When John Singer Sargent’s 1896 magisterial painting, “Mrs. Carl Meyer and her Children,” depicting Adèle Meyer with her children Elsie Charlotte and Frank Cecil, was first shown at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1897, Henry James wrote in Harper’s Weekly, “Of these elements Mr. Sargent has made a picture of a knock-down insolence of talent and truth of characterization, a wonderful rendering of life, of manners, of aspects, of types, of textures, of everything.”
Seductive, flamboyant, and deeply revealing, this lushly painted portrait captures the world of a privileged family of English Jews who lived more than a century ago.
Sir Carl Ferdinand Meyer was born in Hamburg, Germany, the second son of Siegmund Meyer and Elise Rosa Hahn daughter of Reuben Hahn. He became a naturalized British subject in 1877. In 1883 he married Adèle Levis, daughter of Julius Levis of Hampstead, and they had a son, Frank Cecil Meyer, and a daughter.
Meyer worked first for the Rothschild family as their chief clerk and negotiator with the De Beers mining group. He then went on to work for De Beers and became deputy chairman of the company. He was also governor of the National Bank of Egypt, and member of the board of numerous mining companies. He was also a board member of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank (HSBC). He was given the title of baronet in 1910.
Meyer had a great interest in the arts, showing support for opera, music and the theatre. In 1909 he donated 70,000 pounds to the Shakespeare National Memorial Theatre, now rebuilt as the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. During World War I, prompted by a suggestion by Sir Arthur Wing Pinero that Britons of German origin should speak out publicly, Meyer wrote to The Times expressing his disapproval of the tactics used by the Germans in the war, including the sinking of the RMS Lusitania. No dual loyalties there.
As a society hostess known for her exuberant soirées, enchanting voice, and support of the arts, Lady Meyer was also a socially concerned philanthropist supporting working class women, underprivileged families, and women’s suffrage.
On loan from the Tate Britain in London, it has been more than 10 years since this painting was last on view in the US. The exhibition highlights this remarkable work—contextualizing it with other family portraits, family photographs, personal correspondence and domestic memorabilia, as well as satirical imagery from popular culture that relates to both the Meyer family and John Singer Sargent.
In the Jewish Museum, 1109 5th Ave at 92nd St, NYC, through February 5, 2017.JNi.Media