Reunited for the first time in more than sixty years, the twelve formal portraits in this exhibition tell the story of a friendship between artist and client, offering a glimpse into the world of a privileged family of English Jews who lived nearly a century ago.
To celebrate their silver wedding anniversary in 1898, the London art and antiques dealer Asher Wertheimer asked John Singer Sargent to paint portraits of himself and his wife. The two pictures evolved into a series of twelve over the next decade, making this suite Sargent’s largest portrait commission. During these ten years, Sargent was so preoccupied by the commission that he claimed, ironically, to be in a state of “chronic Wertheimerism.” The artist developed close friendships with some of the Wertheimers, unusual for someone known for his reticence. Sargent dined with the family once a week at their home at 8 Connaught Place in London. Their dining room, which housed eight of the twelve portraits, was affectionately dubbed “Sargent’s mess.”
The child of an American expatriate family, John Singer Sargent was born in 1856 in Florence, Italy. He lived a peripatetic, if somewhat luxurious, existence in Europe with his parents, and ultimately moved to Paris to study art with the celebrated French master Carolus-Duran. Sargent’s talents were quickly recognized in the French capital. However, his daring portrayal of the ravishing socialite Virginie Gautreau—a painting subsequently known as Madame X—caused a scandal when it was shown in the Paris Salon of 1884. This incident is cited frequently as the cause for the artist’s move to London in 1886. Between that year and 1907, when Sargent stopped accepting portrait commissions, he had become an international star. Without a doubt, he was the most famous, sought-after, and expensive portrait painter in England and the United States.
Sargent was always an artist who generated ambivalent reactions from critics. The responses to his painting style ranged from adulation to damnation, including polarized characterizations from dashing to dated. The fact that Sargent’s portraits flirted with the limits of social propriety became another locus of contention, heightened particularly when the sitter was Jewish. Descriptions of his Jewish sitters thus ran the gamut from stereotyped ethnics to exuberant sophisticates. These reactions were played out against the backdrop of newfound social opportunity and persistent prejudice, both part of early twentieth-century English society. It is unlikely that either Sargent or any of the Wertheimers consciously played into the prevailing stereotypes.
Despite his warm friendship with the Wertheimers, it was the aristocratic manner in which Sargent depicted his sitters that made him a logical choice for the New Bond Street art dealer. Asher Wertheimer’s clients included members of the English branch of the Rothschild family, some of whom became close friends. He traded in extraordinary examples of French eighteenth-century furniture, paintings by European masters and, in particular, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century portraits by painters from Van Dyck to Gainsborough. Works by such artists were the very models for Sargent’s brilliant reinterpretation of grand-manner European portraiture.
Realizing the potential of the suite to demonstrate Sargent’s genius and to immortalize his spirited family, Asher announced in 1916 his intention to bequeath nine pictures to the British nation. The pictures were delivered to London’s National Gallery in 1922 immediately after his widow’s death, where they were installed in their own room. Soon after, the portraits were transferred to the newly constructed Tate Gallery of British Art, where they hung for a number of years in a room dedicated to Sargent’s work. All twelve formal portraits displayed here have been reunited for the first time in more than sixty years. They tell the story of a friendship between artist and client, and offer a glimpse into the world of a privileged family of English Jews who lived nearly a century ago.