'We don't want to create caricatures or exoticise': symposium aims to delve into the role of Jewish art dealers in the European art market between 1850 and 1930

The Art Newspaper 6 December 2021
By Anna Brady

London Art Week has partnered with the Jewish Country Houses research project to hold a three-part online talks programme

John Singer Sargent's Essie, Ruby and Ferdinand, Children of Asher Wertheimer (1902)

Why have Jewish art dealers been so pivotal in creating the European art market as we know it?

That is the question that an online symposium organised by London Art Week (from today until 10 December) will delve into.

"Jewish Dealers and the European Art Market c.1850-1930" will run over three evenings, starting with Charles Dellheim, the professor of history at Boston University, in conversation with James McAuley, a contributing columnist to the Washington Post, about Dellheim’s recently published book, Belonging and Betrayal: How Jews Made the Art World Modern, on 6 December (6pm GMT).

The following evening, the New York-based scholar Jean Strouse will be in conversation with Caroline Corbeau-Parsons, the curator of drawings at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, about her forthcoming book on the art dealer Asher Wertheimer and the artist John Singer Sargent, who painted 12 portraits of Wertheimer's family (6pm GMT, 7 December)

Then on 9 December (6pm GMT), the writer and former editor of Apollo magazine Thomas Marks will moderate a panel discussion on "The Jewish Contribution to Art Dealing in London", with Martin Levy, the chairman of H. Blairman and Sons, Cherith Summers, the director at Murphy & Partners advisory, and Alice Minter, the curator at the Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Collection in London’s Victoria & Albert Museum.

The idea for the symposium was born out of the Jewish Country Houses project, a four-year research initiative that started in 2019—the National Trust is one of its partners. “Thomas Stammers [the associate professor in Modern European history at the University of Durham] and Silvia Davoli [a researcher and curator] have been working on the project for a couple of years and they approached London Art Week about collaborating on a public programme of talks,” says Emanuela Tarizzo, the gallery director of Tomasso in London and a board member of London Art Week, who has organised the symposium.

“We’re really interested in thinking about this as a pan-European phenomenon—these important Jewish families in the 19th and 20th century who make great fortunes in finance and so on, and then build these spectacular houses,” Stammers says of the Jewish Country Houses project. “What’s interesting about looking at it in the European context is that it also lets you think about the vulnerability of these people too. It’s not just a story about wealth, opulence and art, but also a question of how well did they integrate with European society, how far were they accepted by the aristocracy and what happened to these families and houses after the Second World War.”

Stammers and Davoli worked particularly on the art collections of these houses, and that is where the particular interest in Jewish art dealers was born. “What we’re interested in is how the art market really is a space in which Jewish people really excelled in the 19th and 20th centuries,” Stammers says. “That’s been recognised almost anecdotally—if you think of the great art dealers of the early 20th century, like Duveen or Wildenstein, they’re Jewish—but it’s never really been thought about analytically. No-one has thought about what it is, structurally, that has meant these art dealers really flourished in the European art market.”

Stammers stresses that their aim is not to “caricature or exoticise the idea of the Jewish art dealer”. He says: “What I would add on the point of anti-semitism is that we’re very interested in looking at how some of these anti-semitic caricatures have been mobilised—the second talk will be Jean Strouse talking about the Wertheimer family and particularly about John Singer Sargent’s 12 portraits of the art dealer Asher Wertheimer and his children. When they were donated to London's National Gallery as it was then, the historian Charles Oman said ‘these clever, but extremely repulsive, pictures should be placed in a special chamber of horrors’—some appalling language was used” (The Wertheimer portraits are currently on display as a group at Tate Britain).

Looking at the impact of a group of art dealers through the lens of their race or religion needs sensitive handling, something Levy (himself Jewish) is well aware of. “Jewish art dealers and those of Jewish heritage are undoubtedly important figures in the history of the art trade,” says Levy, whose family came to the UK from Poland in the 1860s. “In the British context, the story is often as much about assimilation as difference—so I hope that we'll be able to engage with the complexity of historical and present-day identities during this panel.”

Marks adds: “It’s great to see London Art Week collaborating with a research programme of the integrity of the Jewish Country Houses project. Encounters between scholarship and the art trade benefit everyone—and not least the public.”
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