get away, and wait for the right inspiration. He completed the por- trait in six sittings. John Singer Sargent Mrs. Hugh Hammersley, 1892 oil on canvas 81 x 45 1/2”. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York May|June 2017 39