Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 23, 2021
Nathaniel Silver Boston's Apollo: Thomas McKeller and John Singer Sargent Exh. cat. Boston and New Haven, CT: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in association with Yale University Press, 2020. 256 pp.; 115 color ills. Cloth $45.00 (9780300249866)
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, February 13–October 12, 2020
John Singer Sargent, Thomas McKeller, ca. 1917–20, installation view with various sketches by Sargent, Boston’s Apollo: Thomas McKeller and John Singer Sargent, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, 2020 (photograph by Jesse Costa/WBUR, provided by Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum)

(Click here to view the online gallery guide.)

I remember the first time I saw John Singer Sargent’s Thomas McKeller (ca. 1917–20) at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (acquired in 1986), while gathering comparative material for my research on James Richmond Barthé (1901–1989), whose oeuvre is dominated by Black male nudes. The painting and accompanying sketches are the only known true-life depictions of McKeller, and, like in Sargent’s Madame X (1884), the model looked away from the artist, obscuring what could have been a factual portrait. Although for different reasons, both portraits remained in Sargent’s possession (and thus unknown to the public) until his death. Sargent worked on McKeller’s portrait for over four years, which speaks to how much time he spent looking at this model, who posed primarily for an expansive Museum of Fine Arts mural commission. That a white painter would create a male nude is not particularly exceptional, but a Black male nude is reason to take note. Sargent, a sought-after, expatriate portrait painter to the elite working in Boston—where the reverberations of World War I were still being felt—painted not a sketch or a small piece but a generous Black male nude posed in rapture. At approximately 49 by 33 inches, this is a substantial, detailed, full-body portrait of Sargent’s muse.

Peggy Fogelman, director of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, described Boston’s Apollo as inaugurating a “new chapter in the history” of the museum, wherein the catalog’s authors “try to imagine” how Sargent’s model for his seminal, late-career masterworks lived and worked (7). To visit the museum is both to enter a bastion of Boston’s white privilege and to take a rare trip back in time, since the museum’s wealthy patron and namesake, Isabella Stewart Gardner, required in her will that the collection be “fixed in unchanging arrangements.” In a way, the museum joined the twenty-first century by so recognizing a Black man, albeit primarily through renderings of his naked body (150). The cache of drawings Sargent gifted to Gardner, out of view for generations, is now a catalyst for addressing, for the first time at the Gardner Museum, the African American experience in Boston.

Thomas McKeller would surely find this belated focus on his role in Sargent’s life curious. Life models, often difficult to identify, have only recently piqued the interest of curators and historians, who are often seeking new ways to know the artist who employed them rather than being interested solely in the models. There are rare incidences when a Black model has been identified, such as Kirk Savage’s discussion of Archer Alexander as the model for the freedman in Thomas Ball’s 1876 Emancipation Memorial (Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves, Princeton University Press, 2018). The Black model was also the primary focus of the unprecedented exhibition Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today at the Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University in New York, curated by Denise Murrell (Yale University Press, 2019). Typically, models received little notice unless something sensational was exposed, such as the scandal that James McNeill Whistler openly painted his mistress Joanna Hiffernan, the protagonist of the upcoming exhibition The Woman in White at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC (Yale University Press, 2020).

McKeller’s body, which we can only judge from Sargent’s rendering of it, had the proportions and flexibility necessary for figures that would gesture and float in the Museum of Fine Arts’s rotunda. He was an elevator operator at the Hotel Vendome, where he caught the attention of the well-heeled Sargent, who lived there while working in Boston. McKeller was inexperienced at posing, but artist models usually trained on the job. When Sargent’s sketches later entered Gardner’s hallowed collection, McKeller became the only known connection between Sargent, Gardner, and working-class people of color in Boston. Clearly he was special, as Sargent signed each sketch, ensuring they would all be well looked after by Gardner.

The authors of the catalog for Boston’s Apollo hint at the possibility, or probability, of Sargent’s homosexuality, only to make it tangential to this fresh look at how his late-career muse, a Black male model, fits into the celebrated artist’s oeuvre. Current attitudes toward gender nonconformity and fluidity render outing Sargent or McKeller as homosexual retardataire. Given the sensuality of the drawings in the portfolio, Sargent spent a good amount of time studying McKeller. But while the painter spent hours looking at and recording a Black body, he did not end up presenting a Black man in his public works. The figures McKeller posed for were rendered as Caucasian. In fact, there was no expectation that Sargent would or should include Black figures in his murals. As art historian Nikki A. Greene writes in her essay, “Thomas McKeller Sous Rapture: John Singer Sargent’s Erasure of a Black Male Model,” McKeller’s role is ironically being revealed in the very moment when volatile, twenty-first-century US race relations are highlighting disparaged Black lives that must matter more.

The exhibition catalog is a standout. It brings Sargent, McKeller, and their Boston experiences to light through an impressive variety of perspectives from artists, curators, and scholars who, in the aggregate, appreciate the capital that Black visual culture represents. It is a rare catalog that offers even more than what could be experienced during an in-person visit to the Gardner Museum. Letters, enlarged to fill the page, reveal expressive cursive words as if they were drawings. A facsimile of McKeller’s signature graces the front endpaper; the back holds Sargent’s more familiar autograph. There are maps of the Museum of Fine Arts’s rotunda, stairway, and side aisle murals, a selective index, and an extensive bibliography. These are all useful, but it is the online presence of the exhibition that becomes essential, particularly when the COVID-19 pandemic has shut down our nation’s cultural institutions. Thus interviews, interpretive movement, and spoken-word performances inspired by Boston’s Apollo will remain available to online viewers well into the future.

Margaret Rose Vendryes
Professor, Department of Performing and Fine Arts, York College, City University of New York