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What Is She Wearing?

Lady Agnew, c. 1892-93     John Singer Sargent

When visiting an art museum, did you ever wonder, even for a fleeting moment, what jewelry the woman in the portrait is wearing? What stones are in a necklace, and what she or the artist has selected to be ever immortalized in that pose. My love of portrait painting and jewelry cross over in my studio, so I guess I have.

The elegant portraits of John Singer Sargent come immediately to mind. His brilliant and dazzling style is masterful, and the portrait of “Lady Agnew” demonstrates his mastery of draping and rendering the luxurious fabric of her dress. He also includes a mesmerizing necklace and stunning gold charm bracelet giving credence to a woman of high society and money.Close up of John Singer Sargent portrait of Lady Agnew's jewelry pendant.

In the close up of this portrait, it looks as though Lady Agnew is wearing a large cameo with vivid cornflower blue sapphires surrounding and dangling in diamonds and gold. The vivid cornflower shade of these sapphires makes them most valuable of sapphires. Interestingly, up until the Middle Ages sapphires were called hyacinths.

The cameo, itself, is usually a gem having two different colored layers. Figures are carved in one layer so they are raised on a background of the other. Authentic cameos are made from natural materials such as shell, agate, onyx, ivory, coral, mother-of-pearl, and various gemstones. In Sargent’s portrait, Lady Agnew’s cameo most probably was a hard stone gem carved in carnelian. Sargent indicates the color of the red in the cameo, and that said carnelian to me. What do you think? I’d love to know in your comments below.

Since I gild lava stone, I happened upon antique cameos carved in the volcanic stone, and found this one especially stunning set in gold exampled here.

I’d like to look deeper into the mystery and selection of jewelry in a finished pose, and what it might stand for. Some portraits will be more obvious than others, and some might challenge our imaginations.

Let’s have fun on this journey.

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1 comment

  • So interesting to learn how true cameos were (and are) made. Wonderful piece!

    robert maitland

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