The Jewish Museum’s Sanitized History of the Sassoon Family’s Opium Dynasty



Attributed to William Melville, “David Sassoon” (mid-Nineteenth century), oil on canvas, 41 1/2 x 33 inches; Non-public Assortment (all photos courtesy Jewish Museum)

As with every dynasty, the historical past of the Sassoon household is stuffed with adversity, braveness, mind, and a reputation that binds them collectively. What separates the Sassoons from different rich households is their exceptional and huge story of commerce, journey, artwork amassing, architectural patronage, and civic engagement, which took them from Iraq to India, China, and England. The Sassoons at The Jewish Museum covers each the household and the objects they collected, however falls in need of addressing the underbelly of the Sassoons’ greed and jealousy. And regardless of the preliminary wall textual content promising to “forged mild on the essential position of the Sassoon ladies,” the present doesn’t delve far sufficient into the trailblazing paths that the various Sassoon ladies cast.

The exhibition options 120 examples of artworks, manuscripts, and Judaica from around the globe that the relations amassed. Within the first of the 5 galleries, we’re greeted by a portrait of David Sassoon (1792–1864), the household patriarch and the beginning of the story. David wears a flowing gown and complex headdress; accented by his lengthy silver beard, he’s the image of an Iraqi Jew with means. He fled persecution in Baghdad, quickly establishing himself in Mumbai (then Bombay). There, he was concerned within the cotton commerce, later increasing to commerce Indian opium with China. 

An intricate decorative ivory casket provides kind to the household’s opium-fueled wealth and units the stage for a later room devoted to things from the Qing and Ming dynasties. The small Qing object, owned by Victor Sassoon, provides a painted view of the Bocca Tigris, which performed an essential position within the First Opium Warfare. In an effort to dominate the opium commerce, David despatched his son, Elias David Sassoon, to scout out new clients. Opium grew to become enormously profitable for the Sassoons; their complete fortune was constructed on the extremely addictive (although authorized) drug. 

Set up view of The Sassoons on the Jewish Museum, New York. Giant portrait at heart: John Singer Sargent, “Sybil, Countess of Rocksavage” (1922), oil on canvas, 63 1/2 x 35 5/8 inches (courtesy Houghton Corridor Assortment, utilized by permission)

One should be cautious when judging the household’s participation within the opium commerce, particularly by a up to date ethical lens. However on the time, the drug was already identified to be addictive and harmful. The truth is, the household quietly dismissed a few of their Chinese language workers due to their habit to opium. 

The primary room can also be stuffed with such gadgets as silver Torah circumstances, marriage certificates, and portraits of the household. Although these might need been paid for by opium, solely the ivory casket factors to the enterprise, and the household’s involvement with the drug is merely a footnote within the audio information.

The adjoining galleries observe the Sassoons’ transition from Far East buying and selling to assimilation into British society. In a small alcove, Rachel Sassoon Beer (1858–1927) takes the stage, the primary of many robust Sassoon ladies. An ethereal 1887 portrait of her by Henry Jones Thaddeus hangs on the heart. Rachel was an avid artwork collector and socialite, in addition to an completed journalist and the primary feminine head of two main information publications: The Sunday Occasions and The Observer in London. The wall textual content within the room mentions Rachel’s unprecedented feminine management, however the romanticized portrait, and a subsequent room that holds her assortment of works by Rubens, Courbet, Corot, and Constable, depict her as a spouse and collector first and as a revolutionary feminist icon second. Regardless of her main position in journalism, no copies of any newspapers or articles on which she labored are within the present. If this exhibition seeks to pay particular consideration to the ladies of the household, why not embody copies of her legendary reporting on the Dreyfus Affair?

Woman Rachel Sassoon (née Isaac) (1857–1911) (picture courtesy personal assortment)

Silver Torah finials, scrolls, and pointers fill the fourth gallery, alongside an enormous assortment of manuscripts of historical Jewish texts, from kabbalistic treatises to the Hebrew Bible, liturgical fragments, and the household Haggadah. This spectacular assortment of Judaic artwork and literature is juxtaposed with the Sassoons’ artwork and architectural patronage. Right here, Sybil Sassoon (1894–1989) and her connoisseur’s eye dominate. With a Sassoon father and a Rothschild mom, Sybil and her brother, Phillip, grew up within the firm of distinguished artists, in addition to distinguished social and political figures. Among the many many works on view are a quaint sketch by William Orphen, work by their shut good friend Winston Churchill, and portraits of the household by John Singer Sargent, displayed collectively on a protracted wall.

It was unusual to see so many portraits of Aline de Rothschild, Sybil, and Phillip, however none of Flora (Farha) Sassoon (1856–1936). Flora was David Sassoon & Co.’s first feminine accomplice, and in 1894 one of many first feminine presidents of a world firm. Flora was pushed out of the corporate after seven years as a result of her brothers’ lack of ability to just accept her success.

The exhibition’s final part focuses on the household’s position in World Warfare I, during which Sir Victor Sassoon, Philip, and Siegfried served. Siegfried Sassoon (1886–1967), a poet, grew to become the voice of a era along with his defiant letter of protest in opposition to the warfare. “A Soldier’s Declaration” was printed in The Occasions of London and skim aloud in Parliament. There was no copy of the newspaper to share intimately his revolutionary concepts, however tucked away in a small show case you’ll discover a pocket book with the draft of the assertion written, crossed out, and edited. 

The Sassoon dynasty is stuffed with retailers, poets, troopers, socialites, rivalries, artwork, and medicines, and all of the relations have tales to inform. However the Jewish Museum missed a chance to look extra critically on the Sassoons’ dependency on promoting opioids to fund their lavish life-style, and to delve into the lives and careers of the ladies — who made strides towards gender equality which can be solely acknowledged in passing. Maybe by casting a contemporary mild on such a legendary household with this exhibition, we are able to sit up for new scholarship that fills in these gaps.

Sassoon Haggadah, Spain or southern France (c. 1320), ink, tempera, and gold and silver leaf on parchment, 8 5/16 x 6 1/2 inches; bought by the State of Israel by an nameless donor, London, previously within the David Solomon Sassoon Assortment
Louise Sassoon (née Perugia) (1854–1943), Eighteen Nineties, photographed by Cyril Flower, 1st Baron Battersea; Nationwide Portrait Gallery, London
Esther scroll of Reuben Sassoon, Baghdad (mid-Nineteenth century), paint on parchment with silver deal with; scroll, 4 1/8 inches, with deal with 7 7/8 inches; Weitzman Household Assortment, previously within the Sassoon Household Assortment
Famille verte garniture, China, Qing dynasty, Kangxi interval (1662–1722), ceramic and hard-paste porcelain; every roughly 10 5/8 x 4 5/16 inches; Nationwide Belief, Hannah Gubbay Assortment, Clandon Park, Surrey, United Kingdom
Glyn Warren Philpot, “Siegfried Sassoon” (1917), oil on canvas, 24 1/16 x 20 inches; the Syndics of the Fitzwilliam Museum, College of Cambridge, United Kingdom, given by Siegfried Sassoon, 1924
Inscription from a Torah ark curtain donated by Rachel Sassoon to Shalom Shabazi Synagogue, Jerusalem; in all probability Mumbai (previously Bombay) (1886–90), velvet embroidered with metallic thread, 15 x 11 inches; the Jewish Museum, New York

The Sassoons continues on the Jewish Museum (1109 Fifth Avenue, Higher East Aspect, Manhattan) by August 13. The exhibition was curated by Claudia Nahson, Morris and Eva Feld Senior Curator on the Jewish Museum, and Esther da Costa Meyer, Professor Emerita at Princeton College.


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