Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 23, 2000
Sally M. Promey Painting Religion in Public: John Singer Sargent’s “Triumph of Religion” at the Boston Public Library Princeton University Press, 1999. 376 pp.; 13 color ills.; 146 b/w ills. Cloth $52.50 (0691015651)

A host of contemporary scholarly contributions to the literature on John Singer Sargent has enlarged and refined considerably our knowledge and understanding of the painter’s work and life. Molly Crawford Volk, Trevor Fairbrother, Jane Dini, Miriam Stewart, Kerry Schauber, Erika Hirschler, and Sally M. Promey have of late facilitated a symbiotic discourse, through publications and exhibitions, that makes for a thick stew of accounts staking claims that often read as an ongoing dialogue committed to arguing out the many and complicated issues that subtend Sargent’s art from the standpoint of context, intention, reception, and biography.

Sargent’s current popularity as a focus of art-historical inquiry is, at the same time, little short of astounding. Not surprising, but certainly breathtaking. He was, whatever we do to force him into the category of Impressionist, or leverage him into the vicinity of modernism, a deeply conservative and reactionary painter, a Norman Rockwell or Andrew Wyeth for a certain international clientele. More outward representation of his beliefs does little to amend such a position, however sympathetic one might be to the gradual emergence of a sensitively and subtly argued private side that has its affecting testimonial in some of his more genre-oriented work and that has attained its most convincing and art-historical form in the recent studies of Trevor Fairbrother.

This is not, however, to say that the thickness of history did not envelop Sargent sufficiently to encourage close and sustained examination. Sally Promey has produced an essential account of a moment in Sargent’s career. Professor Promey’s concern is with the production, installation, and reception of Sargent’s murals on the Triumph of Religion, executed for the Boston Public Library between 1895 and 1924.

Professor Promey’s study has, for the most part, two subjects: Sargent, and the place of religious belief, understanding, and conflict in America and Europe during the period of the murals’ execution and installation. To these ends, she weaves her fascinating narrative through moments of attention to Sargent’s more circumscribed experience and instances of larger cultural inquiry in such a fashion as to helpfully encourage the reader’s constant questioning of the pertinence and challenge of such general issues as context, reception, and intention. It would be difficult to come away from a reading of Painting Religion in Public without a stimulating sense of the entwining of interests that make for the construction of history in its micro- and macrocosmic forms. At the same time, the book is not without a privileging of material. Professor Promey’s concern tends more in the direction of questions about the manipulation and facilitation of religious discourse and arguments in a certain historical moment than with the overarching guidance of such by Sargent. Sargent seems in some ways a vehicle here; a test case for the possibility of issues having a civic, public form in a given context.

In fact, Professor Promey argues early on for a sensitivity to distinctions of public and private as a model for understanding the myriad problems that attended the maintenance of such a program in a moment wherein the force of religious example in American life was a contested and often divisive problem. Thus, Sargent is credited with erring on the side of a more private and personal interpretation of the spiritual, while seeming exonerated of any kind of claim that might be appended to him concerning the ideological directions of his mural program. At the same time, it can seem as if certain potential models for Sargent’s reasoning and conclusions are given great consideration in the quest for context. Ernest Renan’s writings, for one, seem to me quite plausibly accounted for, but at times loom too large, to the point of providing rationales that are at best elusive in their origins.

Such excavations fly, as well, in the face of the artist’s resistance to definition. Accordingly, the effulgence of interest in Sargent in recent moments is closely attended by a sense of his elusive personality and the notion that adherence to such invests his deeply available work with something of the mysterious—a condition that only enhances, of course, the desire to articulate and insure the sources of ambiguity and ambivalence. At the same time, it can be easy to resist conclusions that cast the artist in a questionable or controversial light. It seems almost too obvious, then, to articulate the Triumph of Religion as a statement indicative of Sargent’s beliefs or ideological commitments. How complicated the twists and turns of such evidence can be is in part the subject of Professor Promey’s argument, and she lays the groundwork quite successfully for the reader’s own immersion in these issues.

What, for instance, is the Mural Project but a claim for historical precedence made by a particular historical actor? It is, in other words, an argument, whatever the source material or antecedence in medieval discourse, for the triumph of religion, a claim that implies that with the victor comes the vanquished. In short, much of the controversy concerning the installation of the segments of mural devoted to the elevation of Church over Synagogue seems to me to turn on the very definition of religion as opposed to race. Sargent does not produce an argument, or equivocation; it is an assertion.

Sargent’s distinction is to make prominent the distance between Christianity as a religion and Judaism as a race. Whatever his personal views of Judaism, he seems to say quite explicitly that the place of its beliefs is not that of Christianity, for the two systems represent, respectively, two different modes of being, of identity, with, accordingly, different culturally valued claims to authority or the lack thereof. And if it is connections with the recently concluded war that are sought—as Professor Promey does in Chapter 6 in a subsection on “Synagogue and War”—then it seems just as plausible that race is seen to be the loser, as the German defeat becomes apparent in a moment wherein Jewishness might be as synonymous with Germanic background as any other in American culture.

Accordingly, while the Old Testament prophets in Sargent’s program serve as useful antecedents, they are to be embraced as part of an evolutionary process that will end with the triumph of Christianity, rendering obsolete earlier versions of belief. This may have constituted a history lesson for Sargent, befitting installation in a major civic site, but it also confirmed a sense of priority denoting some kind of wish fulfillment concomitant with the closing of World War I. To that extent, we might see the Church and Synagogue issue as yet another example of postwar international Purism—French neoclassicism, American Precisionism, etc.—of concern to the propagation of aesthetics in the wake of the slowly, nay barely, receding years of carnage. The problem, to my mind, turns on the paradox of intention surrounding the conception of a program that seeks to communicate in a decidedly anti-modernist mode, while refusing and deflecting further explication as a result of the artist’s donning of the clothes of the modernist. The material of such a paradox is evident in Professor Promey’s account, but I sense occasionally a resistance to exposing Sargent’s contradictory and ultimately self-serving evasions.

Sargent’s resistance to substantive comment concerning the controversies surrounding the installation of his mural project for the Boston Public Library between 1895 and 1924 is a case in point. On the surface, he seems to invest himself with the cliched reluctance of the modern artist, resisting a specific account of what his work is about. Along the way, he is able to resist concrete implication in the polemics raging around his depiction of the triumph of the Church over the Synagogue that led to accusations of anti-Semitism in his Triumph of Religion murals, as well as the mobilization of significant forces of protest and resistance to the project and demands for its removal and emendation.

At the same time, the Library seems cleverly complicit in this issue. This is not a matter of documentation confessing such an assertion, but it is a question of interpreting implications one way or another. To my mind, the Library sided with the artist, despite his own deferral of comment, in support of what I read as Sargent’s “ownership” of the program and its execution. By tacitly, surreptitiously invoking Sargent as the “modern” artist—an agent of creative expression they could not second guess or affront as to intentions—the institution sidestepped its own authority as patron and yet insured the facilitation of a work that had little modern about it; if no one took responsibility for the program, how could it be attacked? The Library could dance away from embrace of subject as having anything to do with form, and endorse abstraction, whether it seemed evident to the naked eye or not, as a language malleable to the needs of the moment, while protecting its investment and perhaps agreement with Sargent’s historical lesson. Guiltless acceptance of the program would then seem to be the result, all around.

I hardly do justice here to the density of material and reasoned interpretation with which Professor Promey invests her study. She has made a deeply useful contribution to our understanding of a project and its circumstances. The tightly organized and strictly directed focus of the book provides a model of attention to a particular problem. Sargent studies will find this a challenging and central addition to the discourse, and those interested in the place of faith and its institutional implementation in America in the early twentieth century will engage a firm foundation here for further inquiry, argument, and agreement.

Eric Rosenberg
Tufts University

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