Sargent’s Silk: The Fabric Connecting Two Beautiful Portraits

One of the fun things about being an art nerd is when you get the chance to make new discoveries regarding old friends. Such is the case with my favorite American artist, John Singer Sargent, whom I have written about for years (such as in my first piece for The Federalist almost three years ago.) One of his best-known portraits and indeed one of my favorites as well has always been his mesmerizing portrait “Lady Agnew of Lochnaw” (1892), now in the National Gallery of Scotland. So it was quite a surprise this past weekend while visiting the excellent Newark Museum in Newark, New Jersey to come across another wonderful Sargent portrait previously unknown to me, but which appears to have a visual connection to this more famous portrait of Lady Agnew.

Lady Agnew

I had gone up to Newark to see the new exhibition, “The Rockies & The Alps”, which I will be reviewing soon, but while at the museum I was astounded by the breadth of the permanent collection. The Newark Museum is the largest museum in New Jersey, with over 200,000 objects, and includes holdings in the areas of the Ancient Mediterranean, Asia, decorative arts, American painting and sculpture, science, Modern and Contemporary Art, and much more. There was no way to see it all in the new hours I spent there, but you can see an extensive sampling of some of the pieces in their holdings over on my Instagram account.

At the far end of a corridor in the American Wing, I spotted a full-length portrait of a seated lady, and I knew immediately that it was a Sargent even though it was some distance away. When you become familiar with the work of a particular artist, after awhile it becomes something akin to being in a sea of people on a metro platform or airport terminal and suddenly spotting an old friend amidst all of the distraction. I had a similar experience on another floor in the American Wing at the Newark Museum a bit later, when I saw a work some distance down a corridor and thought, “That looks like an Edward Hopper,” and it was: another terrific piece in the museum’s permanent collection.

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The portrait of “Mrs. Charles Thursby” (1897) depicts a good friend of the artist, Alice Brisbane Thursby (1859-1953). Her father, Albert Brisbane (1809-1890), was a utopian Christian socialist who led a somewhat peripatetic and occasionally scandalous personal life. Papa Brisbane popularized Fourierism in the United States in the mid-19th century, and his writings were adopted at proto-communes such as Brook Farm near Boston. (If you’re familiar with Whit Stillman’s “Metropolitan”, you’re probably saying to yourself right now, “You’re a Fourierist?”)

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As she was growing up, Mrs. Thursby’s family dragged her all over the US and Europe, and it was while she was studying art in Paris that she met Sargent, who was living there at the time; they became lifelong friends. She later married a British Naval Officer and civil engineer, Lt. Charles Radcliffe Thursby, whose work and land holdings took the couple back and forth between England, America, and Argentina. Having spent most of her childhood moving about every few years, it’s not surprising that these two were very well-suited.

There are many wonderful details about the portrait that give us an indication of the personality of the sitter. Mrs. Thursby looks at us with a mixture of determination and intellectual curiosity. She is curious to find out exactly who we are, and to find out why we’ve come to see her. Note how Mrs. Thursby appears to be about to get up out of her chair to greet us, which suggests that she is a somewhat restless, lively figure who does not like to sit still. This a lady who is always on the move, always out and about doing something.

Notice, too, the wonderful detail of her hand, and those fingers. In Sargent’s unforgettable, bolt-upright portrait of “Mrs. Adrian Iselin” (1888), now in the National Gallery here in Washington, we are told everything we need to know about the subject by the way she seems to balance her entire weight on the outstretched pinky finger of her right hand, suggesting that this is not a woman whom you want to cross. In the Newark Museum’s picture we see a similar strength of will in Mrs. Thursby’s fingers, but the splayed, open hand suggests to us that the woman whom we see here is more open to the world around her than was the rather dour and imposing Mrs. Iselin.

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But here, for my money, is the *really* interesting bit.

The portrait of Lady Agnew shows the subject seated in a chair covered in a floral upholstery, while Mrs. Thursby is seated in a chair whose fabric is completely white. Yet if you look closely, you’ll see that the two women share the same backdrop: a piece of pale blue silk embroidered with gold figures. In the portrait of Lady Agnew, these figures are more clearly meant to represent characters, since the fabric in question was a large piece of Chinese drapery.

Lady Agnew

By the time he paints the portrait of Mrs. Thursby several years later however, Sargent has become even more impressionistic. He is still using that wonderfully loose brushwork which is indicative of his love and study of Velázquez’ technique, but the transcription from real life to canvas has become more hazy. Even the color is less of a direct copy of the original, since it now appears to be made up of just as much brown and gray as blue.

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Like many artists, Sargent kept a number of objects in his studio which he used and reused in his paintings. If you’ve seen the live-action Disney film of “Cinderella” for example, you’ll recall that in the scene in which the artist is painting the portrait of Kit on horseback, there is a pre-painted backdrop of putti tumbling out of heaven which is hung behind the prince to help center the composition. This Chinese panel in Sargent’s work was one such object, which is why it appears in both the portraits of Lady Agnew and Thursby. No doubt those of my readers who are more expert in Sargent’s work than I am would be able to identify other pictures where the same silk appears – and by all means, please do so in the comments below.

This is just a recent, personal example of one of the things I love about studying art history. The more art you see and know, the more you come to recognize and appreciate connections between works of art, just as one piece of music or film can immediately recall another that you’re already familiar with. More to the point, should you happen to find yourself in the Newark area – only 9 miles from New York City – go visit Mrs. Thursby for yourself, and see the rest of the collection at her very fascinating permanent residence.

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Scientists Discover A Saint’s Cell

I haven’t seen this story widely reported in the Catholic press, but it’s definitely worth sharing: scientists believe that they have found the scriptorium or “writing room” of St. Columba, one of the most significant figures in the history of Christianity.

St. Columba (521-597 A.D.) is known as one of the “Apostles of Ireland”, and you can read a more thorough biography of him by following this link. He lived the second half of his life on the Scottish island of Iona, where he founded a hugely influential monastic community in which he served as Abbott. He spent a great deal of time during the day writing and praying in his scriptorium, which was really just a little wooden hut that he built on a rocky mound overlooking the Abbey.

Not everything on Iona was contemplative, however. St. Columba and his companions also worked actively to expand their community to become a training center for missionaries to the many pagan tribes that dominated much of the British Isles during this period. In addition, the monks at Iona not only chronicled much of early Irish history, and preserved ancient texts for their library that would otherwise have been lost to us, but they are believed by many historians to have created the famous Book of Kells, with its lavish and strange Celtic decorations.

After St. Columba’s death, the spot where his scriptorium was located was given the name “Tòrr an Aba” (“Abbot’s Mound”), but at some point the wooden building itself burned down. The aforementioned Vikings pillaged Iona multiple times in the late 8th and early 9th centuries, so it is probable that the humble hut was torched during one of those raids. Eventually the site was covered with pebbles taken from the beach, most likely as a way to deliberately mark the location.

As noted in this (very thorough) explanation of the discovery, while there is no way to be 100% sure that the archaeological remains are in fact those of St. Columba’s hut, this is just about as close to certainty as you can get. The combination of tradition, documentation, and now, carbon dating, all point to this being where St. Columba did his work. It may well be that some of the hymns written by or attributed to him, some of which are still sung today, were written here.

One such hymn with which you may be familiar comes from composer Benjamin Britten. For the 1400th anniversary of St. Columba’s arrival on Iona, Britten was commissioned to set one of the saint’s hymns to new music. While more commonly known as “A Hymn to Saint Columba”, the proper title of St. Columba’s composition is its first line in Latin, “Regis regum rectissimi”. You can read the text in both Latin and in an English translation of it by following this link – although with all due respect to St. John’s Cambridge, I find this translation slightly unsatisfactory in that it downplays the key phrase which is also the title of the hymn.

Be that as it may, given that we now know where St. Columba sat and wrote hymns such as these, I suspect that many choir directors and choral groups are going to want to perform some of these works, including Britten’s, at the very spot where they were first written, nearly 15 centuries ago.

The Monarch At Rest: A Permanent Home For A British Masterpiece?

A major story at present in the international art press concerns the fate of one of the most famous and influential British works of art ever painted. “The Monarch of the Glen”, pictured below, was painted in 1851 by Sir Edwin Landseer (1802-1873) for the House of Lords, but thanks to a bizarre and tangled history, too convoluted to explore in full here, it is currently the property of the international beverage conglomerate Diageo. While there are various possibilities regarding where this Victorian masterpiece will ultimately end up, fortunately it looks as though it will at last become part of a public collection as it was always intended to be – even if not exactly where it was intended to be.

Landseer was an artist who specialized in the representation of animals, and his reputation as an observer of their anatomy and behavior was such that he asked to design the four massive bronze lions which still today surround the base of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square. However prior to his foray into the world of sculpture, it was Landseer’s paintings and drawings which led him to become one of the most popular British artists of the 19th century. Even though he depicted everyone and everything from the British Royal Family to prize-winning dogs and cattle, it was “The Monarch of the Glen”, depicting a majestic stag roaming the Scottish Highlands, which forever sealed his reputation.

When the Palace of Westminster burned down in 1834, the ruins were replaced with the enormous Gothic Revival complex that we commonly refer to today as the Houses of Parliament. The project took decades to complete, in part because of the Palace’s massive size, but also because of the significant cost involved in its decoration. If you have ever been to London and had the opportunity to examine the buildings up close, you realize that they are absolutely covered in statuary, architectural detail, and colorful decoration, something which cannot be fully appreciated in photographs taken at a distance. Inside the Palace, the various rooms, staircases, and halls are even more sumptuously decorated, with elaborate tile and stone work, brass and iron ornament, and vast quantities of painting and sculpture.

In 1850, Landseer was commissioned to paint three large works for the Palace, destined to be hung in the Refreshment Rooms of the House of Lords. You can see some of the restoration work that has been going on in these Rooms, including the revival of the sumptuous wallpaper designed by Augustus Pugin, by following this link. Landseer was asked to provide three canvases for this space illustrating scenes related to hunting, and the most famous of the three turned out to be “The Monarch of the Glen”. Unfortunately, when the time came for the paintings to be delivered, the House of Commons refused to pay Landseer’s bill of £150 for the three paintings.

Today, Parliament’s decision seems incredibly short-sighted, given how famous “The Monarch of the Glen” has become since its creation. It has been copied and reinterpreted by other artists, studied and written about by historians and philosophers, and has become something of an internationally recognized symbol of Scotland. For example, not only was there a long-running BBC television series, about a down-at-heel Scottish aristocratic family, which took its title from the painting, but references to the painting continue to appear in popular advertising campaigns and other media related to Scottish whisky, tourism, and the like.

In the 2006 film “The Queen”, there is a beautifully-shot scene in which Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) becomes stranded in the middle of the Scottish Highlands near Balmoral Castle, when her Range Rover breaks down. She and the Royal Family have retreated there, in the wake of the death of Princess Diana, to regroup and figure out how to proceed, as the monarchy stands perilously close to extinction in the wake of popular resentment of the Queen’s perceived coldness toward the death of her former daughter-in-law. The Queen seems not herself, uncertain of what to do, and confronted by conflicting advice, which has led her into a course of public inaction and private frustration.

In what ends up being the major turning point of the film, as the Queen awaits rescue she is confronted by a magnificent stag, very similar to the idealized animal portrayed by Landseer in “The Monarch of the Glen”. The deer has been the subject of rumor on the estate, and hunters are actively seeking to bring it down. Human queen and cervine king stare at each other in silence for some time, until the Queen seems to recover herself and waves the deer off, saving its life. It is a scene which makes all the more sense to the viewer, if you are familiar with both Landseer’s painting and its title. From this point, just as the animal monarch returns to his throne unharmed, so too the human monarch returns to her throne, unharmed.

While Landseer’s painting may at last be finding a permanent home in a public collection, that collection looks likely to be the National Galleries of Scotland, rather than the Palace of Westminster, where it was originally intended to be displayed. In the wake of Brexit and the Scottish independence movement, you may make whatever political conclusions of this arrangement that you will. Personally, I tend to agree with art historian Bendor Grosvenor, who in this piece comes close to saying that really, the painting should be the subject of a donation rather than a sale.

But be that as it may, this painting is a real treasure, for whatever public institution ends up becoming its proud and permanent custodian.