Sargent's Wilting Flowers - female illness & independence

Sargent's Wilting Flowers - female illness & independence

On the subject of conservative women, painter John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) said, “I don’t like them. They are too like your well-to-do, respectable, middle-class women going to church on a Sunday afternoon.”

During the late-nineteenth century concepts such as the New Woman were still in incubatory stages. Society women were still encouraged to remain decorative. In a garden of hothouse flowers Sargent had the ability of choosing women who interested him, and even poked fun at the ‘boring’ ones in his portraits. An examination of two women who Sargent painted illustrate not only a growing hold women had over their sexuality, but also an embrace of common aliments in search for their independence.

The New Woman

Traditionally, “In the nineteenth century, men were perceived in terms of action; thus, it was less possible for male figures to be decorative and passive than female figures. The dominant ideology of separate spheres granted men an active function outside the home in business and industry, government and politics, and exploration and conquest, while women reigned over the home and cultural activities.” However, this was beginning to change with the rise of the New Woman in the 1890’s. It was during this time that women were beginning to question their traditional roles in society and the household. Ellen Bassuk elaborates more on this describing, “Conflicts between autonomy and dependence, sexual expression and repression, activity and passivity, may have been more intense than during earlier periods. Paradoxical impulses and wishes had actively surfaced and stereotyped views of masculinity and femininity were starting to be questioned.” Growing independence outside of the home and rapid economic growth were thought of as two of the many stressors that led to women falling ill. New disease such as neurasthenia were coined by the medical field to try and deal with the growing population of invalids. Conversely, there was also at this same time women who embraced these social changes, the New Woman.

Floral Camouflage

In response to this progressive new way of thinking conservative images of women in decorative settings began to appear in more artists’ oeuvres. Annette Stott writes about the effort of floral-female paintings to keep conservative values alive; “Late-nineteenth-century artists asserted control over this wayward definition of femininity by inventing a genre that upheld the flora type in the face of great societal change.” An example of this is Sargent’s painting The Wyndham Sisters, 1899 (see below). In this painting the three sisters and their shimmering gowns are mirrored by multiple bouquets of magnolia flowers.

Though he is known for his proficiency in portraiture, Sargent was also skilled in botanical art. Sargent was as aware of the characteristics and movement of the flowers he sketched as he was of the women who sat in front of his easel. Therefore, it is worth noting that the flowers in his portraits were most likely chosen for a reason beyond simple aesthetic appeal. Flowers also contained symbolic meaning, an example of this is the French artist Grandville’s The Flower’s Personified, 1844, which lists each flower’s symbolism along with illustration of that flower in female form. Sargent being a fervent Francophile and wishing to set up a base in Paris would have been appear of these popular illustrations. It is therefore not surprising then that floral characteristic carry over to his human subjects.

While Sargent was very adept at creating these conservative portraits of aristocratic women, it is his portraits of upper middle class beauties that begin to challenge societal norms.

The Rebels

Two examples of women rebelling against stereotype are Sargent’s paintings Madame X and Lady Agnew of Lochnaw. Both of these paintings depict women who were prominent members of the social scene and out ranked their husbands in this respect. Both women challenged conservative views of how a woman of their status should behave, and the ramifications of these indiscretions are present in Sargent’s fluid brushstrokes. The concept of the New Woman affected each as well as Sargent’s reputation differently.

John Signer Sargent, Madame X, 1882-84, oil on canvas, 82 1/8 x 43 1/4 in, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The subject of Madame X, and the woman who had completely infatuated the twenty-seven year old Sargent, was Virginie Amelie Avegno Gautreau. The expatriate from New Orleans had moved to Paris after the Civil War with her mother and sister. She quickly became one of the most celebrated beauties in Paris with her eccentric looks of hennaed hair, pale powdered skin, and bright red lips. “Just nineteen years old … Amelie stunned Parisian society, when, in 1878, she made her debut as the child bride of the wealthy French banker and bat guano trader Pierre ‘Pedro’ Gautreau.” Sargent, also an American expatriate living in Paris, was one of the many who was captivated by Madame Gautreau’s unconventional appearance and was determined to paint her. Instead of waiting for a commission he appealed to several friends with connection to the lady to sing his praise in the hopes that she would accept his offer to paint her.

Preparations for the portrait began in the winter of 1882, but Madame Gautreau’s busy social calendar prevented any serious work from beginning until the summer of 1883. Sargent made the trip to the Gautreau’s summer home in Brittany to begin work on the painting he envisioned would make his career. Sargent’s indecisiveness about the pose and his sitter’s natural laziness prolonged the preparatory process. It did not help that the very particular artist was working with a woman who was just as particular about the way she was represented. Finally, Sargent settled on the pose we see today.

The original painting of Madame Gautreau differs from the present image in one way. Sargent initially painted the right strap of her dress fallen from her shoulder. The tension and odd angle to her right arm make sense when understood that the sitter was originally creating the tension to hold her dress up. This feature only heightened the sexuality of the image. Not only was Madame Gautreau wearing a dress that was consider scandalous by Victorian standards, but the right jewel encrusted strap was actively trying to reveal more. It was this feature that would cause a scandal when the painting was finally exhibited at the Salon in 1884. Her pale skin and ownership of being on display has led scholars to compare her to Manet’s Olympia, 1863. Instead of a sex worker waiting on a john, Sargent creates a woman of high society who has reclaimed and put on display her sexuality.

Rumors were abound that the lady ingested small doses of arsenic to achieve her ghostly complexion. In an era where women were encouraged to appear as natural as possible, Madame Gautreau appeared more as a corpse than living woman. Despite the rumors, her appearance was achieved by applying thick layers of white rice powder and a top coat of lavender powder. This created the appearance of a walking momento mori, or as Susan Sidlauskas writes, “a sensuality that was undermined by death and decay.” Sargent paints her makeup lines around her ear, eye, and fingertips to reveal her natural skin color. Furthermore, the association of death Madame Geautreau created when crafting her persona was more accurate than one would first realize. Elaborating more on the idea of her decaying sensuality, Sidlauskas continues, “These cosmetics also carried significant medical risks … By 1884, it was widely known that the metallic compound of chlorate of potash (or potassium chlorate, as we might recognize it today), the basis for Gautreau’s lavender powder, could be toxic for its users. (At a fraction of its nineteenth-century strength in cosmetics, it is used today in insecticides.)” Whether Gautreau knew it or not she was displaying herself as an actual walking death omen.

After the disastrous reviews of Madame X Sargent moved to London to establish a new home base. It would take time, and the creation of another seminal portrait, before the British elite trusted Sargent with creating their likeness. “For many years after Sargent moved to London, society women had been afraid of being made to look at best unconventional and at worst to have their reputation sullied by the painter of the notorious Madame Gautreau.” Unknowingly, Sargent had relocated to a country “where distinctions of rank were perhaps the most jealously protected in Europe.” A portrait of a woman outside the circle of aristocratic elite would eventually propel both artist and sitter to fame.

John Singer Sargent, Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, 1892, oil on canvas, 50 x 40 in., National Galleries Scotland.

Illness or Freedom?

In 1892 Sargent’s infamous reputation within British society was still hanging in the balance. Only families of wealth, but not title, were commissioning portraits from him. Among the few society portrait commissions he received was a request by Sir Andrew Noel Agnew of Lochnaw to paint his wife Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, previously Gertrude Vernon (1865-1932). Unlike the set up for his portrait of Madame X, Lady Agnew made trips to Sargent’s studio in London to complete the painting. The Agnews had recently inherited their title, and Sir Noel had this portrait commissioned shortly thereafter. Lady Agnew sits in a French styled armchair upholstered with a floral design. The chair and the blue cloth used as a backdrop are both Sargent’s own staging. He carries the floral pattern from the blue drape with Asian script, to the chair, and finally to the white rose Lady Agnew cradles in her lap. While she looks directly out at the viewer, both she and the chair are placed at an angle. The lady seems to sink into the corner of the chair and crosses her left leg over the right. This informal pose is a contrast to her attire and title. Perhaps to counter her casual pose, Lady Agnew gazes directly out at the viewer. Her gaze is slightly hooded, and combined with the upturned lip creates an amused expression. She looks like a woman who knows something we do not.

Two arguments exist to explain Lady Agnew’s appearance and relaxed posture. The first purposes that Agnew was suffering from neurasthenia at the time she was sitting for the portrait. The symptoms of the disease correspond to the exhausted pose and slight sheen to her face. Another explanation for this, however, is that Lady Agnew seems exhausted not from the strains of neurasthenia, but from a source of a more sexual nature. Both of these possibilities will be examined as well as how Sargent could have incorporated them together as a commentary on the New Woman emerging during the Victorian era.

Though Gertrude Agnew was never described as a woman of good health it was after her engagement to Noel Agnew in 1889 that reports of serious illness begin to appear. Prior to this Gertrude had refused Noel’s proposal twice that year. After a year and a half and a third proposal she finally said yes. “A few days after announcing the engagement, Noel wrote in his journal ‘called on Dr Maclagan to get advice about Gerty’ and soon after their honeymoon he noted that ‘G was very unwell and tired’… Gerty’s frequent and sometimes mysterious illnesses were a counterpoint to her other activities for many years.”


The Rest Cure

One explanation for Lady Agnew’s relaxed posture is a diagnosis of neurasthenia. George Beard entered neurasthenia into the medical lexicon in 1869, and later published The Nature and Diagnosis of Neurasthenia which became popular with both British and American doctors. Beard, “drew the name from Greek and noted that its literal interpretation was ‘lack of nerve strength’ … [its symptoms were many and included] exhaustion, a variety of pains, alterations in the senses, ‘morbid fears,’ impairments in cognitive functioning, and alterations in mood.” Though neurasthenia would later be called ‘the American disease,’ it also appeared among English women. Gertrude Agnew was plagued with bad health for the majority of her life. It was not until shortly after her marriage, and during the time that Sargent painted her, that she was diagnosed with neurasthenia. Noel Agnew’s extensive engagement books detail the days he escorted Gertrude to and from Sargent’s studio due to her fatigue. Sargent as well kept her setting to a minimum of six to accommodate for her ill health. Women diagnosed with this affliction were encouraged to remove themselves from stressful situations and stay confined to their bed. The rest cure, as it would become to be known, had varying degrees of success and women with severe cases were removed from their homes. “Doctors believed that major relationships and responsibilities contributed significantly to the formation of the patient’s nervous disorder. Seclusion from the family, they thought, was beneficial.” The rest cure was the most common prescription for patients suffering from neurasthenia. This involved complete immobility and excess feedings.

However, a look into when Lady Agnew’s symptoms started to appear is relevant to the discussion. As stated earlier, Noel Agnew reports Gertrude becoming very ill right after the announcement of their engagement and later marriage. Bouts of neurasthenia could reflect points of drastic change in Lady Agnew’s life, especially when her yo-yoing actions of social engagements and convalescences are examined in further detail. Lady Agnew’s neurasthenia, and the couple’s prolonged absence from each other, could also relate to Linda Gordon’s theory of the illness and ‘voluntary motherhood.’ “Its proponents wanted to make it possible for women to gain some control over their bodies by providing a way to avoid pregnancy… it implied periodic or complete abstinence. But it allowed women the right to refuse their husbands and to participate in decisions about sexuality and motherhood.” This could correlate with the fact that the Agnews never had a child together, and their frequent separation from each other. Lady Agnew lived principally in London. Sir Noel’s landowning responsibilities at his estate, Lochnaw, and his political commitments in Scotland, meant that the couple maintained somewhat independent lives.

An examination of the painting reveals symptoms of neurasthenia that are present in Lady Agnew’s portrait. At its conception neurasthenia contained a long list of symptoms. “The most common factor in a diagnosis of neurasthenia, however, was extreme, often debilitating fatigue. Physicians believed that every human being had a limited supply of nerve energy. Work depleted the supply; sleep and food renewed it.” This can clearly be seen in the sitters exhausted posture, with her left hand gripping the base of the chair’s arm for support. About this posture Julia Rayer Rolfe writes, “Sargent preferred to catch his sitters in a characteristic pose. On her arrival at the studio Lady Agnew might well have sunk exhausted into an armchair, leaving one arm hanging weakly over the side.” Another physical indication of the illness is the sitter’s flushed face and chest. An article written by Dr. Guthrie Rankin, in 1906, lists one of the landmarks of the disease as, “flushing, sweating, palpitations, and vertigo.” While Sargent completed Agnew’s portrait in only six sittings, a feat when compared to the over thirty given to Madame Gautreau, the strain of these sessions might be evident in Sargent’s depiction of Gertrude. However, if Sargent’s portrait is an example of a woman suffering with neurasthenia, it did not stop his subject from diligently attending her sessions with him.


Hiding in Plain Site?

Similar to Madame Gautreau, some scholars now see the sexuality, not passivity, behind Lady Agnew’s posture and expression. Lady Agnew, a flower blooming before the viewer, again coincides with the idea of the New Woman emerging in Victorian culture and women taking control over their own bodies.

Lady Agnew is presented as on display, to be looked at for the viewer’s pleasure. However, there are elements that conflict with the implications of women serving a decorative purpose. Sargent simultaneously plays with and against the idea of Lady Agnew being just a rose. He surrounds her in a garden of floral patterns in support of conservative themes. She holds a white rose, sometimes used as a symbol for silence; sits in a chair upholstered with a vibrant colored floral pattern; and is further surrounded by blue silk ornamented with lotus flowers. The drapery is also adorned with Asian script, making Lady Agnew appear exotic as well as decorative.

An examination of Sargent’s larger body of societal portraits gives evidence to support the argument that the artist is embodying Lady Agnew with the confidence of the New Woman, and not preserving her as one of society’s hothouse flowers. Sargent frequently used the placement or arrangement of his sitters’ hands to create sexual undertones. Whether the artist did this on purpose or unconsciously is unknown. However, these precedents provide a foundation for the argument being presented. In her portrait Lady Agnew cradles a white rose with her right hand while gripping the arm of the chair with her left. On closer examination the white rose is almost falling apart. Lady Agnew’s fingering of it has separated two of the petals from the rosebud.

In the late nineteenth-century the term ‘blooming’ or ‘blossoming’ was used as a substitute for ‘masturbation.’ Therefore, if these terms were employed to describe a woman it was in an attempt to tactfully describe her sexuality.

Furthermore, her other hand is not simply hanging limply by her side, it is gripping the base of the chair. Instead of symptoms of neurasthenic exhaustion, Lady Agnew’s flushed skin and perspired face relate to the power and pleasure she holds over her own body through masturbation and ‘voluntary motherhood.’


While the liberties that Sargent took with the portrait of Madame Gautreau almost brought the demise of his career, the same bold leaps brought him to fame with the portrait of Lady Agnew. Both of these women use illness to achieve some kind of independence, the results successful in one case more than another. Madame Gautreau would go on to chase after the beauty she had lost with age. However, the events of World War I and the suffragette movement in England empowered Lady Agnew, and symptoms of neurasthenia were never mentioned after these first few years of her marriage.

As for Sargent, after the completion of Lady Agnew’s portrait he went from painting upper middle class families like the Misses Vickers to the aristocracy of the Wyndham sisters. He now had the fame he had been so desperate to achieve with Madame Gautreau. However, the price that came with this was the constant commission of conservative, well-to-do, respectable women he had originally mocked.

This is an edited version (if you can believe it) of a larger paper written about Sargent’s society portraits. All research and writing © 2019 Stephanie Khoury.

Work cited

Abbey, Susan M., and Paul E. Garfinkel. “Neurasthenia and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: The Role of Culture in the Making of a Diagnosis.” The American Journal of Psychiatry 148 (1991): 1638-1646.

Bassuk, Ellen L. “The Rest Cure: Repetition or Resolution of Victorian Women’s Conflicts?” Poetics Today 6 (1985): 245-257.

Davis, Deborah and Elizabeth Oustinoff. “Madame X Speaks.” Antiques, November, 2003.

Grandville, J. J. The Flowers Personified. Translated by N. Cleaveland. New York: R. Martin, 1849.

O’Hare, Mary-Kate. “John Singer Sargent and Modern Womanhood.” Antiques, March, 2006.

Prettejohn, Elizabeth. Interpreting Sargent. New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1999.

Rankin, Guthrie. “The Treatment of Neurasthenia.” The British Medical Journal 1 (1906): 492-494.

Rayer Rolfe, Julia. “Sargent and Lady Agnew.” In The Portrait of a Lady: Sargent and Lady Agnew, edited by Julia Rayer Rolfe, David Cannadine, Kenneth McConkey, and Wilfrid Mellers, 11-33. Edinburgh: National Gallery of Scotland, 1997.

Sidlauskas, Susan. “Painting Skin: John Singer Sargent’s ‘Madame X.’” American Art 15 (2001): 8-33.

Stott, Annette. “Floral Femininity: A Pictorial Definition.” American Art 6 (1992): 60-77.

Stott, Annette. “Neurasthenia and the New Woman: Thomas Eakins Portrait of Amelia van Buren.” In In Sickness and in Health Disease as Metaphor in Art and Popular Wisdom, ed. Laurinda S. Dixon and Gabriel P. Weisberg, 125-143. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2004.

Syme, Alison. A Touch of Blossom. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010.

Van Hook, Bailey. “Decorative Images of American Women: The Aristocratic Aesthetics of the Late Nineteenth Century.” Smithsonian Studies in American Art 4 (1990): 44-69.

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