This larger than life-size oil painting by the British artist John Singer Sargent depicts Ena Wertheimer (1874–1936), a member of a family of middle-class British Jews, posing against a dark background. Her body is shown in three quarter length and is mostly covered with a black shiny cloak, which she flings across her left shoulder. Her attire is unconventional for a woman at this time: the masculine-looking plumed hat and cloak were the garments worn by members of the Order of the Garter of the British monarchy, which at the time admitted only male members. Ena tilts her head back, looking over her left shoulder while holding onto the cloak with her right hand. Her expression is confident and playful and the large scale of the portrait exaggerates her dramatic gesture. To create the illusion of motion, Sargent asked Ena to hold a broomstick underneath her cloak while he painted her, and this object can be seen protruding from under the cloth at the right edge of the composition. Emerging from beneath the cloak at Ena’s chest are the folds of a golden-coloured piece of clothing. This garment, along with the right side of Ena’s face and the white sleeve and plume of her hat, are the brightest parts of the painting, an effect enhanced by the deep tone of the cloak and the muddy brown background.
The portrait was painted by Sargent in his London studio in 1905. It is part of a series of twelve portraits of the Wertheimer family commissioned from Sargent in 1898 by Ena’s father, the art dealer Asher Wertheimer, and completed in 1908. This particular painting was created to honour the marriage of Ena to Robert Moritz Mathias (1874–1961) in 1905. The second part of the work’s title, A Vele Gonfie, is an Italian phrase that translates into English as ‘in full sail’. During the period she spent sitting for the work, Ena reportedly arrived at Sargent’s studio each time complaining about the length of time it was taking him to paint her. The energy with which she did so appealed to Sargent, and he decided to focus his likeness of her on the billowing liveliness he had just encountered and to give the portrait a subtitle that reflected this (see Adler 1995, p.92).
Sargent painted this portrait au premier coup (‘at first stroke’) – the technique by which new paint is applied over existing layers while they are still wet. He used a heavily laden brush, reflecting his belief that ‘the thicker you paint, the more your colour flows’ (Sargent quoted in Lomax and Ormond 1979, p.53). This approach, as well as Sargent’s expressive brushwork and his depiction of natural light, suggest the influence of impressionism on his work: as a student he had visited Paris and forged personal relationships with the impressionist painters, particularly Claude Monet, with whom he had stayed at Giverny in northern France in 1887.
Portrait of Ena Wertheimer was displayed in the 1905 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition alongside another painting by Sargent, The Marlborough Family 1905 (private collection). Like Ena in her portrait, the Duke of Marlborough is shown in this painting wearing the ceremonial cloak of the Order of the Garter, yet the Duke, unlike Ena, was a certified member of the Order. In 1901, King Edward VII had controversially admitted his wife, Queen Alexandra, to the previously all-male Order of the Garter, and Ena’s attire may be seen as a provocative comment on this decision, especially when it was originally viewed adjacent to the more conservative The Marlborough Family in the Royal Academy in 1905.
The Wertheimer series of portraits was the largest private commission that Sargent undertook during his lifetime. At the time, Sargent was at the height of his career, living and working in Tite Street in Chelsea, a fashionable area of London known for its illustrious artistic residents. Sargent became close friends with the Wertheimer family as he painted them, describing himself at the time as being in a state of ‘chronic Wertheimerism’ (quoted in Adler 1995, p.83). Within the family, Sargent was particularly fond of Ena and her sister, Almina. His charismatic portrait of Ena suggests an intimacy between the artist and sitter not usually seen in commissioned portrait paintings of the time, and the other portraits in the series also show the sitters in idiosyncratic poses and attire: for instance, the final painting in the series, Almina, Daughter of Asher Wertheimer 1908 (Tate N03713), depicts Ena’s sister in robes worn by Persian men. The unconventional nature of these portraits may reflect the Wertheimers’ experiences as outsiders, being one of few Jewish families living in middle-class British society at the time. However the dynamism of the portraits, such as the painting of Ena, also reveals Sargent’s enjoyment of the company of Jews, especially Jewish women, whom he praised for possessing more ‘life and movement’ than non-Jewish English women (quoted in Adler 1995, p.87).
The Wertheimer series as a whole is notable for its contentious history. Asher Wertheimer bequeathed nine of the paintings to the national collection in 1916 (the portrait of Ena was not part of this original bequest, but was donated to Tate in 1996). In 1926 these nine Wertheimer portraits were shown at Tate in a new Sargent gallery, but the display was met with public hostility. The art historian Kathleen Adler has suggested that this was the result of a form of anti-Semitism: as middle-class Jewish merchants, the Wertheimers did not share the noble origins of those whose portraits traditionally hung on the walls of prominent galleries and ‘the portraits were viewed as a manifestation of an attempt by a Jewish family to infiltrate a British institution’ (Adler 1995, p.96). In 2000 all twelve portraits in the Wertheimer series were brought together for an exhibition at the Jewish Museum, New York.
James Lomax and Richard Ormond (eds.), John Singer Sargent and the Edwardian Age, exhibition catalogue, Leeds Art Gallery, Leeds 1979.
Kathleen Adler, ‘John Singer Sargent’s Portraits of the Wertheimer Family’, in Tamar Garb and Linda Nochlin (eds.), The Jew in the Text: Modernity and the Construction of Identity, London 1995, pp.83–96.
Norman L. Kleeblatt (ed.), John Singer Sargent: Portraits of the Wertheimer Family, exhibition catalogue, Jewish Museum, New York 1999, pp.15–16.
Supported by Christie’s.