BOSTON — At the turn of the 20th century, John Singer Sargent painted a dazzling portrait of Lady Sassoon, Aline Caroline de Rothschild, draped in a full-length, black taffeta opera cloak adorned with a white collar of intricately detailed lace, wearing a black plumed hat.
The cloak’s shimmering pink lining is turned out, a ribbon of pink from Lady Sassoon’s left shoulder down across to her hand, in a striking touch of Sargent’s artistry.
Lady Sassoon gazes outward in a captivating expression in this masterful portrait, considered one of Sargent’s finest. Sargent was the premiere portraitist of his time, and his works hang in museums and private collections across the globe.
The exquisite painting greets viewers at “Fashioned by Sargent,” an extravagant new exhibit up through January 15, 2024, at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (MFA). The exhibit was organized together with Tate Modern in Britain, where it will be on view from February.
It will also be open for visitors during the MFA’s Hanukkah celebration on the evening of December 7, when thousands of people gather for special holiday programs and musical performances, presented annually in partnership with the Jewish Arts Collaborative and the Combined Jewish Philanthropies.
Museumgoers will also be the first to get a peek at the MFA’s new Judaica gallery, which opens officially the next day. “Intentional Beauty: Jewish Ritual Art from the Collection” is the first of its kind in an art institution in New England. The exhibit (running until December 16, 2026) boasts 27 ritual objects from across the Jewish Diaspora including 20 recent acquisitions, some on view for the first time.
“Fashioned by Sargent” includes 50 paintings — portraits, as well as some later landscapes — in addition to more than a dozen dresses and accessories worn by Sargent’s subjects, including Lady Sassoon’s splendid cloak and the feathered hat.
Notably, in addition to Lady Sassoon, “Fashioned by Sargent” boasts portraits of eight other Jewish sitters — among them Ena and Betty Wertheimer, Sir Philip Sassoon, Sybil Sassoon and Mrs. Carl Meyer — reflecting the close professional and personal bond between Sargent and his Jewish patrons.
Sargent’s largest commission, some 13 portraits of family members, came from Asher Wertheimer, an influential and successful British art dealer. Many are in the Tate’s collection.
“His best paintings tend to be people that he admired and people that he developed a rapport with,” Erica Hirshler, the MFA’s senior curator of American paintings, told The Times of Israel. “That was true of the Sassoon family and of the Wertheimers.”
Hirshler, who co-curated the exhibit with James Finch, the Tate’s assistant curator of 19th-century British Art, also authored the accompanying color catalog with Finch and other contributors. Among its pages are 17 essays, including one on Almina Wertheimer.
The show reveals the less familiar story of the antisemitic critiques that followed the public display of many of these paintings. The portrait of Mrs. Carl Meyer and her children met with such a sting.
“$10,000 was not much for a multi-millionaire Israelite to pay to secure social recognition for his family,” one Boston paper wrote, the wall text informs viewers.
“The antisemitism that was directed against the portraits was from people saying, ‘We don’t want you [Sargent] painting Jewish sitters in the mode of old master portraiture,’” Finch told The Times of Israel in a conversation at the press opening.
“Fashioned by Sargent” shines a light on the artist’s body of work through the lens of dress and provides a context that goes beyond the grandeur of the lavish outfits and settings. The show is smartly arranged thematically.
Viewers explore the influence Sargent had over the clothing his sitters wore, choosing uniforms and costumes, many in the artist’s own collection, that reflected their personalities, social status and gender identity.
“It’s interesting to realize that the clothes aren’t necessarily truthfully represented. He makes things asymmetrical if that suits his composition. He pins, he drapes,” Hirshler said, describing the care he took in arranging the clothing to achieve his artistic intent.
Sargent was born to American parents while they lived in Florence, where he studied art before continuing his studies in Paris at age 18. He exhibited regularly at the Paris Salon from 1877 but moved to London nine years later, following a controversy over his ravishing portrait, “Madame X,” of Amélie Gautreau, a Louisiana-born wife of a French banker.
Over time, Sargent established a reputation as the most sought-after portraitist across two continents, including for the portraits of Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner, Lady Agnew of Lochnaw and John D. Rockefeller, the latter two on view.
Britain’s Jewish elite embraced Sargent — and the feeling was mutual, noted Hirshler, who gave a lecture on Sargent last summer for The Jewish Museum in New York. His friendships with Jews dated back to his years in Paris, when he shared a studio with Jewish artist August Hirsh.
In 1896, Sargent painted the aforementioned portrait, “Mrs. Carl Meyer and Her Children.” It’s a vision of opulence, an explicit homage to the highly decorative French Rococo style, Finch said at the press opening. Meyer, seated on a richly decorated, gilded framed couch, is wearing a flowing pink dress with a long string of pearls.
Viewers learn from the accompanying wall text that Meyer, one of England’s richest women, was one of the leading progressive voices of the time and she co-wrote a report on the dismal conditions faced by poor immigrant textile workers.
A portrait of Ena Wertheimer, “A Vele Gonfie,” from 1904 is among Sargent’s boldest, most unusual canvases. It captures Ena’s dynamism as she is draped in a black cloak, outfitted in the role of a male cavalier, with a broomstick as a kind of weapon protruding from the cloak.
“It’s a joyous portrait,” Finch said, and shows the informality and improvisation in Sargent’s relationship with the sitter. It conveys her willingness to pose in a men’s military cloak and exposes a playful ambiguity of gender and clothing, he said.
Hirshler is drawn to an earlier Wertheimer portrait from 1901 of Ena and Betty, “Daughters of Asher and Mrs. Wertheimer.”
“It’s one of the most engaging of the group [of Wertheimer portraits]. It’s beautiful,” Hirshler said. She points to the contrast in the sisters’ outfits and expressions, with Ena dressed in shiny white satin and Betty in a red velvet evening gown.
“It’s a painting that comes to life,” Hirshler said.
In the intriguing portrait of Almina, “Daughter of Asher Wertheimer,” Almina is posed in a white Turkish coat over her shimmering white gown and wears a magnificent towering silver turban adorned with pearls.
The wall text explains that popular culture often portrayed Jewish women and other women from the Middle East and North Africa as exotic, sexualized figures of the East. But here, a smiling Almina projects confidence and a sense of agency, according to Caroline Corbeau-Parsons’s catalog essay.
The questions it raises fall squarely in today’s debates about cultural appropriation, one example of how the show speaks to contemporary times, along with issues of truth in images and antisemitism.
Some critics, both in Sargent’s day and in our own, suggested that Sargent’s portraits of Jewish sitters, with the images of wealth, were themselves antisemitic, Hirshler said.
She dismisses the claim.
“It’s hard for me to think Sargent was antisemitic,” Hirshler observed. “The comments made [by others] about the portraits certainly were. But he was friends with many of the portrait subjects and enjoyed their company. Why would they keep commissioning him if they didn’t like the results?” she asked.
The show appeals to Laura Conrad Mandel, the executive director of Boston’s Jewish Arts Collaborative and chair of the Council of American Jewish Museums.
“I’m struck by the power of this show to serve as a vehicle to explore and combat antisemitism,” an element of Sargent’s work she was unaware of, she wrote in an email.
“We need spaces like this exhibit to engage us through beautiful art and to understand the stories they reveal,” she said.
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