From October 17, 1999 through February 6, 2000, The Jewish Museum will exhibit a group of twelve portraits of the London art dealer Asher Wertheimer and his family painted between 1898 and 1908 by the renowned American artist John Singer Sargent (1856-1925). The length of time Sargent devoted to this commission and the number of portraits that resulted are unprecedented in his oeuvre. John Singer Sargen : Portraits of the Wertheimer Family will mark the first time these paintings have been exhibited together since they hung in the family's London residence more than seventy years ago. The exhibition and its accompanying catalogue will provide a rare opportunity to investigate the artistic and cultural context of Sargent's portraits by examining the history and critical reception of this extensive commission, the artist's relationship with the Wertheimer family, and recent art historical analysis of the works. Examined in these contexts, Sargent's elegant, evocative and extravagant portraits of the Wertheimer family tell the viewer as much about the artist and the society which received them as they do about his subjects. Following its New York showing, the exhibition will travel to New Orleans, LA; Richmond, VA; and Seattle, WA.
The subjects themselves are intriguing and the portraits offer a glimpse into the life and times of the Wertheimer family. Asher Wertheimer, a well known and highly respected art dealer, was born in London, the son of a self-made German Jew who had himself become a prominent London art dealer. Asher's wife, Flora, was also the daughter of a London art dealer. Asher Wertheimer worked with many wealthy collectors, including the Rothschilds. The Wertheimer family enjoyed a long and cordial friendship with John Singer Sargent, at whose home he was a frequent guest.
The first two Sargent paintings of the Wertheimers were commissioned to celebrate the couple's silver wedding anniversary in 1898. The portrait of Asher Wertheimer was very favorably received. When it was exhibited at the Royal Academy, the critic of The Times wrote that Sargent's painting of Mr. Wertheimer was "...nothing short of amazing." Robert Ross, writing in The Art Journal in 1911, described it as "one of the great portraits of the world." However, Sargentts portrait of Mrs. Wertheimer, bedecked in a white dress and remarkably long rope of pearls, did not go over well with her, although it remained in the family. The second one, in which she is seated and more somberly attired, met with the family's (and Mrs. Wertheimer's) approval. This version was included in Asher Wertheimer's announcement of his bequest of nine portraits to the British nation in 1916.
Portraits of the Wertheimer children reveal facets of their personalities and interests. A ravishing portrait of the eldest daughter Helena, known as Ena, a painter, a friend of Sargent's and later part of the Bloomsbury Circle, and her sister Betty, evokes the elegance of family's drawing room in their Connaught Place residence -- and the vitality of these elegant young women. A second painting of Ena, titled A Vele Gonfie, given to her and her husband as a wedding gift by her father, was later sold to raise money for her art gallery. Ena had a reproduction made, which caused a stir when her husband learned about it and eventually wanted the portrait back. The painting of Alfred, who was studying to be a chemist before his premature death at the age of 25 in the Boer
War in South Africa, features chemist's flasks in the background. Another portrait, that of Edward, painted in Paris, depicts the young man next to a sculpture, indicating not only his obvious interest in art, but the fact that he was the heir apparent to succeed Asher in the family business. The story is told that Edward also died young, at 29, on his honeymoon, after eating a bad oyster.
Other portraits feature combinations of the Wertheimer children: Conway depicted with sisters Almina and Hylda in an outdoor scene set against faux classical elements; and Ferdinand, a well-educated artist himself, with his sisters Essie and Ruby, in the comfort of the family.
Norman L. Kleeblatt, the exhibition curator, noted that "These paintings are lively, direct and honest, filled with light, warmth and exuberance."
Ten of the twelve works on view are on loan from The Tate Gallery, London. One comes from the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC; and another comes the New Orleans Museum of Art. The exhibition will also include photographs and a family tree of the Wertheimer family. The family has been linked back to the Court Jews of Central Europe of the 17thand 18th centuries, ultimately to Samson Wertheimer, who was in the service of Emperor Leopold I, as well as other prominent European families, including the Gomperts and the Oppenheimers.
The exhibition has been organized by Norman L. Kleeblatt, Susan and Elihu Rose Curator of Fine Arts at The Jewish Museum. Michelle Lapine is Assistant Curator for the exhibition.
A 120 page catalogue, published by The Jewish Museum, New York, focuses on the Wertheimer portraits and includes 12 color images. It will be available in the Museum's Cooper Shop. The book features an introduction by Norman L. Kleeblatt and includes essays by Kathleen Adler, Head of Education, the National Gallery, London; Trevor Fairbrother, Deputy Director, Seattle Art Museum and a Sargent scholar; and Michelle Lapine. Allan Gurganus, author of the novel, The Oldest Living Confederate War Widow Tells All, is represented by half of his novella, The Practical Heart, a fictional account of a young woman's obsession with sitting for Sargent.
John Singer Sargent: Portraits of the Wertheimer Family is supported, in part, by generous funds from The Morris S. and Florence H. Bender Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts and Betty and John Levin.