We are very grateful to Kenneth McConkey for providing the following catalogue entry:
In the 1890s when portrait photography was commonly available, portrait painting returned to prominence and became the focus of aesthetic debate. Rather than undermining conventional portraiture, the new medium enhanced its status. Precisely because someone's features could now be recorded by mechanical means, portrait painters were obliged to question their activity and accentuate the particular character of their medium. Increasingly they sought to present their subjects with greater naturalism - as they would appear in life. They became interested in the fleeting and fragmentary experiences associated with modernity. They were motivated by the largely unarticulated belief that art resides in the quality of the perception of other people, and that a sense of presence was more important than the inch-by-inch charting of the facial map. The way someone sits, the clothes they wear and the setting in which they are portrayed tell us as much about them as physiognomy.
These attitudes were common throughout the western world. The rise in the significance of portraiture was an international phenomenon, stimulated by world fairs, trans-national dealer networks and exhibitions. Leading portrait painters would take studios in foreign cities for a particular season in order to execute commissions and the journals that discussed their work would draw comparisons that were not limited within any one national school. The speed and sophistication of reproduction created new conditions in the history of art - to the point where it was possible for an artist working in the provinces in Britain to be influenced by work produced in Eastern Europe or North America. The career paths of artists like Sargent and Whistler - Americans by birth, trained in Paris, but practitioners in London, become less exceptional as the century progresses. Artists like Lavery or Boldini were capable of taking up temporary residence in Rome, in the case of the former, and London, in the latter instance.
At a fundamental level however, portraiture is about three identities. We need to know the sitter; the artist who has been asked to paint the sitter; and we need to know the person, if other than the sitter, who has commissioned the portrait. Where these three ingredients are unknown or temporarily mislaid, the picture presents an interesting set of challenges. Considering an unidentified portrait, which at the same time is an aesthetically sophisticated work of art from this period is intriguing for the complex issues it raises.
At the first stage however, we concentrate upon the reading of what we see in the picture. A married woman has entered the room; she has placed her umbrella against a chaise, and sits down on an elegant chair, retaining her outdoor clothes. At the moment she is arranging the folds of her skirt. She is slightly contorted, in that her right hand is behind her back, and only the frill of her cuff is visible. The style of her hat, dress and high collared, fur-trimmed cape, suggest a woman of the late 1890's. Earlier, and the hat would be more simply constructed, derived from a bonnet or placed provocatively close to the forehead. Later, and it would be wide-brimmed and heaped with exotic flowers and feathers. We note that this woman carries a muff - an item that had come back into fashion, particularly in colder climes, in the mid-nineties. She looks at us and is about to speak.
Who is the sitter? Who first saw her in this way and recreated the image on canvas?
Given the undoubted autographic quality of the work, we can immediately dismiss a whole generation of older portaitists like Millais in Britain, Bonnat in France, Lenbach in Germany and the Belgian, Stevens, who were coming to the end of their careers. Similarly, artists like Sargent are immediately ruled out on technical grounds, along with 'semi-official' portrait painters of the rich and famous such as de Laszlo and Flameng. With these the prominent 'belle epoque' painters, Blanche, Helleu, Gandara and Boldini can also be rejected. Similarly the younger 'Sargentolatry' painters, active in London, Boston and New York like Furse, Da Costa, Beaux and Nourse should also be dismissed. By the same token, we should place on one side, early work by Henri, Luks, Glackens and Shinn, the artists who became known as the Ash Can School. In all of these cases, early self-confidence verges upon brio. The present work eschews such pyrotechnics.
Two further groups of British artists merit consideration. These are the New English Art Club painters of the turn of the century and the painters of the Glasgow School. Both favoured Whistler over Sargent and treated the ensemble in a 'puritan' manner. Both were self-conscious about colour harmony, and were concerned with spacing and interval. However, the New English artists, principally, Steer, Tonks and Brown, and their turn of the century ex-Slade School associates, Orpen, John, McEvoy and Rothenstein, are all too rigorously Whistlerian in their application of paint to admit the technical range of the present picture. A Lady in Blue is thinly painted, particularly in the treatment of the skirt where translucent paint of watercolour consistency has been applied to give the surface sheen of the fabric. Elsewhere, scratching the surface to reveal white primer, indicates the highpoints of folds, while the garment is edged with three tiers of ribbon (?) that have been confidently brushed in.
Over the whole canvas, there has been extensive of 'scraping down' - i.e removing the top layer of paint with a palette knife - a practice that Whistler advocated. However while Whistler thought of it simply as a means removing unnecessary surface paint, here it is more selectively applied. This is particularly evident in the floor area and in the background to accentuate the edges of the figure. Finally, we note that the face and left hand, are convincingly placed to convey the articulation of a figure, otherwise disguised by the weight of her drapery. These focal points of the composition are painted with great attention to detail. Who would paint a hand like this, or a face?
It is at this point that we turn to Scottish painters. During the 1890's, portraiture in Glasgow and Edinburgh was burgeoning. Following John Lavery's portrayal of the State Visit of Queen Victoria to the International Exhibition, Glasgow, 1888, 1890, (Glasgow Art Gallery and Museum), which contained kit-kat portraits of the over 200 of the most prominent citizens in Scotland, most of the other members of the Glasgow School, turned to portraiture. It was Lavery, Guthrie, Kennedy, Walton, and Henry, who achieved international success for British painting at the Munich Glyptotek exhibition of 1890 and in the Paris Salons of the 1890's. Excluded from the Royal Academy and the New English Art Club, they collected in London in the late nineties to organize the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers, (ISSPG), with Whistler as their President. As its name suggests, this artists's society deliberately encouraged American and European exhibitors. Were it to have been shown in London, The Lady in Blue, is more likely to have been found here than at the Academy.
For the most part, however, the Glasgow painters, following the dogma derived from Velasquez, preferred to work on upright full-length portraits. In the early nineties, Lavery and Guthrie produced pictures of women in interiors, in a similar format to the present canvas - Guthrie working mostly in pastel, and Lavery, producing more restrained and formal oils. One might be tempted to say that the author of the present work, must have been conversant with pictures by Lavery like Mrs Laverie and Edwin, 1892 (Gallery of Modern Art, Venice). However, by the time fur-trimmed capes were fashionable, in the second half of the decade, Lavery's work had moved on in stylistic terms. Byam Shaw in Portrait of Evelyn, Daughter of J Pyke Nott, Esq., 1898, (Private Collection) shown at the New Gallery, London, presents a young woman attired in this way, although he cannot be considered the author of the present canvas. Osborne, in Mrs Walter Armstrong, 1897 (National Gallery of Ireland, on loan to Malahide Castle), provides a similar background panelled screen and Hepplewhite-derived chair for his sitter, but he too is unlikely to have been the painter of the present picture.
The careful drawing of the hand and head, and the thinness of the application, take us back to Scotland, and if they cannot immediately be placed with the Glasgow Boys, they recall aspects of the work of Orchardson. Here was a painter nearing the end of his career, whose costume pieces and modern 'problem' pictures tend to obscure his influence as a portraitist upon the younger generation. The fall of the hand and the look in the eyes, in the present canvas, suggest at least an awareness of the work of the London-based Scots painter, even if other aspects of handling are not characteristic. Orchardson remained in high regard at the Trustees Academy in Edinburgh among emerging Scots painters of the generation of Robert Brough and William James Yule. Painters like these take us back into the early catalogues of the ISSPG where we find, for instance, Austen Brown's unidentified Portrait (unlocated) exhibited in 1901, that shows a lady, fashionably dressed, seated in front of a screen, looking out towards the spectator. But this is no more than an instance. Not enough research has been carried out on the ISSPG or the many aspiring portraitists of the nineties to be able to make a confident attribution at this stage for The Lady in Blue.
Thus, for the present she retains her secrets and is the subject of ongoing research. While identity has been conferred by an artist, as yet unknown, upon a sitter whose face we do not recognize, it is clear from her look, and her sense of self-possession, that The Lady in Blue has something to say.
Kenneth McConkey is the author of Edwardian Portraits, Images of an Age of Opulence, (1987); Impressionism in Britain, (1995), Memory and Desire, Painting in Britain and Ireland at the Turn of the Twentieth Century, (2002) and many other publications.