A lady in white (A portrait of Lady Lyle) signed and dated 'J. Lavery '95' (upper left) oil on canvas 50 1/4 x 40 1/2in (127.8 x 102.3cm)
PROVENANCE: Sale, Sotheby's New York, 22 February 1989, lot 452; with Kurt E. Schon, Ltd., New Orleans
EXHIBITED: London, Royal Academy, 1895, no. 88, as A Lady in White
LITERATURE: Anon., 'The Royal Academy', The Art Journal, 1895, p. 179 Anon., 'The Royal Academy Fourth Notice', The Athenaeum, 22 June 1895, p. 811 Royal Academy Pictures, 1895, p. 140, illus. Walter Shaw Sparrow, John Lavery and his Work, 1912 (Kegan Paul, Trubner Trench and Co), p. 177 Kenneth McConkey, John Lavery, A Painter and his World, 2010 (Atelier Books), pp. 68, 221 (note 97)
By 1894 John Lavery's ambitions were clear. Having demonstrated his ability with the large State Visit of Queen Victoria to the International Exhibition, Glasgow 1888, (Glasgow Museums), he wished to develop a portrait practice. Renewed contact was made with Whistler and in 1892 he registered at the Prado as a copyist of Velazquez. By 1895 he was the leading representative of the Glasgow School. Wealthy Scots industrialists and ship-owners who were avant-garde patrons of the visual arts, provided his clientele and they included the families of wool and yarn manufacturers, Fulton, Coates and Clark; that of the renowned collector, William Burrell; and the adventurer-laird of Gartmore, RB Cunninghame Graham. It was at this point that Lavery painted the magisterial Lady in White, a portrait thought to represent Mrs. Park Lyle, a member of the Abram Lyle dynasty.
For the painter however, the picture was not unproblematic. A rapid oil sketch (fig 1) indicates that he originally envisaged the sitter leaning on her right arm, but this was corrected to the present upright position. When photographed for Royal Academy Pictures, the Lady in White also held a black fan (fig 2) which may already have been removed prior to its dispatch to the Royal Academy in 1895. The sitter's head also appears to have been restated at this time and although one should not over-interpret illustrations of the period, it seems as though Lavery has created greater spatial depth around the figure, darkening the background and sinking the vase of flowers on the right into soft shadow (fig 3). These changes were approved by the hostile and conservative critic of The Athenaeum who, although he found the picture 'stiff', conceded that the Lady in White 'possesses character' and that it was 'to be praised for its tones'.
It was the larger of two pictures submitted to the Royal Academy in that year, and in the second room of the exhibition, it was more prominently placed. Concluding on its companion-piece, A Lady in Black, George Moore was fulsome.
"I hope these lines will meet the eye of some fashionable lady, hesitating between Mr. Sargent's satin and Mr. Shannon's, who will be induced to go to Mr. Lavery; I hope she will refrain from advising him regarding the dress she should be painted in. Her opinion on such a point would be as much beside the mark as Mr. Lavery's would be in the choice of the dress she should wear at her next ball."
Moore abhorred the current fashion for what he termed the 'white satin duchesses' of John Singer Sargent and James Jebusa Shannon. Lavery, as the present portrait indicates, was more discrete, and his colour harmonies more subtle. No one could ignore the fact that Lavery had grown in stature not least because he was also attracting attention simultaneously in Paris where five portraits were on display at the Salon. That year his work could also be seen at the Royal Society of Portrait Painters and he was simultaneously admitted to membership of the Royal Scottish Academy with his portrait of Mrs. Christie Smith, a tour de force entitled The Rocking Chair. Surveying his work in this important year, even the dyspeptic Athenaeum sought to separate him from others who ignored 'drawing, grace, finish, the charms of expression and veracity'. In the current mood of 'Sargentolatry' many young painters were mistaking speedy execution for genius.
Lavery however worked in the Whistlerian manner. Placing his canvas beside the model he stood back far enough to be able comfortably to shift his eye between the two. In the process, the sitter dropped down to the status of a model. James Stanley Little, clarifying this point in 1902, recorded Lavery's views as follows:
"He holds that the artist has license and prerogative to treat his sitter as he would treat a model, to this extent: he is entitled to seize upon and give prominence to those points which in form and colour suggest to him an attractive and interesting pictorial idea, and that, while the essential facts and characteristics which would enable a third person to recognize immediately the sitter in the picture must be preserved, the painter is entirely justified further that no portrait can be a work of art otherwise - in treating his sitter subjectively, and infusing into his presentment his own artistic individuality."
It was this search for an interesting 'pictorial idea' that led to constant refinement in Lavery's portraits correcting contours, adjusting colour and tone, and in the present instance, substituting a pale posy of flowers that harmonizes with the delicate pinks and mauves of the background for a visually distracting black fan. To emphasize the aesthetic suavity of the picture, Lavery places a Nankin vase on a table in the background, as he had done with the portrait of Miss Mary Burrell, the previous year albeit, as we have seen, lowered in tone.
Summing up Lavery's achievement in 1895, D. S. MacColl pressed the painter to extend himself beyond the striking colour harmony:
"When he paints a pretty woman, he seizes upon one or two obvious points of likeness, fixes the general allure of the figure, and makes a striking assertion of the éclat of fair flesh ... A painter who can imagine the beautiful harmony of colour in the draperies of one of those portraits, and whose appreciation of the principles of picture making is evidently so high, owes it to his talent to try for other virtues."
MacColl was looking for more and what these 'other virtues' might be, remains unexplained. The current trend was contrary to the Scots critic's puritan values. Portrait commissions often demanded some form of dramatization of the sitter and while Lavery was careful to avoid the excesses of Giovanni Boldini, increasingly, the society hostess of the day cared little for aesthetic probity. Nevertheless, the international success of the Glasgow group continued and there were 'Glasgow Boys' exhibitions in St. Louis and Chicago. In March 1895 Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine carried an article charting the history of recent Scottish painting and explaining the lineage of 'the most vital artmovement' of the day. Along with Guthrie, Walton, Roche and others, Lavery, its most ambitious member, was singled out for praise - 'elegance of arrangement and style' were regarded as the chief characteristics of his work. The writer could indeed have been thinking about A Lady in White.
We are grateful to Professor Kenneth McConkey for his assistance in cataloguing this lot.
 McConkey 2010, pp. 40-48.  ibid, pp. 63-8. Having painted Mrs JJ Cowan and her daughter, Laura, Lavery recommended Whistler to her husband for a small full-length portrait (National Galleries of Scotland).  Walter Shaw Sparrow, John Lavery and His Art, n.d., , (Kegan Paul, Trubner, Trench and Co), p. 177. Abram Lyle, the Greenock sugar refiner and ship-owner, merged his company with that of Henry Tate, founder of the Tate Gallery, London, to form the world famous Tate and Lyle sugar manufacturer. The Lyle company specialized in syrup and its motto, taken from the Old Testament story of Samson, remains 'Out of the strong cometh forth sweetness'. Mrs Park Lyle is thought to be Abram Lyle's daughter-in-law, Grace Eleanora Moir (1855-1918), who married his son, Sir Alexander Park Lyle (1849-1933), in 1880. However, Alexander's elder brother, Robert, 1st Baron Lyle of Greenock pre-deceased him in 1923 and it has not been possible to establish if he too was married around 1895.  Given the long lead-times necessary for printing, it was not unusual in the 1890s for artists to carry on working on pictures that had already been photographed for reproduction. Traces of the black fan remain visible in the delicate handling of the sitter's voluminous dress.  'The Royal Academy, Fourth Notice', The Athenaeum, 22 June 1895, p. 811.  George Moore, 'The Royal Academy', The Speaker, 11 May 1895, p. 516.  The Magazine of Art, 1895, p. 428.  McConkey, 2010, pp. 68-9.  Anon., 'The Society of Portrait Painters, New Gallery', The Athenaeum, 19 October 1895, p. 539.  The term 'Sargentolatry' was coined by the painter Walter Sickert.  JS Little, 'A Cosmopolitan Painter: John Lavery', The Studio, vol xxvii, 1902-3, p. 118.  The Spectator, 23 November 1895, p. 725.  Anon., 'The Scottish School of Painting', Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, vol CLVII, March 1895, pp. 339, 344.
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