05 January 2015

Masterpieces from the Scottish National Gallery

"Lady Agnew of Lochnaw" John Singer Sargent (1892) 

There’s currently a small exhibit at the Frick Collection that’s a welcome respite from the larger shows around town. “Masterpieces from the Scottish National Gallery” features ten works from that museum's strong collection that look right at home on the walls of the Frick. 

The paintings, which range from the 15th to the 19th century, include Botticelli’s serene “The Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child” (ca. 1485) with that wonderful Renaissance blue and a Virgin Mary who looks an awful lot like Uma Thurman; “An Allegory (Fábula)” by El Greco (ca. 1585–95), which depicts a boy “blowing fire,” rendering an interesting glow to the painting (there’s also a monkey by his side); “The Ladies Waldegrave” by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1780-81), featuring the grandnieces of Horace Walpole, shows a varying range of beauty and leave one wondering how the sisters fared in life (they all received marriage proposals after the painting was finished so on the surface they did well); and a requisite kilt to represent Scotland in Sir Henry Raeburn’s larger than life portrait of “Colonel Alastair Ranaldson Macdonell, 15th Chief of Glengarry” (1812).

Yet it is the youngest painting in the bunch that is the star of the show. John Singer Sargent’s portrait of “Lady Agnew of Lochnaw”(1892) holds court at the end of the gallery. The former Gertrude Vernon (yes, Gertrude) was married to barrister Sir Andrew Noel Agnew who commissioned the portrait from Sargent. Lady Agnew was obviously very beautiful but it is her very modern, straightforward gaze at the viewer and seemingly languid pose with her arm draped over the side of the chair that lends a sensual air to the portrait. Add the white and lilac colours of her gown with the flower-patterned chair and Chinese wall hanging and you have one gorgeous portrait. 

When the painting was shown at the Royal Academy in 1893 it received raves from the critics, bolstering the reputations of both the sitter and painter—Lady Agnew went on to become a popular hostess and Sargent would be known as the go-to portrait painter for the wealthy.

Ironically in 1922 a widowed Lady Agnew inquired about selling the painting to the Frick but Helen Clay Frick, daughter of the museum’s founder, declined. Some 92 years later, it’s finally arrived if just for a temporary stay.

Lady Agnew and the other paintings will be at the Frick through February 1, 2015. For more information, visit here. And if you go be sure to check out the gift shop, which has items from the National Gallery's shop including a fun mug dubbed "Men in Socks."

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