John Singer Sargent’s prized 1896 portrait of Lady Adele Meyer and her children (Elsie Charlotte and Frank Cecil), which has been shown off and on at the Jewish Museum in New York, greets us with the image of a graying, 41-year-old, wealthy English patron of the opera, Lady Meyer, decked out in a pink satin and organdy dress. Her pale face is dappled with cosmetics and her dewy Drew Barrymore-ish eyes and lips are hypnotic and compelling. Her plunging neckline does not reveal cleavage, but the painting seems to play with our expectations by offering us a tall man’s view on the world.
Lady Meyer’s figure itself is confusing. Behind all the fabric and painterly nuance, it’s hard to gauge her frame? But who’s measuring? In this painting, which is something of an anatomical anomaly, as far as academic figure studies go, Sargent has done away with the conventional “reclining woman,” just as he has dispensed with the classical hourglass outline that often defines feminine beauty in art (i.e. his painting of Madame X from 13 years prior). Lady Meyer is neither up or down—she is somewhere in between; she is, in this regard, ambiguous, amorphous. She teeters on the edge of an ornately embroidered love seat. Her tiny feet, clad in heels, barely protrude from under her dress’s long hem, reminding us that she does in fact have lower extremities. Her feet are raised up onto a small cushioned stool, making Lady Meyer seem all the more off-balance. I see her as a juicy oyster waiting to be slurped off her pearlescent shell.
Her center of gravity is even more compromised. She reaches with one arm, all the way across the sofa (across much of the picture’s width) to her handsome ten-year-old boy, who doesn’t hold his mom’s hand so much as plug three fingers into the V-shaped socket of her grip. Guarded by a fierce-eyed, seemingly protective big sister, just one year his senior, the alert lad stares forward with an almost disturbing pre-pubescent tenderness. He seems to be asking: “Is it me you are looking at, Mr. Sargent? Am I the star of this picture?” (Sargent gives us the illusion that the boy is gesturing to himself, even though it is actually his sister’s hand that we see.)
The painting’s seductive poses, hand gestures, and moody eyes set up various networks of intrigue laced with innuendo and taboo. The painting reads like a 19th-century novel—a page-turner that keeps one up past one’s bedtime. Many of its “chapters” introduce characters that don’t actually appear on the canvas: from the painter himself (Sargent remains a very closeted, enigmatic figure); to the critic who championed his work; to the banker who commissioned the painting; etc. But make no mistake about it, the painting’s main protagonist is the shucked oyster herself, Lady Adele Meyer—or, technically speaking, the astonishing brushwork that transfers her likeness (and that of her handsome two tweens) onto the picture plane. Sargent never lets you forget that you are looking at a painting, a performance in paint. His brush never stops dancing.
The painting is totally seductive and 100 percent entertaining. It sucks the viewer in and invites one to see the world from Lady Meyer’s complex perspective, to sympathize with the duality of a sophisticated social “climber” and an equally determined social “worker.” The painting also provides us with a sense of the family’s so-called dynamic at a provocative moment when “the man of the house” has his back turned. One imagines that the three sitters are in competition for the attention of the famous portraitist standing before them with palette in hand as he fine tunes the painting’s two contrasting emotional poles: 1) the intimacy, luxury, and security felt by the children for their mother (and ostensibly the mother for her husband); and 2) the imposing threat of her implied desertion and the possibility of her independent destiny as a liberated woman in the early days of feminism. Lady Meyer, only barely moored to her son (and daughter) by the umbilical cord-like arm that extends across the composition, seems dangerously close to drifting away, caught as she is in a strong cross current of her own cultural, political and material (but not maternal) excesses, as well as the artist’s turbulent, slathered, wet-into-wet oil paint.
What if instead of following the painting’s plot, we follow the money? It was noted in the press in 1899, three years after the painting was made, that “$10,000 was not much for a multimillionaire Israelite to pay to secure social recognition for his family.”
Israelite? Well, Sir Carl Meyer was a Jew, but not exactly an Israelite. The writer did, however, get the other part right: Ten grand was a drop in the bucket. Born in Hamburg in 1851, Meyer became an English citizen at a young age and went to work for the reputable N M Rothschild & Sons, where he became a very wealthy banker (and was eventually knighted, hence the “Sir”). Sir Carl Meyer owned an elegant townhouse in London but moved the family into an extravagant country estate named Shortgrove, where the Meyers optimized their happiness and developed the skill of impressing their neighbors.
And while English snobs were known to “tolerate” people like the Meyers, that is probably only because they were skilled at insulting Jewish parvenus behind their backs, which is why the painting has been read as a cruel joke that Sargent was playing on his patrons, flattering them, and coaxing them, in a way, into shining in the glory of their wealth, while actually presenting them as vulgar to a highly judgmental and presumably more discerning gentile audience. Another interpretation is slightly more respectful of both the painter and his subjects: Sargent, read as an orientalizing painter who is genuinely captivated by these gaudy Jewish aliens and deeply intrigued by their “otherness,” uses these qualities to modernize and radicalize his own work. Still, there is the interpretation of the painting as just a logical cause and effect scenario played out by a painter with no agenda other than sniffing out a patron willing to reward him financially.
Gentrified British Jews did generally buy into a Sargent-like image of themselves, and were often flattered to see themselves portrayed as creatures of material excess. But Jews in such portraits also did rub many influential people the wrong way. In one extreme case of contemporary Yid-bashing, a journalist articulated just how hard it had become to walk down the street, shop at a market, or vacation by the sea without encountering “hordes of Jewesses, clad in gaudy and hideous costumes.” Other newspaper articles of the time offered unsolicited advice to the Jews: “It behooves those Jews whose finer feelings are not yet blunted to take a stand against the cankerous enormity.”
But it was the great American novelist Edith Wharton who most convincingly depicts the snobbery (not the hate) of Gilded Age high society of the late 19th century, and the limits of the accommodations it was willing to make toward the Jews in its midst. In The Age of Innocence (1920) she reflects nostalgically on her own upbringing capturing, with a touch of evil, the calculated careless grace of the authentic WASP:
One had only to look at him, from the slant of his bald forehead and the curve of his beautiful fair moustache to the long patent-leather feet at the other end of his lean and elegant person, to feel that the knowledge of “form” must be congenital in any one who knew how to wear such good clothes so carelessly and carry such height with so much lounging grace.
Wharton also captures the snobbish tone of a high society’s gossip about one very prominent outsider who despite having great wealth did not have the pedigree to convincingly pass:
The question was: who was Beaufort? He passed for an Englishman, was agreeable, handsome, ill-tempered, hospitable and witty […] but his habits were dissipated, his tongue was bitter, his antecedents were mysterious.
Sir Carl Meyer is not present in the Sargent painting, nor would he have been very involved in the daily lives of his wife and children. His work necessitated that he be away from home for long stints in South Africa, where he was stationed as an emissary to the Rothschild Bank. It was his task to oversee one of the bank’s major debtors of the day, Cecil Rhodes, an uber-imperialist who managed during those years to monopolize South Africa’s entire diamond mining conglomerate, in violation of the human rights of native South African blacks.
The rough stuff that Sir Meyer was exposed to abroad was surely in dramatic contrast to the gentility of life back home at Shortgrove. I am reminded of another great novel in the English language canon, Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, in which the character Fanny Price speaks out about her uncle, who had just returned from his mysterious Antigua plantation: “Did not you hear me ask him about the slave-trade last night?” asks Fanny, who then remarks to her cousin that her prying was met with “a dead silence!”
Sargent’s painting may provide us with a similar “dead silence,” that leads us to wonder about Sir Carl Meyer’s association with Rhodes, a vile white supremacist colonialist if there ever was one. Was Sir Carl able to keep his business associate’s dark secret on the DL?
On the other hand, perhaps Sir Carl Meyer and family had nothing to hide, no guilt. Perhaps his Jewish ancestry (his antecedents), made him feel right at home. As an ancient people, Jews have been around the block more than once. Better to collect debts from a modern-day Pharaoh and have a mansion at Shortgrove than to be enslaved oneself.
Even if talk of slavery in Cape Town was kept dead silent, it was certainly no secret that Sir Carl Meyer had access to diamonds galore, and would most certainly have brought back the occasional gem as a gift for his lovely wife. As we see in Sargent’s meticulous detailed painting, Adele was not averse to flaunting her jewelry. Yet a careful inspection of the painting does not reveal diamonds as do other Sargent paintings from the time. Instead, Lady Meyer is draped in a lavish pearl necklace (ahem) that is so long, so excessive, that Sargent actually uses it as a pictorial device, painting it looping, drooping, dangling and snaking its way around a good percentage of the painting’s composition. In a way, our oyster is accompanied by a pearl… or two… or three… (to be honest, I gave up counting at around 300 individual pearls). Furthermore, in the picture’s crepuscular background, there appears an antique glass vitrine blending into the room’s shadowy architecture: a perfect place to display fancy imported treasures.
The absence of tell-tale South African diamonds aside, it is Sir Carl Meyer’s own absence that lends the painting much of its provocative theatricality. When the cat’s away the mice will play (just as the family does in Mansfield Park), and while Sargent’s depiction is by no means a depiction of family mutiny, let alone anarchy, we do detect in their collective body language that Sargent has been staging their wills toward independence. Sargent empowers Lady Meyer with the admirable spirit of a suffragist. It is not a painting of a dolled-up trophy wife, a man’s marital property, in possession of a comfortable monthly allowance. They are poised, not passive. They are up to something, or at least up for something. Though we really don’t know what.
Getting his actors in costume and up on stage, Sargent can be seen as more than just a facile painter; he is a facile operator—a director, fueling his painting with drama, guiding it toward some sort of aesthetic transgression that seems to challenge convention, tradition, and authority, without actually upsetting or alienating the status quo. He provides his sitters with a pre-pop sense of celebrity, but for a price ($10K).
Sargent had a knack for painting women and occasionally men (i.e. consider his dandified 1881 portrait Dr. Samuel Jean Pozzi at Home, or his voyeuristic watercolors of soldiers napping, and even one very obscure naked boy on a beach) into sexually charged superstardom. Consider his very famous society portrait of Lady Agnew of Lochnaw (1892). He turns this young baroness (who looks to me like a wannabe Jew) into a fashion icon and a full-blown celebrity. Her lilac silk sash looks like something Ziggy Stardust might have tried on in the back of some Carnaby Steet thrift store.
As arousing as he might have chosen to be, however, Sargent secured the reputation for being a somewhat detached clinician. Perhaps his neutrality was a ruse, something he taught himself (disciplined in himself) in order to avoid a career-ending scandal. Consider again his 1884 painting Madame X. His depiction of this Parisian sex symbol was sly, but not quite sly enough. He scandalously painted one of her gown straps dangling loosely off her right shoulder; after the painting left the studio and created a huge stir in the public eye, Sargent asked to have it returned so that he could apologetically mend the strap. Done.
At the same time that Adele was fighting for worker’s rights, her husband was securing the family’s wealth by aiding in the enslavement of South African natives.
Calculated as Sargent could be, and staged as the painting of Adele and her children may have been, to Sargent’s credit, it also comes off as utterly casual and fresh (advisable when eating oysters). The scene we observe feels well integrated into the reality of this privileged family. If anything, it makes the viewer feel entirely at home, as if the extraordinary portrait was just another task for Adele to scratch off her to-do list, another obligation.
The painting is thus a curious blend of formal posturing and letting-it-be. Looking at the painting 120 years after it was painted feels like intruding upon an intimate moment between sitter(s) and painter. (Art historians have noted that Sargent’s paintings are far more spontaneous that anything his hero Velázquez ever painted. Sargent is like Velázquez on cocaine). The scene perpetually comes back to life. One can imagine the banter between painter and sitter; one can speculate that as the painting was in session, gossip was being shared. And yet, this particular family portrait is so seductive, menacing, that it is vaguely predatory. A wealthy baron might have thought twice about leaving his baroness (and two baronets) alone with this multifaceted man of cultural barter.
It’s worth noting that Lady Meyer married up. Born in 1855 in Belsize Park, London, the daughter of Julius Levis, a wealthy European rubber manufacturer, she joined forces with Carl Meyer and became a lively high society hostess, generous philanthropist, regular attendee of the theater and opera, and an all-around self-made socialite. In a giddy 1903 letter to her son, she confesses how sweet her upwardly-mobile life was: “I have not recovered from the joy of Shortgrove being ours and we enrolled among the ‘landed gentry’ of England.”
In a book chronicling his 1909 visit to Shortgrove, the well-bred aristocrat and London banker, Charles Addis, writes of his first time visiting his colleague Sir Carl Meyer at his estate. He describes the coach ride up the estate’s winding driveway “through the finest timber I have ever seen anywhere,” and his astonishment over the “old Queen Anne mansion four stories high and 13 windows wide.” Addis details the two cricket pitches, the private golf course, the croquet lawn, the multiple tennis nets, a swimming pool, and even Sir Carl’s rifle range. But Addis also observes a few embarrassing symptoms of the newness of the Meyer wealth: “Everywhere, curious furniture, old pictures, superb carpets and tapestries, fine library,” he said before adding: “many of the fine books I noticed were uncut and oh! horror, in one corner stood a pianola.”
Lady Meyer may have cut a few corners—like furnishing the house with a player piano instead of a baby grand (with ten years of piano lessons sold separately). But conceivably this transgression was for a good reason—she was busy with something of greater importance. The wife of Carl Meyer was collaborating on a research project, and planning to write and publish a book that would expose the unacceptable working conditions for women in London’s textile sweatshops, a project that would eventually lead to her notable publication, Makers of Our Clothes (1909).
When Lady Meyer referred to herself in 1910 as “a humble social worker” with a lot of experience visiting “homes of the slum-dwellers in our large and small towns,” she wasn’t kidding. Not only had she been involved with numerous suffrage organizations like the Anti-Sweating League, and the Care Committee Guild (which consisting of thousands of volunteers who worked with London’s poorest schools), but she joined up with a writer friend named Clementina Black, (a close acquaintance of Karl Marx’s daughter Eleanor) to interrogate women workers and convince them to blow the whistle on their shady industry.
The book may, in fact, be referenced in Sargent’s painting, even though it was 13 years prior to its publication: Notice the inexplicable pink pages of a mysterious book spread open on the love seat nearly in the dead center of the canvas. When it came out, it was instrumental in exposing the inner machinations of tailoring, dressmaking, and underwear. Lady Adele Meyer and Clementina Black’s work of social exposure is not only well written and very engaging (and still in print), but it was also highly influential in the fight for an increased minimum wage, which was eventually won. In one passage, Meyer and Black comment with irony on the problem of poverty, naming those women who could barely eke out a living: the “millionaires of the women’s industry” were, according to Meyer and Black, not paid well enough to “house, feed, and clothe themselves healthily.”
Meyer and Black do an impressive job chronicling their experience in the exotic industrial parts of town that women of their class generally wouldn’t have dared to enter. “Sweet shops glowed with wares of vivid and alarming hues; vendors shouted; trams went grinding by, and busy pedestrians hustled each other in the narrow pavements.” Then they stalk a woman with a bundle of work in her hands until she leads them to the dirty source: “to a forewoman in a little office.”
Sargent’s Adele seems to flaunt her lavish attire. It is ironic that behind such luxury we find a woman fighting the good Marxist fight, and exposing the world to the bind of the enslaved working classes. It is doubly ironic that at the same time that Adele was fighting for worker’s rights, her husband was securing the family’s wealth by aiding in the enslavement of South African natives.
The painting is full of such contradictions and violations, and it performed quite well in the splendor of its desired Jewish patronage, but serious (pompous) art critics of the time faulted Sargent for his indiscretions and showmanship. In 1926, after visiting a Sargent retrospective in London, one stodgy critic wrote: “Wonderful indeed, but most wonderful that this wonderful performance should ever have been confused with that of an artist.” According to another critic, Sargent was a mere illustrator with an arsenal of disingenuous painterly tricks:
…the most adroit appearance of workmanship, the most dashing eye for effect, cannot conceal the essential emptiness of Sargent’s mind, or the contemptuous and cynical superficiality of a certain part of his execution.
While Sargent’s generous paintings may have attracted nasty critics unappreciative of both the people in his paintings and his manner of painting them, he did have one highly significant cheerleader backing his endeavor: Henry James, who is famous for having praised Sargent’s prodigious “knock-down insolence of talent,” and “wonderful rendering of life, of manners, of aspects, of types.” James personally identified with Sargent’s boldness, even wit, in confronting one of the day’s problematic demographics in his “portrait paintings of Jewesses and their children.”
But when James refers to Sargent’s “Jewesses,” he is also referring to his own. In his novels, there are many Jewish women characters, and his ugly anti-Semitism is at times on full display, as is his underlying enchantment. The Jew and Jewess were at fault for sticking out too much, or for fitting in too well—peeking out from behind a curtain like a furry little creature, or flaunting velvets, silks, pearls, and a big old Jewish schnoz.
And while James caricatured his Jews, he also reflected on them with admiration. In his first novel, Watch and Ward (1871), he writes how the younger of two girls is “decidedly pretty, in spite of a nose a trifle too aquiline.” He describes her “pair of imperious dark eyes, as bright as the diamond which glittered in each of her ears” and her “nervous, capricious rapidity of motion and gesture” that “gave her an air of girlish brusquerie” which, in a moment of cool understatement, was, according to his confession, “by no means without charm.”
Not only is James charmed by this girl’s good looks, but he identifies with her energy and the effect she has on the world. He seems to want to embody her spirit, to be the Jewess. In The Tragic Muse (1890), James portrays a fictional actress named Miriam Booth, exploring the paradox of how her highly emotional personality can be such a liability in real life and yet, paradoxically, such a significant endowment to her acting. The grotesque effect of her Jewishness, in other words, is put to good use on stage.
In his painting of the Adele Meyer clan, Sargent is arguably in pursuit of this same type of girlish brusquerie. But how does he get there? Through composition, color, brushstrokes? Through eyes and hands? Furniture? Wardrobe? By assuming people like me will come along and research everyone inside (and outside) the painting? My sense is that the entire painting is thrust into motion by Sargent’s own desire to be in his time—to make a living, and to make a “living document”—a relevant, succinctly modern painting, a painting true to his life. I like the way Sargent put it when he said, straight-forwardly: Jewesses “have more life and movement than our English women.”
Read more of Jeremy Sigler’s art criticism for Tablet magazine here.
Jeremy Sigler’s latest book of poetry, Goodbye Letter, was published by Hunters Point Press.