Saturday, July 2, 2011

Lady Agnew & Muddy Alligators: John Singer Sargent & World War I

John Singer Sargent's Lady Agnew of
1893, in the National Gallery of Scotland.
John Singer Sargent has been described as a "relic of the Gilded Age" of American politics and never really given any consideration as a serious painter; why not? Because they are so beautiful and technically accomplished.  One of his most famous portrait paintings, Lady Agnew of Lochnaw from 1893 clearly supports this suggestion:  the beautiful woman exhibits her power by her very straight, forward and unflinching gaze; her white gown pulled over the muscle of her crossed, left leg is a symbol of her will power (and it's "crossed," I might add, meaning she is holding herself back by her will power) while the great "patch" of nearly pure white fabric covering the left knee communicates faith.  The wall coloring is perfectly balanced, hinting at green but perhaps closer to blue, and this creates a cloud of ambiguity around her.
Click on the image and it will expand for better viewing. When we are at an art museum, unless we be trained art historians or artists, we are most likely to be drawn to the portraits; why? We feel like the portraits are the "safe art," the art that is easiest to engage with and understand; rarely is that the case because of the human drama contained within each singular portrait. The job of the portrait painter is to capture the essence of the person's being in paint; not an easy task. The analysis of the portrait then, requires a balanced application of art knowledge, technique and human psychology. For example, the gaze of Lady Agnew is straight at the viewer; we are being viewed by her, just as we are viewing her in the portrait. That's a sign of her personal presence and power, an equality with the viewer regardless of their class or sex (for 1893, this would have been rather scandalous: women were more meek and docile, especially in public, but not Lady Agnew who obviously knows how to hold her own with anyone). What is the source of her concentrated intensity? Because hair (or anything worn on the head) symbolizes our thoughts (since hair is closest to our head, and the head is the place where our thoughts originate) that her hair is pulled back suggests she is mentally disciplined and doesn't reveal what she is thinking to just anyone; on the contrary, if her hair were down, it would indicate that she was not a mentally disciplined person, rather, she let everyone know what she was thinking at all times (or she was at least quite easy to read). There is a subtle arch in her right eyebrow, as if she is skeptical of what she sees (and what she sees is us, the viewers) and that, too, gives her a sense of power, that she's analyzing us just as we analyze her. Women of child-bearing age symbol the "motherland," the land which gave birth to us (women who are beyond child-bearing age symbolize the traditions and culture of the land, while girls not quite to puberty symbolize the future of the motherland); because this is in Scotland, we can easily take Lady Agnew to be Sargent's commentary on the Scottish motherland, and the best emblem of that is around her neck. Just over her heart is the enormous jewel. We know that the neck symbolizes what leads us and guides us in life, like a leash around us, so this pendant reveals to the viewers that, just as Lady Agnew has married for wealth rather than love (the pendant is over her heart) so Scotland entered the United Kingdom, not for love of unity, but for the wealth it would bring the Scottish people (whether or not the Scottish have sufficiently benefited from union is up for debate). 
But this is the most important element of the painting:  her comfortable, beautiful chair is pushed into a corner.  If we play a political game for a moment, Lady Agnew transforms from a socialite beauty into a symbol of Scotland itself.
The Stone of Scone in the Coronation Chair at Westminster Abbey, 1855.
When one is "pushed into a corner," it's not a very comfortable position to be in; so it appears that she has been given this comfortable chair to make it easier.  It's not the Stone of Scone, the traditional throne upon which Scottish kings were crowned which was removed to Westminster Abbey by the English; Lady Agnew's chair is a symbol of the material wealth accumulated as a result of union, the union between Lord and Lady Agnew, or of England and Scotland.
What about her dress? It's not nearly as fanciful as many portraits of wealthy patrons, but it is quite feminine, even as we enter into how powerful her presence is. Arms symbolize strength, we use our arms on a daily basis to lift and  carry; the sleeves of her gown are transparent, showing her arms, indicating that Sargent found her to be a strong woman, but those arms are in repose, they aren't using their strength. On the left arm, as it casually hangs down, we see a gold bracelet, suggesting a shackle; since that arm isn't prominently placed to display the jewelry, Sargent provides his commentary on Lady Agnew's marriage and the way this intense woman has been,... domesticated. What about the lavender sash around her impossibly tiny waist? Lavender is derived from purple, purple being both the color of kings and of royalty, because the king is supposed to suffer for his people, not the people suffer for their king. In this instance, the sash seems to be acting more as a chastity belt, suggesting this woman doesn't have a very fulfilling marriage to Lord Agnew, who possibly couldn't be everything his bride needed (this is rather prophetic of Sargent since the marriage produced no children and it was Lord Agnew's nephew who took over the position).. The lavender bows on his arms--again, a symbol of her strength--suggests that she has to hold herself in check with Lord Agnew who possibly didn't like her showing her own strength or, Lady Agnew had to hold herself in check with other members of her own high society, her boldness not being appreciated in the gentler classes. 
Lady Agnew is beautiful and wealthy, pampered and safe, but also, a prisoner:  her golden bracelet on her left wrist indicates that she's bound; a prisoner may be bound in chains of gold, but is still a prisoner nonetheless.  Now the ambiguous coloring of the wall behind her suggests that she is being lured by either hopes of future independence (if the color is green) or lulled to sleep (if it's closer to blue) by her comfortable position in the corner. Perhaps you think this is all a bit much: Sargent was "just a portrait painter," after all, and investments of these kinds of political theories are just the bored suppositions of an art historian trying to make a name for herself; let's go to some bigger political games to see if we can find something comparable elsewhere, shall we?
Muddy Alligators, watercolor over graphite on paper, 1917.
There are two hints pertaining to what this watercolor of Floridian reptiles is saying:  there are six alligators and the year is 1917.  World War I was dragging on in muddy trench warfare (like the bodies of the alligators) and America was "finally getting in."  The six gators represent the six European Superpowers of the day:  Prussia, Russia, Austria-Hungary, England, France and Italy.  If you look at the bottom of the painting, the water line comes into the space of the viewer, or, the viewer is coming into the space of the waterline, the front line.  For the viewer--especially the American viewer--it is literally "crossing the pond" (the Atlantic Ocean) to enter the War, the pit of the enormous alligators fighting over their mud.
For the years of World War I, soldiers lived in mud, fought in mud and died in mud. The trenches were elaborate mazes under ground, cold, wet and always depressing.
Here is the important point:  "muddy."  Muddy refers to the new tactic that was being used in World War I:  trench warfare.  The mud would accumulate in the trenches and become the biggest enemy that soldiers had to fight because it was a perfect medium for disease. In his "Muddy Alligators," Sargent employed pencil on paper, then painted in with watercolors, and it's an uncanny statement of how events unfolded:  treaties were signed between all the powers (the graphite on paper) and then the blood and carnage of the warring states filled in the empty places of what all those treaties actually meant, blood and carnage (the watercolors "bleeding" into each other as they dripped).  This was Sargent's statement on war:  like the reptiles from an ancient, uncivilized era, man's primordial hunger for power and (unlawful) gains through war would cost everyone more than they could have ever foreseen, and now, we--the viewers and America--have been dragged into it. This isn't meant to be a definite statement on either of Sargent's works, however, I hope they offer reason to take the "grand manner" portrait painter a bit more seriously, as well as any portrait you might encounter at the museum.