Lady Sybil: hidden histories of the underrepresented in the artistic world of John Singer Sargent

On October 4, 2019, John Singer Sargent: Portraits in Charcoal opened at the Morgan Library & Museum, showcasing heretofore underappreciated aspects of Sargent’s iconic oeuvre. Known primarily as a portrait painter of European and American elite in the early twentieth century, the public is most familiar with his finished, glossy representations of the grand and great. However, Sargent largely ceased production of his painted portraits by 1907, and from then on worked primarily in charcoal to fulfill commissions. As the curators note:

These drawn portraits represent a substantial, yet often overlooked, part of his practice, and they demonstrate the same sense of immediacy, psychological sensitivity, and mastery of chiaroscuro that animate Sargent’s sitters on canvas.

This exhibit is indeed an exploration of the often forgotten aspects of an artist’s portfolio, and it is noteworthy that one of its centerpieces—a drawing of Sybil Sassoon from 1912—is in fact the bearer of another underappreciated story: that of the impact and presence of ethnic minorities in the upper echelons of early twentieth-century Britain.

Sybil Sassoon, later Sybil Cholmondeley, Marchioness Cholmondeley (pronounced Chumley) was born in London in 1894, making her around eighteen years old when she sat for Sargent. Within the year, she would be married to George, Earl of Rocksavage, later 5th Marquess of Cholmondeley, and would sit again, this time for a full oil portrait by the great artist as a wedding present from Sargent himself. Sybil, and her brother Philip were scions of the Iraqi Sassoon family, a family of Mizrahi Jews who made their fortunes in British India and later migrated to London.  The family story, typified by the lives and identities of Sybil and Philip, serves as an example of societal dynamics of the time. That Philip was a patron and lover of the arts, commissioning works from figures such as his friend John Singer Sargent, demonstrates how minorities have been more central to what is a more complex and diverse world than people may understand.
The Sassoons came to London in the nineteenth century and quickly began to climb the rungs of society, despite currents of anti-Semitism in British culture. Sassoon men studied at Eton and Oxford, and they served in the British military. Following the example of the Rothschild family (who they married into, and followed into parliament) the Sassoons became well-ensconced in British high society. By becoming culturally assimilated, their foreignness could be covered up.

Sybil and Philip’s mother was herself a Rothschild. It is interesting to note that the Sassoons first wed another Jewish (yet European) family before intermarrying with the Christian nobility. We can construct a history of marriages stretching from the arrival of the Sassoons to England, until Sybil’s marriage a generation later. In this history we can see a process of shedding the Arab Jewish identity which the family might have possessed before immigration, into a sort of generic ‘Englishness’ which Sybil and Philip typified. It is striking to think that Sybil, a British marchioness, had a father who was himself born in Bombay (present-day Mumbai) to parents from Baghdad. Sybil and Philip were the products of and actors in what was a dynamic, fraught, global patchwork of identity and exchange that existed due to the (often exploitative) interconnectedness of the British colonial world.

Nevertheless, Sybil and Philip thrived. Philip, himself thought to have been a closeted gay man, became a member of parliament (the youngest at the time), and a patron of the arts, at the center of early twentieth-century British political and cultural worlds. Sybil became the financial savior and mistress of one of the most stately and historic British estates, Houghton Hall. These two bearers of marginalized identities were formative of the ongoing viability of white, patrician Britain. Sybil and Philip’s stories deserve to be honored and lifted up.
Sargent’s charcoal drawings represent underappreciated works by a figure well established in the western canon of fine art. It is the initiative and insight of the Morgan curators to bring these beautiful pieces of art, as well as the story of Sargent’s process, to life. At least as important is the need for the world of fine arts to recognize the presence of people of color, queer individuals and communities, and other minorities in shaping and promoting the works and careers of artistic greats. A full understanding of Sargent’s oeuvre would indeed be incomplete without an examination of his charcoal drawings. Furthermore, our appreciation and understanding of his career, as well as the artistic milieu he fit into would be fragmentary without recognition of the influence and impact of underrepresented groups that were part of his work. When you visit the exhibition at the Morgan, remember the Sassoon siblings, not just their beauty and elegance, but the challenges they and her family experienced in order to be accepted. That they were themselves of the mega-wealthy class makes them seem distant and perhaps irrelevant, however the history of their identities is a relevant and relatable story in an intersectional world. They are with us until January 12, 2020. Come while you can.

Yona Benjamin
Columbia University Class of 2020
Communications and Marketing Department Intern

John Singer Sargent (1856–1925), Sybil Sassoon 1912, charcoal. Private Collection, Photography by Christopher Calnan.