The most talked about woman in Sydney has a flight to catch. After a whirlwind Australian summer, Gertrude Vernon is returning to Scotland, her home of 124 years. I will be sorry to see her go. Her face is a hard one to forget.
Ms Vernon is better known, here and abroad, as Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, immortalised in oils by John Singer Sargent in 1892. Her portrait was my unrivalled highlight of ‘The Greats’ exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW; an exhibition a friend more truthfully retitled ‘Minor Pieces by Major Players’.
Sargent may be a minor name on a roster that includes Monet, Titian and Rembrandt, but while most of their offerings recall better paintings by said artist on the same theme (or, in Rembrandt’s case, featuring the same naked babysitter), Lady Agnew is instantly arresting. No excuses, captions or citations are necessary to justify the portrait’s inclusion under the moniker of ‘The Greats’.
Sargent was a master portraitist of the rich and powerful, his artistic prime spanning the belle epoche before the First World War. Some of the painting’s pleasures are, unsurprisingly, materialistic — the shimmering, translucent satin, the elegant splashes of royal lilac and dangling jewellery, the exotic background of Chinese drapery. But Sargent’s strengths go beyond his fluid brushwork. He is a master at bringing out the unique character of his sitters. This tendency raised the ire of a few wealthy husbands looking for more docile images of their brides. To one unhappy customer Sargent wrote:
“I have very often been reproached with giving a hard expression to ladies portraits, especially when I have retained some look of intelligence in the face, beside amiability, as I consider myself forced to do in this case.”
So vibrant is the expression of Lady Agnew that the portrait hardly feels like an ‘it’ at all, but a ‘she’. She wrests our attention from a dozen other would-be masterpieces with an effortless glance across a crowded room. I half-expected time to slow and a cheesy 80s power ballad to play as I approached her for the first time, bewitched by her half-formed smile, her languid pose and her unremitting gaze. What makes the painting unforgettable is her.
Most depictions of women in art reduce their subjects to mere objects — beauty immortalised for the pleasure of a wealthy male patron, and subject to his gaze (and the gaze of all that follow in his footsteps). John Berger illustrates the issue in Ways of Seeing by placing side by side the vacant stares of models in classical art, modern advertising and Playboy periodicals. Berger asks:
“Is not the expression remarkably similar in each case? It is the expression of a woman responding with calculated charm to the man whom she imagines looking at her—although she doesn’t know him.”
In many ways Gertrude Vernon is being portrayed as a trophy by Sargent. The lush decor, immaculate clothes and tantalising glimpses of skin through satin are all markers of status and desirability — essential for announcing the young bride of Lord Agnew to the best of British society. Yet compared to Berger’s pinups, ancient and modern, I cannot find any calculated charm or submission in Lady Agnew’s expression. She does not seem to ask us to desire her. Rather, she seems to weigh whether we are worth her time.
Lady Agnew looks out of the painting, toward us, and yet remains at a tantalising distance. It is not the expected distance of time or space between her world and ours — her presence is startlingly immediate — but the distance of a real woman we share a room with. Like Aaron Sorkin’s cinematic portrait of Zuckerberg, she is giving us part of her attention — “the minimum amount”. Trapped by the painter in the moment she glances at him, that one moment becomes eternal — and yet her thoughts are no more open to us.
Sargent heightens Lady Agnew’s mysteries with asymmetry. Try looking at each side of her face separately: on her right side the eyebrow is slightly raised, as if making a disaffected challenge, whilst on her left side the corner of her mouth is arching into a smile (or, perhaps, a smile is on the way out) and a light shadow is cast upon her cheek. Her eyes are not quite balanced; the left is closer to the bridge of her nose. Two expressions, on either side, are vying with one another.
The resulting gaze seems at once attentive and careless; even bored. The contrasts continue in her body language. The passivity of her pose, lounging in the floral chair, appears at odds with the unflappable self-assurance of her gaze. Yet that passivity may also be a projection; if we follow her left arm we find her hand clasping the chair, betraying an unseen tension. Resisting easy definition she grows richer, in a way no brief biography can satisfy.
I think the portrait’s power stems from these contradictions. Lady Agnew is both bored by our attentions, and suspended by them. She is reduced to an object for our pleasure, and yet her returned gaze challenges us. I cannot resist concluding that she knows something that we do not; that she is ultimately in control.
For that reason the painting feels like it is hers, not Sargent’s. The craft and artistry are the painter’s — but the transfixing intelligence radiates from the sitter.
Of course, we cannot know the real Gertrude Vernon. Only Sargent’s Lady Angew of Lochnaw remains, and it is ultimately his creation. The real woman is another step removed; the art is but her echo. But what a clamour she still makes!
By Sargent’s hand, Lady Agnew is no longer bound by the Nineteenth Century. She is present and alive. We would talk to her if we could — if only we had the courage.
‘The Greats’ at the Art Gallery of NSW closes this Sunday, 14 February. Go for Lady Agnew, but be sure to savour the work of William Blake, Adam Elsheimer and 18-year old Velaquez while you’re there. Failing that, get to Edinburgh later in 2016, when Lady Agnew and her compatriots will be at the Scottish National Gallery, and in the company of some truly great Gauguins, Turners & Raphaels.