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May 2020

Vol. 162 / No. 1406

Boston’s Apollo: Thomas McKeller and John Singer Sargent. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston

Reviewed by Xavier F. Salomon

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston

13th February–14th September

by Xavier F. Salomon

‘For a moment, the crowd was silent and then whispers rose and whispers deepened and became murmuring that grew into a broad, full voice’.(1) In November 1925 the Boston Evening Transcript reported on the unveiling of John Singer Sargent’s murals at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Having worked on the project for almost a decade, Sargent had died a few months earlier, in April, in London. The painter’s agent in Boston, the architect Thomas A. Fox, recalled that the day after Sargent died, a young African American man, Thomas Eugene McKeller, had visited him. ‘I just came to pay my respects, sir’, he told Fox, ‘and he went quietly away’ (cat. no.21). There is no evidence that McKeller attended the unveiling of the murals in the autumn, and yet he had been directly involved with their creation.

Sargent is known to have used a number of professional models throughout his career, mostly Italian. In Boston, he employed a model of German origins, Anton Kamp, and two American ones, Harry Bloom and Thomas McKeller. In February 2017 Nathaniel Silver, the curator of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, stumbled upon a portfolio of nine drawings and a collotype by Sargent, which the painter had given Gardner in the 1920s. The discovery of these works of art was momentous. Most of them showed McKeller and were related to the Museum of Fine Arts’ murals. Silver embarked on researching McKeller’s life and the results are presented in the striking and poignant exhibition under review.(2)

Although the name of McKeller had been known to Sargent scholars and has appeared in publications on the painter, and although McKeller died as recently as 1962, the circumstances of his life had been erased from history. To this day no photographs of him have been identified. Silver has delved into the subject with passion and focus. Through a variety of documentary sources, he has shed light on McKeller’s life – as he finely puts it: ‘a life simply lived’ (p.8). Born in Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1890, Thomas moved to Boston in his mid-teens. Wilmington was at the time a theatre of episodes of racial violence against people of African origins, and Thomas no doubt looked for a better life in the North. We have snippets of him, working in different locations: as a bellman operating the elevator at the Hotel Vendome, as a soldier in the 811th Pioneer Infantry regiment, as a labourer in Boston’s Naval Appraiser’s Store, again as an elevator operator in the Federal Building and finally as an employee at a postal office from January 1924 until his death. Sargent visited Boston four times, between 1916 and 1925 as he worked on the murals of the Rotunda (1916–21) and stair hall (1922–25) of the museum. He stayed at the Hotel Vendome during his first visits. The mundane encounter between a hotel guest and an elevator operator developed into something deeper and more significant. McKeller started to pose for Sargent in the artist’s studio in the Pope Building on Columbus Avenue (no.5; Fig.16).

Sargent was inspired by a number of disparate sources for his murals, ranging from classical statuary – Greek marbles and bronzes from Herculaneum – to such old masters as Michelangelo, Giulio Romano and Guido Reni. More unexpected stimuli came from the young women in the Ziegfeld Follies and from newspaper photographs. More than two hundred drawings reveal Sargent’s creative process for the museum’s murals. At the centre of this enterprise was McKeller, whose dazzling body was used as a model for most figures in the paintings – both male and female. In a rare source in which McKeller himself spoke about his modelling, he said: ‘Atlas, with the world on his shoulders, this was my body’ (p.41).

Apart from sitting for the murals, McKeller also served as the model for Sargent’s two canvases in the Widener Library at Harvard University and for Cyrus Dallin’s sculpture of the Wampanoag sachem Massasoit (1920). McKeller became ‘Apollo in the forenoon and Massasoit in the afternoon’ (p.25). The relationship between Sargent and McKeller cannot be easily defined: ‘was it exploitative, or was it close, affectionate, or erotic (on one side or both), or that of an artist and his “muse”’, as Paul Fisher asks in the catalogue (p.51). It clearly developed over time. In March 1919, Sargent wrote from London to his agent in Boston: ‘I wonder what has become of that darkey [sic] model – If he should turn up again, or you have his address you might let him know that I shall want him’ (no.15). Four years later, in August 1923, Sargent’s observations had an altogether different tone: ‘I wonder if you have heard from McKeller? [. . .] I hope he will be available – don’t know what I shall do without him’ (no.19). One of the most tender examples of McKeller’s appearances in Sargent’s life is Thomas’s own recollection of a sitting in the Pope Building. Isabella Stewart Gardner came to visit the painter in his studio after recovering from a stroke and being confined to a wheelchair. She ‘arrived in great excitement with a gramophone and some new records’; it was McKeller who, with his powerful arms ‘carried her and them up the stairs’ (no.27).

The exhibition brings together almost thirty objects – drawings and letters – relating to McKeller’s presence in Sargent’s art and life. His body and identity were deliberately concealed by the painter. The black elevator operator became a series of gods and heroes of classical mythology, as can be seen in an extraordinary drawing in which McKeller’s face is juxtaposed with that of the Apollo Belvedere (no.12; Fig.17). In the final murals the two would become one. More disturbingly, McKeller served as the body model for Sargent’s portrait of Abbott Lawrence Lowell (1923–24; not exhibited), the president of Harvard University responsible for expelling black students from freshman dormitories in 1922.

The most astonishing work of art resulting from the relationship between McKeller and Sargent is a canvas (no.13; Fig.18) showing the model unapologetically nude, confronting the artist and the public. After Sargent’s death, the canvas (then entitled Negro nude) was deposited at the Museum of Fine Arts. It is unlikely it was publicly exhibited. In 1932 it was given to the painter William ‘Billy’ James Jr., the nephew of Henry James, possibly for teaching purposes. The painting disappeared, until the curator Trevor Fairbrother saw it in storage at the Boston Athenaeum and purchased it for the Museum of Fine Arts in 1986. The history of the painting and its rediscovery is recounted by Fairbrother himself in one of the essays in the exhibition catalogue. The canvas has now been re-titled Nude study of Thomas E. McKeller.

At a time when museums are frenziedly trying to focus on issues of diversity in their programming, often with results of questionable value, this exhibition should be used as a model. The story of McKeller, as uncovered by Silver, brings to light important issues concerning class, race and sexuality in American history and art. The Gardner Museum has intelligently involved a number of people in this project. Two contemporary artists have produced works in relation to the exhibition. Lorraine O’Grady’s Strange taxi, stretched (2020) can be viewed on the Anne H. Fitzpatrick façade of the Museum’s Renzo Piano building, and Adam Pendleton’s exhibition Elements of Me in one of the rooms on the ground floor of the building. O’Grady has also contributed a thoughtful essay to the catalogue. A group of community collaborators have written inspired and inspiring texts and poems, which appear on labels next to works of art. Silver has tracked down McKeller’s great-niece and the daughter-in-law of one of Thomas’s best friends, who met him before he died. They are interviewed in a touching film made for the occasion. This is a significant and beautiful exhibition; the Gardner’s director, Peggy Fogelman, is to be applauded for her enlightened and inspiring credo: ‘we believe that we have a responsibility to explore our complex past to shed light on our equally complex present, inclusive of marginalized individuals whose voices have not been reflected in traditional histories. I am pleased to engage with these difficult and delicate subjects’ (p.7).

1. C. Troyen: Sargent’s Murals in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Boston 1999, p.39.

2. Catalogue: Boston’s Apollo: Thomas McKeller and John Singer Sargent. Edited by Nathaniel Silver. 256 pp. incl. 115 col. + 30 b. & w. ills. (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2020), $45. ISBN 978–0–300–24986–6.