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A Painter and His Muse

Boston’s Apollo: Thomas McKeller and John Singer Sargent

Edited by Nathaniel Silver (Gardner Museum: 2020)

The show Boston’s Apollo: Thomas McKeller and John Singer Sargent opened at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum on February 13, 2020. I knew I wanted to go but figured I could wait a bit. As I write this in early June, we are in the midst of a pandemic; while the show will run through the end of September, I don’t know whether I will get to see it before it closes. Fortunately the Gardner put together a lovely catalog, so while it may not yet be possible to see the show in person, we can see the contents of the show in book form.

Thomas McKeller was an African American bellhop and elevator operator at Boston’s Hotel Vendome, where about 1916 he met the artist John Singer Sargent. Sargent saw in McKeller a tightly muscled man who would make a fine model for his paintings, and engaged his help with the cycle of murals he painted for the Museum of Fine Arts between 1916 and 1921, and with other works almost until Sargent’s death in 1925. McKeller provided the model for Eros, Achilles, Chiron, Apollo, the arresting nude figure of Classic Art, and a number of other male nudes at the MFA.

The exhibition relies primarily on a folio of ten nude sketches owned by the Gardner, mostly of McKeller, plus other sketches and the famous nude painting of McKeller from the MFA, archival materials, and other pieces. The catalog, edited by Gardner curator Nathaniel Silver, presents these items, plus essays by eight scholars exploring various aspects of the McKeller-Sargent story.

As a confirmed bachelor with a penchant for sketching male nudes, there has been much modern effort to show that Sargent was homosexual. But, writes Colm Tóibín in the catalog, “we have to be careful how we read the clues we have about Sargent’s sexuality.” In the end, although Sargent painted nude men with “masked sensuality,” really all we can do is “wonder what hidden desires went into the making” of these works.

In her essay “Thomas McKeller sous rature,” Nikki Greene comments on “Sargent’s erasure of a black model,” in which “McKeller’s brown skin tones are changed into shades of white” as he stands in for the classical deities of the MFA murals. Other contributors detail the relationship between Sargent and her patron Gardner, attempt to piece together the details of McKeller’s life, situate Sargent’s male nudes in the academic tradition, and recount the MFA’s purchase of the painting Thomas McKeller in 1986, among other subjects.

In setting McKeller’s life alongside Sargent’s work, Boston’s Apollo has gone a long way toward “un-erasing” the model behind the MFA’s famous murals. My one critique of the book is that the essays could have benefited from tighter editing: Each essay, read alone, stands up well; but in reading the catalog cover to cover, one does tire of reading the same biographical and historical details over and over.

Still, a valuable addition to the library, and a show I will certainly see if conditions permit.

Nathaniel Silver (ed.): Boston’s Apollo: Thomas McKeller and John Singer Sargent (Gardner Museum, 2020). • Exhibition: Boston’s Apollo: Thomas McKeller and John Singer Sargent, at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston through September 2020.

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