There are certain portraits of women that have come down in history as masterpieces because they capture the allure and mysteriousness of their beautiful subjects and so illustrate both the individuality of a particular woman’s appeal and the strangeness of womanhood as a type. These portraits include Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus”, Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa”, Vermeer’s “Girl with the Pearl Earring”, and Manet’s “Olympia”. The paintings have much in common. The women have a distinctive half smile, are imaginatively posed, and exhibit a combination of nonchalance and forwardness, as if all beautiful women have to be of that type. To be added to that list of great portraits, I think, is John Singer Sargent’s “Lady Agnew”, which has all of those attributes but is to be distinguished by the fact that the subject of the portrait is not really beautiful at all and yet Sargent is able to reveal that fact and still make her beautiful to behold, which says a lot about his mastery of portraiture but also about what it means to be a beauty in his time, at least among English speaking women in the wealthiest class of their societies.
The portrait of Mrs. Agnew offers her up as possessing a distinctive kind of beauty, and so not to be just another pretty girl, and so people will find the portrait fascinating long after its subject is dead. But look more closely at the model which Sargent had to work with. His model has a mop of black hair difficult to give any shape or luster. Her eyebrows are too thick. She has bags under her eyes. She has thin lips and a sallow skin. Sargent does not falsify any of these features. He shows her as she is but he also shows her as she is put together through his art and her own. She is giving flattering clothes to wear, the lilac showing up well against her black hair. Her makeup gives her face some color. Her direct gaze and her pose show her in possession of herself and therefore to know what she is. Her half smile looks alluring and mysterious, just as does the smile of the Mona Lisa, because it does not reveal what she is thinking or feeling, except some amusement at being stared at. What Sargent has done is to offer us her presentation as her real self, while other great masters take the presentation of the subject as being what the subject is. This is a formidable accomplishment, however much it is also keeping to the spirit of the age, which is that what things seem to be is both an accurate subject for representation and that, indeed, it can be taken to be the real reality, including as it does both the conception of what the person thinks themselves to be and appears to be, and the reality of the objective facts that inform but are not the whole of the image. The portrait does have a relation to the idea of what is being represented. A head of black hair and a non-too rosy complexion are made to stand out by the color motif of her surroundings, which are pastels coordinated largely around blue and with some red, colors that run through her dress and the walls and the chair. The colors are muted with white, which again sets off her dark and more shiny face.
The part smile, and the directness of her eyes can be said to reveal character, as if to suggest that the woman is possessed of a self-irony, a sense of her own presence, but they are also the result of a careful coloring that shows a blotchy complexion passed off as shadows of unglazed white around the left of her lip that is like the pasty forehead, and different from the darker and pinker more textured skin on her cheeks and on the right of her lip. The hair is a colorless black that does not reflect much light, which matches the dark eyebrow and pupils beneath the whitish forehead. These would not seem the elements to make up an attractive woman, and yet she does come across as that. The art does that in part by the color composition, which is what can be said about all art, that its formal composition renders even ugly subject matters aesthetically pleasing and beautiful to behold.
But Sargant is parsimonious with his technique for making her attractive. Her clothing is not rendered as a way to enhance her beauty by being beautiful in itself, or by giving her social position. Posture and decolletage are not used to distract the viewer from the limitations of her face. Rather, the pastels all serve to bring her face out of its background and to allow the viewer look at it alone. The smile and arched brow is as much for what she looks like, her own irony about how her face will be taken, as about an internal motive or an expression of interest or attractiveness in itself.
The face, then, which fails to elucidate the question of whether beauty is merely formal, measured in the microgeometry of how a millimeter more of Cleopatra's nose would have rendered her ugly, does offer a face which is in fact made attractive, and certainly feminine, though it is only possible to say how one or another feature, like the dark eyes and the darkened spaces under the eyes, are in this case interesting to the point of being attractive, without isolating or analyzing how the features individually or in their relationship create that impression. Sargent avoids generalization. He simply renders the particular face in a way that is pleasing, whatever are its resources. More abstractly, the face is feminine, partly because the dress and eye make up make it so, and in spite of the fact that it does not meet with stereotypes of either rosy cheeked or pale beauty, presumably for a combination of qualities that are difficult to specify and that include large tear ducts, flared nostrils, a slight double chin, eyes deeply set in the crevice underneath the eyebrow, and other matters which men, looking at women, will not specify so much as characterize as rendering a woman "vulnerable", "exotic", "petulant", "intelligent" or otherwise fitting a character type thought to be attractive, rather than a characterization of the facial type itself. Characterizations of facial types are, on the other hand, reserved to anthropologists and criminologists, who do not use it for purposes of classifying attractiveness.
Consider what Sargent does when the sitter for his painting is, unlike Lady Agnew, very pretty. That is the case with Maud Coates. She has narrow eyebrows, small and pleasant eyes and a face not too round. What Sargent does is highlight her not at all mousy hair and emphasize the setting for the face. Her white dress is portrayed with great care, having multiple folds and shades of white. There is an orange sash around her waist to give the picture its color. She is a beauty in the way that a good singer is one who can be sent out on stage to perform only with a spotlight and a curtain and no other setting. The face stands out all by itself. Lesser creatures, including the famous Madame X, require something to add to their glamour, and in the case of Madame X, that is the bareness of her shoulders. Most girls need some help.
Sargent has come a long way from Sir Joshua Reynolds, who said, in the Eighteenth Century, that the purpose of portraiture was to present the idealized inner core of the person, an idea which would appeal to whomever was paying for the sitting. He also goes beyond the Impressionists who at least claimed to say that what they were representing was the way the subject communicated itself to the world, the sensation of the person in the world, as that was shown in the complex mix of red, white and blue colors given off by the skin of a Renoir subject, or the broader palette of colors and the altered brushstrokes of Gauguin and Van Gogh. (It would be hard, however, to fit Manet into that generalization.) What Sargent has done instead is to have a subject project an idea of themselves, and it is that idea that infuses and informs the appreciation of the details of the portrait. This is a new arrangement of the relation between the general and the particular, the idea and the sensation, one that is worthy of the Kantian influenced Pragmatic philosophy that was, when Sargent painted, the prevailing American idea.
Sargent is, moreover, presenting a rethinking of the idea of womanhood that is in keeping with the stereotypical thinking of the time. Some women were beauties while others were not. A beauty was to be sought after and treasured. Women who were beauties had to work at their trade and so make themselves marketable as wives, and woe be to the woman, like the heroine in Edith Wharton’s “The House of Mirth”, who did not marry herself off before she had used up her shelf time. This might all seem the doctrine of a more benighted age, before women were appreciated for themselves alone, and not just meat for the market, but there is something to be said for it in that the idea of the woman made up and shown off to be a mysterious creature, somehow the center of the universe, knowing things not known to men, persists in the allure that women in general still have for men in general. As Georg Simmel put it early in the Twentieth Century, women are the totally other and therefore both the subject of fear and attraction, no matter how much and how often the brutish Harvey Weinstein, who is, after all, dealing with a set of beauties, may overstep the bounds necessary to preserve to all women that essential otherness. (See The Role of Women and Big Little Lies.)