Yes, that John Singer Sargent
At the Boston Public Library
Despite my love for libraries, including the Boston Public, I somehow missed the memo about the third floor. That changed this past weekend when the day-long snowstorm in Boston derailed plans farther afield from my hotel. Instead, a friend and I shuffled hand-in-(death-grip)-hand across the ice-slicked street to the Boston Public Library. A security guard just inside the entrance advised that we would not want to miss “the Sargent murals” on the third floor. She pointed to the elevator.
In another of my “wait, what?” moments, I spent the brief elevator ride asking myself, John Singer? Surely not. But it’s Boston, so maybe. When the doors opened onto the most incredible murals (84 feet long, 23 feet wide), I decided no; these were nothing like the Sargent portraits I knew. Then the printed guide set me straight.
Not only was this the same John Singer Sargent, some consider this series, “Triumph of Religion,” to be among his masterworks. (Some do not.) He spent a staggering 29 years on this project, jollied into the entire endeavor while dining at the Players Club in New York City by his friend and the library’s architect, Charles Follen McKim. (Augustus Saint-Gaudens of Cornish NH was also present.) In 2019, the library noted the 100th anniversary of the installation of the final painting.
Sargent, much acclaimed as a portraitist, was dismayed when the works became a scandal. (Shades of Madame X, below, though for different reasons.) At the time, many people objected to art that depicted religious themes in a public space. More pointedly, differences in his portrayals of Judaism and Christianity resulted in charges of anti-Semitism.
The final work, hung in 1919, remained unfinished. Sargent died unexpectedly in 1925. The scandal abated and the murals gathered dust and were largely neglected until a contingent from Harvard’s Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies began a physical restoration in 2003.
The setting is amazing, skylit, the murals draped over walls and vaulted ceiling. It has been referred to as an “American Sistine Chapel.” Hyperbole maybe, but when I used a photo-identification app on a photo of the ceiling, the app misidentified it as St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
If you go, go slightly hungry. The Boston Public Library serves a formal tea. I peeked in the window from the library’s courtyard: china teacups, tiered dishes of finger sandwiches, and someone wearing a proper lady’s hat.
(More information about Sargent, the library murals, and murals he created for Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts can be found in a short documentary, John Singer Sargent: Outside the Frame, available here. BPL’s website page is here.)
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And in case you are wondering . . . Susan B. Apel shuttered a lifelong career as a law professor to continue an interest (since kindergarten) in writing. Her freelance business, The Next Word, includes literary and feature writing; her work has appeared in a variety of lit mags and other publications including Art New England, The Woven Tale Press, The Arts Fuse, and Persimmon Tree. She connects with her neighbors through Artful, her blog about arts and culture in the Upper Valley. She’s in love with the written word.