John Singer Sargent's portraits of the Wertheimer family are more than mirror-images. 

Painted for Posterity

There are many ways to ensure that you are remembered in history long after your death. You can rule a country, lead troops in war, win fame and fortune as an entertainer, or achieve infamy by committing a heinous crime. Or you could do as Asher Wertheimer did in 1898 and commission artist John Singer Sargent to paint your portrait and upon your death, bequeath this portrait to a top London art museum.

Wertheimer's portrait, as well as 11 others Sargent painted of the Wertheimer family, will be on display at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts July 11 through Oct. 29 in "John Singer Sargent: Portraits of the Wertheimer Family," a traveling exhibition organized by the Jewish Museum in New York.

This exhibition represents the first time in more than 60 years that the 12 Wertheimer portraits have hung together since they were displayed in the family's London home at the turn of the century. It also represents a fantastic opportunity to study Sargent's considerable talents as a portraitist.

Sargent, who was born in Florence to American expatriate parents, was the premier portrait artist at the turn of the century, painting the most affluent, aristocratic and fashionable people of his time. Sargent's portraits are much more than just paintings of people — they are windows into the society of the time in which they were painted.

Asher Wertheimer, a wealthy London art dealer, first hired Sargent in 1989 to paint portraits of him and of his wife, Flora, to commemorate the couple's 25th wedding anniversary. The portrait of Mrs. Wertheimer did not please the couple, and another was painted in 1904. Between 1901 and 1908, Sargent also painted Wertheimer's sons and daughters, solo, and in various combinations. During the commission, Sargent became quite close to the Wertheimer family. Shortly after their portraits were completed, he gave up the portrait genre for good, seemingly exhausted by the 10-year commission.

"It is a huge commission," says Dr. David Park Curry, the Virginia Museum's curator of American arts and coordinator of the exhibition for the museum. "That is one reason why they were important. They are also important because the sitters were Jewish. … In Britain, [Sargent's] work and his sitters are important signifiers for class change."

According to the exhibition's catalog, "These portraits signal the aspirations of a middle-class Jewish family to be regarded in the same light as the aristocracy." By bequeathing most of these portraits to London's National Gallery (they later ended up at the Tate Gallery), Wertheimer further insured that his family's legacy be immortalized and legitimized.

"That's what's so neat [about these paintings]," says Curry. "The more you know about the people and the time they were painted, the more you can appreciate them. It is not just a picture of a person."

The Virginia Museum's exhibition will be organized in three sections: the first examining the history of the Wertheimer family; the second examining the fashions of the time and featuring two dresses (on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute) designed by Worth, the preeminent French couturier of the time; and the third about Sargent and the art itself. The exhibition will also include photographs of the Wertheimer family; two chairs from the museum's collection that once passed through the family; and the museum's two Sargents, "Mrs. Albert Vickers" and "The Sketchers."

Curry calls the exhibition "small but choice." "I love small shows because it lets people take on really big ideas," he says. "People spend the time with each object that the object deserves."

Each of the Wertheimer portraits cost the family about $100,000, a huge sum at the time. Curry believes that, from the beginning, these portraits were conceived as public works of art. Their sheer size — these are huge, museum-scale paintings — backs up this belief.

Curry says each portrait took about 60 sittings to complete. "They are so easy looking that it surprises people," he says.

And while the Wertheimer portraits are good likenesses of the real people, Curry says that a portrait is always more than a mirror image. "Every portrait is an exchange between the patron and the artist," he says. "If it wasn't, the patronage would dry up. The successful portraits in Edwardian England definitely collaborated with their subjects, making them elegant, beautiful and fashionable. … That's the thing about portraits - none of them are real. People are choosing how they are portrayed." And in the case of the Wertheimers, how they are remembered.


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