The Wertheimer Family 
From: The Jewish Museum  
 . . .The [Wertheimers] 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 [left], 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 [pic], was also the daughter of a London art dealer. The Wertheimer family enjoyed a long and cordial friendship with John Singer Sargent, who dined weekly with the family 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 family traces its ancestry back to the Court Jews of Central Europe of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in particular 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 first two Sargent paintings of the Wertheimers [pic] 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, the only modern picture which challenges the Doria Velázquez [the portrait of Innocent X] at Rome." However, Sargent's portrait of Mrs. Wertheimer [pic], bedecked in a white lace-trimmed dress and extraordinarily long rope of oriental pearls, did not go over well with her, although it remained in the family. The second one [pic], 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 bequest of nine portraits to the British nation. The first two pictures evolved into a series of twelve over the next decade [pic]. During those ten years, Sargent was so preoccupied by the commission that he claimed, ironically, to be in a state of "chronic Wertheimerism." 

Portraits of the Wertheimer children reveal facets of their personalities and interests. A ravishing portrait of the eldest daughter Helena [pic], [the one on the left] 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 and exuberant young women. A second painting of Ena, titled A Vele Gonfie [pic], 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 he went to extraordinary lengths to buy the painting from an American collector. The painting of Alfred [pic], 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 [pic], 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 [pic] depicted with his sisters Almina and Hylda in an outdoor scene set on the country estate of Eustace H. Wilding, Essies husband; and Ferdinand [pic], a well-educated artist himself, with his sisters Essie and Ruby, in the comfort of the family. 

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 from the New Orleans Museum of Art. . . . 

The responses to Sargent's 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 newly found social opportunity and persistent prejudice, both part of early twentieth century English society. 

Despite his warm friendship with the Wertheimers [pic], 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 worked with many wealthy collectors, including the Rothschilds. He traded in extraordinary examples of French eighteenth century furniture, paintings by European masters and, in particular, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English portraits from van Dyck to Gainsborough [pic]. 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 Wertheimer announced in 1916 his intention to bequeath nine pictures to the British nation. Asher died two years later. 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 then 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, temporarily reunited in this exhibition at The Jewish Museum, tell a 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. 

Paintings Reunited for First Time in Over 75 Years

From October 17, 1999 through February 6, 2000, The Jewish Museum will exhibit a group of portraits of the London art dealer Asher Wertheimer and his family  . . . Following its New York showing, the exhibition will travel . . .  

(see exhibiton schedual)


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By:    Natasha Wallace
Copyright 1998-2004 all rights reserved
Created 10/24/2003
Updated 8/4/2004