NEW YORK — Dressed in a shimmering buttercup yellow silk gown, Rachel Sassoon Beer gazes out from a life-sized portrait, an ostrich feather in hand. It’s a fitting portrait for a woman of her social standing as an heiress to one of the world’s largest fortunes in the late 19th century.
It also perfectly embodies the heart of “The Sassoons,” a new exhibition at The Jewish Museum, which tells the story of four generations of Sassoons — known as the “Rothschilds of the East” — including the important role of the Sassoon women, many of whom have traditionally been excluded from the narrative.
The exhibit opened on March 3 and will run through August 13. First conceived of seven years ago and four-and-a-half years in the making, the exhibit’s opening coincides with the release of professor Joseph Sassoon’s recent hit book “The Sassoons: The Great Global Merchants and the Making of an Empire,” which depicts the family’s meteoric rise and equally dramatic fall.
“The story of the Sassoons has always been seen as a triumphant male story. David Sassoon the patriarch, Siegfried Sassoon the war poet. It was endless stories of men and we wanted to call attention to the women who were either ignored or tokenized,” said Esther da Costa Meyer, a co-curator of the exhibit.
As the first woman in Britain to edit two newspapers, The Sunday Times and The Observer, Sassoon Beer played a key role in reporting on the infamous Dreyfus affair, which took place between 1894 and 1906. Among the pieces of her remarkable art collection are paintings by Peter Paul Rubens, Gustave Courbet, and John Constable. On view is one by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot done together with Charles Francois Daubigny.
From the early 1800s through World War II, the family was involved in trade, art collecting, architectural patronage, and civic engagement. But aside from displaying the magnificence of their possessions, “The Sassoons” tells how this once stateless family rose to the upper echelons of English society.
“The exhibit invites visitors to go on a journey from Iraq and India to China and England through the beautiful art they collected and commissioned. Each individual work in the show tells its own story, but together they embody the global journey that this family undertook. It offers the opportunity for visitors to enter this dynamic time in history through the lens of one family,” Claudia J. Nahson, the museum’s Morris and Eva Feld Senior Curator, said of the exhibit, which was four years in the making.
The story begins in the 1830s when David Sassoon, the family’s patriarch, fled his native Baghdad after the Mamluk ruler Dawud Pasha began ruthlessly persecuting the city’s Jews. Settling in Mumbai, formerly Bombay, he started trading spices, cotton, wool, wheat, and pearls. Eventually, he got involved in the lucrative — and at the time legal — opium trade.
When the East India Company collapsed in the 1800s, Sassoon looked elsewhere for protection. He cozied up to, and benefitted from British colonial interests, said da Costa Meyer. Eventually, several branches of the family moved to England. David Sassoon, the patriarch, died in Pune, India
“They had to reinvent themselves several times. Trade inured them to diversity and encouraged a cultural fluidity that characterized the entire family,” da Costa Meyer said.
That fluidity comes across in the pieces they collected, 120 of which are on display at the museum. There’s an extravagantly decorated Hebrew manuscript from the 14th century and rare Chinese ivory carvings that date from the 1500s. There are numerous paintings by Thomas Gainsborough and John Singer Sargent, as well as family photo albums from the 1800s.
Over time, the Sassoons sought pieces and commissioned works that reflected this past.
There is a silver standard in the shape of a hand that was carried during a pilgrimage to the Shrine of the Prophet Ezekiel in Al-Kifl, Iraq, around 1862. There are also several ketubot, or Jewish marriage contracts, from a simple ink and shell gold on paper from the 1853 marriage between Reuben Sassoon and Kate (Khatun) Ezekiel in Mumbai, to the more ornate one for Aziza Sassoon and Ezekiel Gubbay.
Deeply religious, the early generations of Sassoons used the profits from the opium trade to build infrastructure for local populations, da Costa Meyer said. The family also commissioned Jewish ceremonial art from prayer books to Esther scrolls.
Aside from the art, the exhibit takes a look at Sir Philip Sassoon’s properties. A member of the British parliament for the conservative party, this great-grandson of David Sassoon relished throwing lavish parties for actors, writers, and politicians at Port Lympne, a country home in Kent. Today the property houses an animal safari.
A visitors’ book from 1919-1928 lends a lighter touch to the show. It’s opened to a page filled with several playful pencil drawings and inscriptions by Charlie Chaplin.
As the family put down roots in England they also became close to the Royal Family. That King Charles III lent several of the objects on display shows just how connected the families were. There’s a tortoise, gold, and glass box with a George IV accession medal that Reuben Sassoon presented to King Edward VII in the early 1900s. There’s also the eye-catching lapis lazuli Cartier desk clock studded with diamonds and sapphires that Philip Sassoon gifted Queen Mary on her birthday in 1932.
Over the centuries, the Sassoons channeled their wealth into social institutions. For example, together with his cousin Hannah, Philip Sassoon held 10 different art exhibitions in his home to benefit London’s Royal Northern Hospital. After WWII, his cousin, Mozelle Sassoon, helped restore St. Paul’s Cathedral, which had been heavily damaged during the Blitz.
Though the Sassoons socialized with the Royal Family and high-ranking politicians such as Winston Churchill, that didn’t protect them from antisemitism. If anything, it exacerbated it, said da Costa Meyer.
“It was constant. Behind their backs, people like Virginia Woolf, who once called Philip Sassoon “a Whitechapel Jew,” made antisemitic comments. The more the Sassoons rose, the more some people resented them,” she said.
Nevertheless, the family continued its civic engagement. Fourteen grandsons and great-grandsons of David Sassoon fought for the British during World War I; many of the women volunteered on the home front.
Perhaps one of the most affecting artifacts on display is Siegfried Sassoon’s wartime journal. Decorated for bravery on the Western Front, the war poet and writer decried the jingoism of war. The pages of his journal include graphic descriptions and illustrations of life in the trenches.
During WWII, several Sassoons served in the armed forces and the women’s auxiliary. They also donated money to help nearly 20,000 Jews fleeing Nazi Europe. Victor Sassoon, one of David’s grandsons, made his Shanghai properties available to the International Committee for European Immigrants.
“Theirs is a story of financial and intellectual achievement. It’s a story of captivating art and captivating people,” Claudia Gold, the museum’s director, said.
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