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“Atlas, with the world on his shoulders, this was my body except my head.”
That’s Thomas McKeller describing John Singer Sargent’s image of him in “Atlas and the Hesperides,” a painting that was part of the famous American artist’s large commission for the rotunda of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.
For nearly a decade, McKeller was Sargent’s principal model for the heroic figures (both male and female) of that commission and another large-scale project, two huge allegorical murals commemorating Harvard’s contribution to World War I at the entrance to Harvard’s Widener Library. He was even the body (but not the head) Sargent used for his portrait of Harvard’s president Abbott Lawrence Lowell.
Now, after decades of anonymity, the model gets top billing in a new show at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum called “Boston’s Apollo: Thomas McKeller and John Singer Sargent”.
The relationship between this artist and his model is of special interest partly because the model is black—and except for the portrait of the Harvard president and one of the soldiers in the Harvard mural, he never has any clothes on. McKeller was 26 years old, and in magnificent shape, when the 60-year-old Sargent met him in an elevator at Boston’s fashionable Hotel Vendome. McKeller was operating the elevator, and Sargent asked him to model for him. Did McKeller agree only for the money?
In a short film posted by the Gardner Museum, the lone survivor of the McKeller family, McKeller’s great-niece Deirdre McKeller O’Bryant, suggests that her uncle came up to the more tolerant north because he was gay. Certainly one of the most intriguing elements of this show is the obvious possibility that there was a more intimate relationship between Sargent, whose homosexuality is now widely agreed upon, and McKeller than just a professional one.
One major piece of evidence for Sargent’s emotional or sexual feeling for McKeller is one oil painting (borrowed from the MFA), Sargent’s heroic portrait of McKeller as a full-frontally-nude angel (there seem to be wings from an earlier version Sargent tried to brush out), an unashamed, loving image of a complex, maybe even suffering figure, his legs splayed, his head turned partially away and looking upward to the source of light. Sargent never sold it. It was on his studio wall until his death.
The only surviving letter from Sargent to McKeller—displayed with other letters and memorabilia in the anteroom to the show—is one in which he asks McKeller to come to his studio. There’s also a mysteriously uncashed check for $20 from Sargent’s agent to McKeller (mysterious because McKeller often needed money—he called it a “gratuity”—to pay for necessities or to pay off debts). In 1934, nine years after Sargent’s death, McKeller got married.
The nine drawings of McKeller are an exciting find, some of them depicting wild action—McKeller on horseback—and some in more static poses. But the lines of Sargent’s charcoal, heavy or fine, are never static. They are constantly in motion, rushing the figure forward, flexing the figure’s muscles, caressing the figure’s every movement. The drawings are far more alive than the figures in the stilted mural itself.
One page of drawings is particularly revealing of a larger issue underlined by much of the show’s wall copy. The page includes a drawing of McKeller’s head along with two images of the head of Apollo, the famous “Apollo Belvedere,” a white head Sargent would actually use in the mural. Just as in the “Atlas and the Hesperides” (“my body except my head”), the figures McKeller was posing for were always white.
Throughout the exhibition, the wall text raises the question of whether these images are “erasures,” taking away the model’s real identity. In the 1890s, we are told at the beginning of the show, “segregation in Boston was enforced socially and economically rather than legally.”
On the last wall, there’s another, larger photograph of Sargent’s “Atlas and the Hesperides,” with McKellen’s statement about Atlas having the world on his shoulders written in large letters underneath. The reproduction here repeats the very first image that greets you at the entrance to the show. The curator obviously regarded this as an important painting, and made me extremely eager—in fact, desperate—to see the original. But why wasn’t it included in the show?
If I had looked through the entire catalogue—quite a good one, I later discovered, edited by curator Nathaniel Silver, with stimulating, engrossing, and surprisingly readable essays—I would have learned that “Atlas and the Hesperides” belongs to the MFA, and is actually part of Sargent’s mural sequence. Yet somehow after years of visiting the MFA it had eluded me. But it turns out that it’s not in the rotunda. It’s in one of the side aisles above the museum’s grand staircase. And it’s not hanging on the wall, it’s stuck to the ceiling—obviously rendering it unmovable, and therefore un-lendable.
This work, on the ceiling, is flanked by two blinding spotlights directed at a glass case below the painting. If you looked up and tried to see the painting from the correct angle, the light shines directly into your eyes. So it’s impossible to see the real “Atlas and the Hesperides” where Sargent intended it to be seen. And the best image of it in the catalogue is only an incomplete detail. I guess the best way to look at Sargent’s powerful image of Thomas McKeller as Atlas with the weight of the world literally on his shoulders, such a key emblem for this show, is to go to the Gardner and see its two photo reproductions.
“Boston’s Apollo: Thomas McKeller and John Singer Sargent” is now on view through mid-September. The Gardner Museum announced the postponement of the exhibition "Tacita Dean: Still Life," which was scheduled to open in June, due to the coronavirus.
This article was originally published on February 18, 2020.
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