Portrait for Lady Agnew of Lochnaw

Shape me.
Chisel me up some accomplishments.
Don’t erase this mind with those smooth Sargent strokes
trading a life for an eternal raised eyebrow
replacing a well-woven history
with a few lines about beauty. 

Don’t neglect the indents in my flesh —
the armchair grasped too tightly
reupholstered in silk and nervous twitches.
Carve my jaw hard like I grind it at night
but whittle whales into the bone

Remind me
what’s soft in a body
can also be strong
can also be buoyant

K. D. Hume

Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, John Singer Sargent, 1892. Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh

I came upon this portrait during a birthday trip to San Francisco. It was part of a traveling exhibition that I entered on a whim, the weather outside leaving much to be desired. I’d seen the painting online before, might have even read a book or two that used it for cover art. But in that gallery, on that day? I fell in love. I’d never seen an aristocratic woman given this kind of agency in a formal portrait. This much personality.

What a force to be reckoned with, I thought. And I had to know more.

So, I researched her, and I researched Sargent, standing there in front of the painting in a crowded gallery. My respect for both the painter and the subject grew, and I wrote this poem. Years later, I’m still just as captivated as the day we met.

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