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1893 The French Connection

Many critics of the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1893 were concerned that British art had grown stagnant. As was customary, reviews attended first and foremost to the entries of the old guard. The latest paintings of Sir Frederic Leighton, Sir John Everett Millais, and other Royal Academicians were judged against the mighty reputations of their creators—and largely found wanting. “The greatest of our living artists have not produced any works of historic or commanding value,” said one representative critic.1 The publications of the art establishment thought the show “depressing”.2 The Athenaeum lamented that “the mass of inconceivable rubbish” on display made it “only too evident that serious studies are on the decline in this country.”3

Explore the 1893 catalogue

Such a narrative of cultural and institutional decline was not helped by the fact that the only picture to genuinely impress at the Exhibition was done not by a Royal Academician, nor an Englishman, nor even an artist working securely within British traditions of painting. Rather, it was by one of the “outsiders” of the show, a “Parisian Neo-American artist”, who could “give many points to his Saxon compeers”: the rising star of the British portrait scene, John Singer Sargent.4 It was “the unhappy fate” of those “regarded as the acknowledged leaders of English art” to be “outshone” by an American painter working in the French manner.5 

Sargent’s Lady Agnew (1892) was among the first works that a visitor would have seen upon entering the Exhibition (Fig. 1). The portrait is a visual symphony of fabric: our eye is drawn to the mauve sash that cuts across the curves and folds of Lady Gertrude Agnew of Locknaw’s diaphanous white gown; in her right hand, resting in her lap, she holds a pale flower that is rendered almost as if it were a whorl of bunched-up silk; supporting her languid figure is the patterned upholstery of a plump rococo chair, its floral motifs conveyed with loose and kinetic brushwork; and behind her is a sumptuous wall of blue provided by an Oriental hanging, forming the backdrop to the scene, while also curving forwards towards the viewer on both sides to help to frame the languorous sitter. 

While more traditional artistic offerings, such as Millais’ Girlhood of St Theresa (Fig. 2), garnered some limited enthusiasm in reviews (“moderately successful”), it was Lady Agnew that arrested critical attention.6 Instinctually conservative elements of the art press suddenly found themselves in odd alignment with a new school of art criticism, led by Robert Alan Mowbray Stevenson, which was agitating for the increased influence of French Impressionism on the British scene. Stevenson was rapturous about Lady Agnew—“it is played on the full orchestra of high art … every audacity of touch becomes beauty and truth”—and compared it unfavourably with the traditionalist tone of the Exhibition as a whole: “The visitor new to Burlington House will be disappointed if he takes Mr. Sargent as a presage of what he is about to see.”7 Such an elevated assessment was echoed by The Art-Journal, which reported that “as a portrait, a decorative pattern, or a piece of well-engineered impressionistic painting, it [Lady Agnew] tops everything in the Academy”.8

For the whole gamut of critics, then, Sargent’s dynamism served as an indictment of the staid national style embodied at the Royal Academy. There is a certain amount of pleasure detectable in the melancholy responses to the perceived failings of the 1893 Exhibition. Amid nostalgia for a lost English past of supposed artistic greatness, Sargent’s foreign-tinged portrait emerged as a stick with which to beat an uninspired academic establishment. 

Those advocating for more avant-garde approaches to art in Britain did not waste the opportunity to drive the message home. The Pall Mall Gazette commissioned two lengthy articles from the French painter Ary Renan to run in addition to Stevenson’s report. Renan echoed the general view of the British press that the national art scene had become tired. He believed it had not changed significantly for the last decade—“I see again, with respect, the same masters, their hands but a little heavier with age, and, with astonishment, the same clientele of imitators grouped around them.”9 Renan’s prescription for such national stasis lay in the “frenzy” of the European scene, where he had witnessed:

the art of my country emancipate itself completely, struggle with reality, relegate dreams to their own place, renew all categories without losing esteem for the old theories so far as they were sound, and plunge … into the most perilous of futures.10

“I cannot conceal,” Renan continued, “that my young man’s sympathies go straight cut to the ready, spontaneous talent of J. Sargent.”11

However, Lady Agnew was able to achieve broad-spectrum praise among British critics not because it brought the intrepid experimentation of the Continent to the Summer Exhibition, but because it had toned down French influences in comparison to Sargent’s former work. “He has on previous occasions shown himself as an Impressionist of an advanced type,” wrote one review, “but he proves with this picture that he can draw with perfect correctness as well as grace, while sacrificing nothing of his vividness and life.”12 Lady Agnew was “without doubt one of the most remarkable pictures of the year”, admitted The Illustrated London News, but this was because it was “finished to a degree hardly common with this clever artists’ work, and the face and figure are more careful modelled than usual.”13 Some impressionistic élan was therefore welcomed by British critics—but only by some.

When, in the following year, Sargent became an Associate Member of the Royal Academy, The Sunday Times attributed the accolade to the success of Lady Agnew.14 Yet, as one critic noted waspishly, Sargent’s incorporation into the British establishment could be seen as a “dubious honour” given the low standard of the Royal Academicians’ contributions in 1893. Just consider: “if one picture by Mr. Sargent makes a whole room [at the Summer Exhibition] doubly unendurable to view by force of contrast with itself, what would be the fact of several?”15

  1. The Aberdeen Journal, 29 April 1893, 5.↩︎

  2. The Art-Journal (1893): 190.↩︎

  3. The Athenaeum 3418, 29 April 1893, 542.↩︎

  4. The Illustrated London News, 29 April 1893, 514.↩︎

  5. The Leeds Mercury, 10 May 1893, 3.↩︎

  6. The Art-Journal (1893): 190.↩︎

  7. Robert Alan Mowbray Stevenson, The Pall Mall Gazette, 29 April 1893, 1.↩︎

  8. The Art-Journal (1893): 242.↩︎

  9. Ary Renan, The Pall Mall Gazette, 5 July 1893, 1.↩︎

  10. Ary Renan, The Pall Mall Gazette, 5 July 1893, 1.↩︎

  11. Ary Renan, The Pall Mall Gazette, 5 July 1893, 2.↩︎

  12. The Leeds Mercury, 10 May 1893, 3.↩︎

  13. The Illustrated London News, 29 April 1893, 514.↩︎

  14. The Sunday Times, 14 January 1894, 8.↩︎

  15. The Globe, 10 May 1893, 6.↩︎

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Explore the 1893 catalogue