Few portrait painters in the late nineteenth century were so daring as to pose the female sitter directly confronting the spectator. As George Moore and many others pointed out, it was the artist's task to capture more transient qualities in the belle allure of the subject, by suggesting movement, offstage glances and the fashions of the moment. This was the goal of international portraitists like John Singer Sargent, Giovanni Boldini, John Lavery and James Jebusa Shannon. It is only at the beginning of their careers in the early 1880s, before these new objectives became clear, that we find more studied, regal and hieratic images which in the prevailing climate of naturalism looked back to sixteenth century Flemish painting and Holbein in particular. Bastien-Lepage, when he painted La Première Communiante, 1875 (Musée des Beaux Arts, Tournai), was likened to the Master of Augsburg whose Anne of Cleves (Musée du Louvre, Paris) provided a much studied precedent for art students. La Premire Communiante, described by Vincent Van Gogh as a 'white on white' composition, engages the spectator in a most challenging way.
It is likely that the unidentified artist responsible for the present portrait worked in the wake of Bastien-Lepage's small retrospective held within the Grosvenor Gallery summer exhibition of 1880. Much discussed by critics and art students who noted the elegance of its handling and the simplicity of the sitter's pose, the 'white on white' communicant updated a Whistlerian formula, while presenting the subject with strict factual accuracy. In the Paris ateliers, it was emulated by Henry Herbert La Thangue in his Portrait of a Breton Girl in White, (Private Collection) and echoed by painters like John Lavery and James Guthrie. Its striking confrontational pose was extended to take in the full figure by John Singer Sargent in Miss Elsie Palmer, 1890 (Colorado Springs Fine Art Center), and also by the unknown painter of the present portrait.
Bastien-Lepage precedents were frequently cited by the young painters who formed the Newlyn school, among whom was Thomas Cooper Gotch. In later years, Gotch adopted the monumental format of the present work as his signature. After visiting Italy, he abandoned Cornish fisherfolk for an elaborate pageant of rich brocades and Renaissance furnishing, announced in The Child Enthroned, 1894. Accurately described as semi-Symbolist, these retained elements of naturalistic portraiture in their treatment of surfaces, but alluded, at the same time, to a vague fairyland in which Lewis Carroll meets Botticelli.
While the artist responsible for the present work may not be Gotch, its obvious aestheticism and competent handling suggest an artist who had gone through similar experiences - whose basic training was carried out in Britain before he or she travelled to the ateliers in Paris. These intriguing possibilities could be confidently pursued were it not for other visual evidence - notably in the sitter's dress and hairstyle which suggest a date of c. 1900. There are apparent incongruities in that although the sitter's dress may not be an evening gown, it is matched with what appears to be a fur-trimmed pink cloak draped over the back of the chair. The high frilled collar edges the lower part of the woman's face, just as the ruffs in a Rembrandt or Van Dyck, while the ruched or pleated bodice place it around the turn of the century. The sitter's hair is centrally parted and swept back at the sides. Although this was possible with 1880s aesthetes - as for instance in Sargent's Mrs J Comyns Carr, c. 1889 - such coiffing was more readily associated with that of the 'Gibson Girls' of the early twentieth century. This extended dating admits other possibilities for the work's author, taking us into the generation of William Nicholson and William Orpen. Nevertheless Tudor associations add to the regal quality of the work - the chair is throne-like and we, the spectators, become supplicants. Gotch played up these aspects in work such as The Child Enthroned.
One further detail is noteworthy - the striking diagonal provided by the black fan has may precedents and antecedents - most notably in Lavery's Lady Lyle, shown at the Royal Academy in 1895.
However, Lavery's fashionable sitter provides evidence of the direction portrait painting was to take in the Edwardian years. Dresses, accessories, hairstyles and make-up came together in the social elite of the London Season, inaugurated at Royal Academy Private Views where painters such as Sargent, JJ Shannon, Arthur Hacker and others would unveil their latest creations. This was the world that Moore was addressing - the world of secrets folded in fans and silk dresses rustling on polished parquet. But painters such as the unknown author of the present canvas, cast themselves increasingly in the role of mystics, using the sitter to project an aura. The way for the Symbolist icons of painters as diverse as Fernand Khnopff and Gustave Klimt was clear.
We are grateful to Professor Kenneth McConkey for his help in preparing this catalogue entry.