It’s been a little more than a year since the blockbuster Sargent show at The Met Fifth Avenue, a sprawling tribute to the American expat painter’s portraits of artists and friends, with a sprinkling of high-society thrown in. Now the Jewish Museum is hosting a Sargent show of its own, but in just one room, with the focus on just one painting — the ravishing “Mrs. Carl Meyer and Her Children” (1896), a window into the world of a privileged Jewish family at the end of the Victorian era.
The room is the former dining room of the Felix Warburg Mansion, built in 1908 for the German-born banker and his wife, and home to the Jewish Museum since 1947. The Gilded Age setting is a fitting one for this tour de force by the renowned Gilded Age painter. At the preview, Claudia Gould, the museum’s director, dubbed the painting “Mrs. Carl Meyer and her really gorgeous family,” a jokey, but spot-on assessment. John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) was at the height of his powers when he accepted the commission to paint banker Carl Meyer’s wife, the former Adèle Levis (c. 1861-1930), and their children, Elsie Charlotte and Frank Cecil.
As chief curator Norman Kleeblatt said in an interview, the artist was the most sought-after portrait painter in late 19th century England and America, and the painting, on loan from Tate Britain, is “considered one of Sargent’s most important group portraits.”
Adèle Meyer was in love with music, opera and the theater and so was Sargent. The picture is remarkable for its theatrical staging and bravura brushwork. “The painting is so riveting because it is clearly a performance on the part of both the artist and the sitter. She was performing for Sargent, and Sargent was performing for her,” Kleeblatt said.
He created an opulent stage for his sitters at their rental home in Balcombe, outside London. Adèle is seated off to the side of the picture, on an elegant 18th century French canapé, with footstool; hand-carved wood paneling can be spied in the distance. Her pose is such that she seems to be sitting on the edge of her seat, while her children seem to recede in the background.
She’s wearing a spectacular dress of velvet, satin and organdy, likely from Paris’s House of Worth where she was a frequent client. A book to her side signals that she has intellectual interests; a pink-streaked fan plays off her rouged cheeks. But the most gorgeous part of her outfit is another accessory, “an extraordinarily expensive, endlessly long rope of Oriental pearls, which are very subtle and amazing. They reach the heels of her shoes,” Kleeblatt said. “She’s a woman who knew how to present herself. She’s not laden with jewelry. ... She wore one drop-dead piece of jewelry.”
Adèle was the wealthy daughter of a rubber manufacturer who married Carl Meyer in 1883. He worked as a negotiator for the Rothschild bank in London, and later as London chairman for De Beers, the mining group, and director of the National Bank of Egypt. He was anointed First Baronet of Shortgrove in the County of Essex in 1910. His wife, who became Lady Meyer, was a society hostess and patron of the arts. She hobnobbed with cultural elites such as actress Sarah Bernhardt, composer Reynaldo Hahn and artist Lawrence Alma-Tadema — as the guest register from Shortgrove, the Meyers’ country home, attests. Proust inscribed a copy of his “Pleasures and Days” (1896) to Adèle; it’s here, on loan from The Morgan Library.
But Adèle Meyer was not just a patron of the arts but a patron of social causes too, Kleeblatt said. She actively supported the suffragettes, and after her husband died in 1922, took up the cause of garment workers, co-authoring a book to help improve their working conditions. She also bankrolled the School for Mothers in London, focused on infant welfare.
Sargent’s portrait was greeted with much critical acclaim and exhibited three times in the four years after its creation — at the Royal Academy in London, the Copley Society in Boston and the Exposition Universelle in Paris. But there were snarky appraisals, too. An 1897 caricature in the British satirical magazine Punch, captioned “The Perils of Steep Perspective!,” pictures Elsie and Frank struggling to keep their mother from falling off the couch — an effort likened on the facing page to “a sort of drawing-room tobogganing exercise.”
But the painting was nonetheless pronounced “quite the picture of the year” and revered. As one enters the gallery, there is a handsome oil portrait of Carl Meyer by Sir Hubert von Herkomer, dated 1908, with a glimpse of the Sargent portrait in the background. “It shows how important this was to the family’s presentation,” the curator said, adding, “It was a masterpiece and a conversation piece.”
Other highlights of the exhibit include chromolithographs by Max Beerbohm (1872-1956) caricaturing Sargent, Carl Meyer and Henry James, and items such as Meyer’s Baronet badge — a 1928 replacement of the 1910 original, made for his son, Sir Frank Meyer.
Anglophiles, get ready.