A Family Story: John Singer Sargent’s Mrs. Carl Meyer and Her Children



John Singer Sargent’s Mrs. Carl Meyer and Her Children

The Jewish Museum

September 16, 2016-February 5, 2017

New York City, New York


Adele Meyer never crossed the Atlantic. Married to Carl Meyer, a Jewish financier who was named the Baronet of Shortgrove in 1910, she led a life of privilege as a philanthropist in the arts and as a hostess, both in London and at Shortgrove, her 1000-acre country estate in Essex.
How fitting, then, that John Singer Sargent’s masterful portrait of the Meyer family, Mrs. Carl Meyer and Her Children (1896), not seen in the United States for the past 10 years and on loan from the Tate Britain, has now been installed in a gallery at the Jewish Museum that was once the dining room of the Felix Warburg Mansion. Warburg, like Meyer was a distinguished banker of German Jewish origin.
Organized by Norman L. Kleeblatt, the Susan and Elihu Rose Chief Curator with Lucy H. Partman, Curatorial Assistant, the exhibit focuses on the Meyers’ portrait, one that Kleeblatt describes as having “near cinematic status.” The painting was shown at the Royal Academy’s 1897 exhibition and subsequently at the Copley Society of Boston in 1899. In 1900, it was awarded a medal of honor at the Exposition Universelle in Paris.

John Singer Sargent, Elsie Meyer, 1908, charcoal on paper. Private collection

Now, building on the painting’s international reputation and resembling an archeological dig or excavation, the show unearths a cache of other works and documents related to the Meyer family, as well as ancillary material, from the personal and intimate to the banal, that illuminates their life in high and popular culture. “Here is a whole family story,” Kleeblatt said, “with John Singer Sargent and Adele Meyer as co-conspirators in this work.” The exhibit is the first in a series that will showcase one work or a group of masterpieces, by examining the larger context of a work of art.
The excavation began during Kleeblatt’s initial networking session at the Tate Britain, when one of the curators there rather casually mentioned that there was someone working as a curator at another museum who was a relative of the Meyers. So, he discovered Tessa Murdoch, Deputy Keeper at The Victoria and Albert Museum (Department of Sculpture, Metalwork, Ceramics and Glass), and also a great granddaughter of Mrs. Meyer, and a granddaughter of Frank Meyer. Adele Meyer bequeathed the painting to the Tate with life rights for two generations.
With Murdoch’s help, Kleeblatt discovered two drawings by Sargent, who stopped portrait painting in 1908, but whom the family clearly continued to patronize: one, from 1908, of Adele’s daughter Elsie Charlotte – looking very much like a Gibson Girl, and the other, from 1909, of her sister Cecile Von Fleischl. The Carl Meyer portrait in the exhibit is the work of Sir Hubert von Herkomer, a well-known portrait painter from the period.

Mrs. Carl Meyer and her Children 1896, oil on canvas. Tate Britain

Despite the treasures unearthed, the Sargent portrait remains the star of the show. In it, we see Adele, dressed in an elegant pink gown with a pink ribbon in her slightly graying upswept hair, wearing a long rope of pearls, sitting precariously at the end of a Louis XV canape that is upholstered in tapestry. Her children, Elsie (with a face that resembles Anne Frank), and Frank are positioned behind the sofa and she extends her hand to her son, their fingers barely touching, in a dramatic gesture, while still gazing intently forward. An open book, apparently having been tossed aside, lies beside her. “The book might be the one that Proust inscribed and sent Adele in 1896 (Pleasures and Days) through Carl Meyer’s cousin, the composer Reynaldo Hahn, who was Marcel Proust’s lover for many years. Hahn and Proust met just two years before Sargent painted the portrait. Proust’s book inscription is included in the exhibit. A famous caricature of the portrait, The Perils of Steep Perspective,” which appeared in Punch in 1897, shows the two children struggling to keep their mother from falling off the sofa, with the caption: “Hold up, mother; it’s only like the Switchback!” Elsewhere, in the magazine, the composition is described as “a sort of drawing-room tobogganing exercise.”
Through energetic sleuthing, Kleeblatt has filled out the context of the painting, enabling viewers to see a page of the family’s guest register at Shortgrove from 1910 (Sara Bernhardt was a guest) and some wonderful old photos: a black and white group shot of a family theatrical production from 1902 with Adele Meyer cast as Little Bo Beep, and a shot of the Meyers as an older couple, leaning on each other, standing back to back. Indeed, there are four volumes of letters that the two wrote to each other, sometimes twice a day.

Cartoon lampooning Mrs. Carl Meyer and her Children, published in Punch, 1897. The Perils of Steep Perspective! "Hold up, mother; it's only like the Switchback!" Courtesy of the Fales Library & Special Collection, New York University

Adele Meyer’s devotion to her husband extended even after his death. Included in the exhibit is an epilogue that she wrote for her children and grandchildren, a moving tribute to Carl Meyer’s humility and integrity. Adele wrote: “From the time he entered school to the day of his severe heart attack which led to his fatal illness and death, I think his brain was never idle. From simple clerk, as I knew him first, to bank-director, to the chairmanship of the De Beers Company, he rose, and always remained the same: simple and hard-working, clear-minded, level-headed, interested in work for its own sake, never for the money to be made, his ambition was never to amass a colossal fortune.”
But Adele was much more than a loving wife and a serious patron of the arts (the Meyers donated 70,000 pounds to establish the National Theater). She was also an outspoken social reformer who believed in the establishment of a minimum wage for workers and who co-wrote, with Clementina Black, Makers of our Clothes; a Case for Trade Boards, Being the Results of a Year’s Investigation Into the Work of Women in London in the Tailoring, Dressmaking and Underclothing Trades (1909). Near her country estate, she also held penny dinners for the families of workers, charging a penny so that the guests would not feel that they were receiving charity.
The exhibit does not address the issue of anti-Semitism. As an upper class Jewish family in England, the Meyers were completely assimilated. Tessa Murdoch told Norman Kleeblatt that when she went to boarding school at the age of eight, her trunk had the name Meyer on it. Someone at the school asked her: Isn’t Meyer a Jewish name? When Tessa came home, she asked her mother: Are we Jews?
Still, there is one moment where the viewer ponders the Jewish question. An ink and wash drawing in the exhibit of Carl Meyer by his friend Max Beerbohm (1910) highlights Meyer’s head and mustache as well as his prominent large nose. We ask ourselves: Was this a common perception of Jews in England? But, the wall text reminds the viewer, that although Carl’s nose might be read as reflecting an anti-Semitic undertone, Beerbohm had many Jewish friends. He once remarked that “he would be delighted to know that we Beerbohms have that very admirable and engaging thing, Jewish blood. But there seems to be no reason for supposing that we have.”
Beerbohm’s disclaimer aside, the inclusion of his caricature of Carl Meyer is an important one. However perfect the Meyers’ world seems to be, the specter of anti-Semitism remains.
Roslyn Bernstein is an author, journalist, and critic based in New York. Her arts journalism has appeared in Guernica, The Huffington Post, andTablet.

One thought on “A Family Story: John Singer Sargent’s Mrs. Carl Meyer and Her Children

  1. One question remains with me: is there any significance to the black bow tied around Adele’s arm, or is it simply to match her cummerbund?
    I enjoyed your comments and learned more about Adele.
    Truly, this is one painting that simply MUST be seen in person ,and its placement at the JM is perfect!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *