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1905 John Singer Sargent "In Full Sail"

Between the end of the 1904 Summer Exhibition and the start of its equivalent in 1905, the Royal Academy was barely out of the newspapers, undergoing what Marion Spielmann would describe in the opening lines of his introduction to Royal Academy Pictures 1905 as “recurrent waves of criticism and of protest, and […] acrid effervescence”.1 After years of campaigning led by the critic, artist, and museum administrator, D.S. MacColl, a Select Committee of the House of Lords met in June 1904 to discuss the Academy’s administration of the Chantrey Bequest. In August, they issued a report, confirming MacColl’s accusation that the money left to the nation by Sir Frances Chantrey was being managed by the Academy primarily to shore up its own artistic interests.2 The question on everyone’s lips ahead of the 1905 Summer Exhibition was how the Academy would respond to this criticism—would they continue to spend Chantrey money on Summer Exhibition pictures, or indicate a little more openness towards artists widely celebrated outside of the Academy?

Explore the 1905 catalogue

Even before the exhibition opened, the Academy found itself at the heart of another controversy. In April, James Harvard Thomas’s sculpture Lycidas, already rejected by the Academy’s Hanging Committee, was exhibited to great acclaim at the New Gallery.3 Meanwhile the publication of a book chronicling the early decades of the Academy’s history—The Royal Academy and its Members, 1768–1830—received some ferocious reviews. “[The Royal Academy] may, for instance, offer prizes for the solution of a puzzle, or it may install a café chantant in the central hall”, argued one disgruntled critic, “but it will never be false to its noble ideal of mediocrity”.4

Not untypically, the President of the Academy, Edward Poynter, shrugged off the majority of these criticisms—although an olive branch was extended at the exhibition opening by the announcement that this year’s Chantrey funds would support the purchase of a painting by the late Charles Furse.5 In doing so, the Academy overturned their usual practice of buying from the current Summer Exhibition—Furse’s painting had been exhibited two years previously—and drew attention to an artist who, despite having received Associate membership from the Academy in 1904, had close links with the New English Art Club and critics such as MacColl. Although this purchase seemed to many as being little more than a gesture (other Chantrey purchases made that year were more conservative), it did highlight the ways in which the worlds of the Academy and rival exhibiting societies such as the New English Art Club were increasingly overlapping.6

A closer look at the activities and work of John Singer Sargent, perhaps the most talked-about exhibitor at the 1905 Summer Exhibition, seems to confirm this shift. In April, Sargent opened an exhibition of his watercolours at the Carfax Gallery in St. James’s Piccadilly, a gallery closely associated with artists of the New English Art Club, such as William Rothenstein, Charles Conder, and Augustus John. If there was any doubt that Sargent was able to speak to different audiences simultaneously, it is surely dispelled by comparing two of the portraits he sent to the Academy that year.

Sargent’s grand portrait of The Marlborough Family, standing in an alcove at Blenheim Palace, was one the most notable paintings of the exhibition, and was generally considered a worthy successor to Joshua Reynolds’s 1778 portrait of the same family.7 The duke himself stands to the left of the composition, dressed in a long black robe: he wears the regalia of the Order of the Garter, reminding the viewer that Sargent’s subject was of the utmost nobility. In this sense, Sargent’s painting sits well alongside one of the other prominent portraits of the 1905 Exhibition, Luke Fildes’ official portrait of Queen Alexandra, who was made “Lady of the Garter” by her husband, Edward VII, in 1901 (only the second woman to receive this honour) (Fig. 1).

Sargent’s group portrait, nevertheless, also demands to be read in relation to another portrait he showed that year: A Vele Gonfie (“In full sail”), in which the dress of Order of the Garter makes another, surprising appearance, this time wrapped around the swaying shoulders of Ena Wertheimer, daughter of the prominent Jewish art dealer Asher Wertheimer, whose family Sargent was to paint twelve times between the years 1898 and 1908 (Fig. 2).8 Ena Wertheimer was not a “Lady of the Garter”, that much was evident, nor was she of noble birth, and yet Sargent used the black cloak—left over from the Marlborough sittings, it seems—as a subversive prop in this boldly informal painting, perhaps alluding to the fact that the Wertheimer family, for all their wealth and good connections, were still seen by many as outsiders—like Sargent himself, on account of his American background—to the British establishment.

The year 1905 was no idle time to be making sly statements on Anglo-Jewish identity; in August, Parliament would pass the controversial Aliens Act, a major piece of anti-immigration legislation formed in response to Jewish immigration into the East End. Response to this legislation frequently aroused anti-Semitic feelings, which affected not just newly arrived immigrants but well-established Jewish communities as well. That Sargent should, in the middle of all of this, offer up to the public a portrait of a well-known Jewish woman masquerading as a Knight of the Garter is intriguing.

Recognised at the time as an “interesting” and “odd” painting, a dashing portrait that took surprising licenses, A Vele Gonfie offered a reminder to viewers that Sargent—despite the Marlborough portrait—could still be counted as one of the “advanced school”.9 As The Washington Post pointed out, it was perhaps asking too much of Sargent, American-born though he was, to singlehandedly unify the London art world, or carry the Academy on his own.10 Still, he was clearly doing his best to quietly disrupt viewer’s expectations, testing the boundaries of what constituted a typical Academy painting, and bringing it more closely in line with what was being exhibited beyond Burlington House.

  1. M.H. Spielmann, “Introduction”, Pictures of the Year, 1905 (London: Cassell & Co), i.↩︎

  2. F.J.M., “The Chantrey Report”, The Speaker, 20 August 1904, 472.↩︎

  3. For more on this sculpture and circumstances surrounding its rejection, see David J. Getsy, Body Doubles: Sculpture in Britain, 1877–1905 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004).↩︎

  4. Anon, “The Royal Academy”, The Academy, 13 May 1905, 511.↩︎

  5. The picture in question was Return from the Ride. Furse died in 1904.↩︎

  6. Although this had been the case as early as 1888, with the recognition of the Newlyn School at the Academy, relationships between the two exhibiting groups had been notably strained in recent years.↩︎

  7. For an extensive review of this painting, see Anon, “The Royal Academy”, The Athenaeum, 6 May 1905, 567.↩︎

  8. For a discussion of this portrait in relation to the series as a whole, see Kathleen Adler, “John Singer Sargent’s Portraits of the Wertheimer Family”, in Linda Nochlin and Tamar Garb (eds), The Jew in the Text: Modernity and the Construction of Identity (London: Thames & Hudson, 1995).↩︎

  9. B.S. “The Royal Academy”, The Academy, 6 May 1905, 498; Anon, “The Royal Academy”, The Athenaeum, 6 May 1905, 567.↩︎

  10. Anon, “Royal Academy in London Again the Storm Center of Art …”, The Washington Post (1877–1922), 28 May 1905; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Washington Post.↩︎

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Explore the 1905 catalogue