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American Aristocracy: Gods of Copley Square – Magic 1

gkc boston triptychA Copley Square Triptych: Three Images by John Singer Sargent'”  pencil sketches by Gretchen Conklin, arr. Douglass Shand-Tucci, 2013. (Above) Isabella Stewart Gardner; (above, left) Charles W. Eliot; (above, right) Thomas E. McKeller]

If science was the cornerstone of Copley Square and religion the centerpiece, art — art was the “magic” — that being Michael Holleran’s word in Boston’s Changeful Times  for what the new Museum of Fine Arts brought to Art Square, as the area that would become Copley Square came to be called at first when the new museum opened in 1876 across from MIT and next door to Trinity Church, erected where the Copley Plaza Hotel now is.

Not only magic but magicians — magician gods. Not one or two gods (William Barton Rogers, Alexander Graham Bell, at MIT) not three or four as at Trinity (Phillips Brooks, H.H. Richardson, John La Farge, Henry Adams) but fully a dozen or more would stand for art in the square, led by Charles Eliot Norton and Charles Callaghan Perkins and Okakura Kakuzzo and Maurice Prendergast and Bernard Berenson. But if one only there had to be, my vote now, as I think most votes then, would go to John Singer Sargent, whom, indeed, in his Boston Evening Transcript obituary  Thomas A Fox acclaimed as godlike: “we are told,” Fox wrote, “that the Greeks used to believe their gods were human. As Mr Sargent followed many of their traditions in his work, we may well follow this one in our appreciation of him.”

The great man, whose debut in Copley Square (though not noted in the museum’s centennial history), came in 1883 when the Museum of Fine Arts exhibited two early portraits by the painter, who had not yet visited America at that time, spent so much of his life elsewhere, however, that Bostonians then as now are sometimes shy about claiming Sargent, like T. S. Eliot, as one of their own.  This is especially the case when a British scholar like Richard Ormond argues that although it is true that in America Sargent’s  “natural center of gravitation was Boston,” it was an “intermittent, secondary life.”  Yet Sargent scholar Jane Dine, in her chapter in Bruce Robertson’s Sargent in Italy (Princeton University Press, 2000), toting up the years, points out that “Sargent spent the majority of his career [emphasis added] painting murals in Boston,” where, she observes, the artist “engaged in an unprecedented artistic and cultural exchange with an important group of Boston art patrons who encouraged him to realize his greatest ambition: to become a mural painter in the tradition of Michelangelo.”

Perhaps Perry Rathbone, the director of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, which owns the most extensive collection of Sargent’s portraits and murals in the world, put it best in his foreword to David McKibben’s Sargent’s Boston (MFA, 1999), issued to mark the centennial of the artists birth:

Sargent was an international figure. He was born in Florence . . . and ultimately settled in London. Yet his American citizenship he persisted in retaining, and Boston, it is fair to say, became his spiritual home. London idolized him, but Boston befriended him and took him to its heart . . . Boston in a very real sense made the Sargent we think of as American; and, as it lies in the wonderful power of an artist to do so, Sargent created for us the Boston at the end of the nineteenth century as Copley had created the colonial city a hundred years before.

“Renaissance Rome and Emersonian Boston: Michelangelo and Sargent, between Triumph and Doubt,” an article I wrote for the Anglican Theological Review in 2002 appeared just the year before Dini’s chapter, entitled “Boston’s Michelangelo.” My article, the seed as it has turned out of Gods of Copley Square, thus companioned hers in focusing on the earliest of Sargent’s murals, a subject definitively consummated in 2004 by Sally M. Promey in her magisterial Painting Religion in Public.

Never mind if one urges murals or portraits as Sargent’s strong suit, a scholar of Boston/New England studies is bound to focus on the former just because they are at once evidence of and an explanation of the rise of the metropolis of the Boston city-state from, as it were, the American Athens, to the American Rome, and at the start of the American century, adorning Unitarian Boston’s gathering institutions, as Michelangelo had Catholic Rome’s centuries before, with murals of global ambition. First in Copley Square — at the Boston Public Library (the finale of this series) — and then later at the second building of the Museum of Fine Arts erected in 1909 and finally at Widener Library of Harvard University, Sargent’s murals marked an epoch.

Some of his best portraits were also of Bostonians, and nothing else could reflect quite so well the wide engagement with the diverse spectrum of the square’s dramatis personae the triptych that heads this chapter discloses, wherein I’ve tried to interestingly compare and contrast the immutable — race or caste, nationality and ethnicity, gender and sexuality — and the alterable — class and vocation, religion, citizenship and philosophy of life, education and politics. Why? Because the central theme of Copley Square’s history in its first iteration in the half century of this study between 1865 and 1915, when the Brahmin-inspired New World agora of Faith and Learning was first developed, was to try and reconcile, as it were, the immutable through shaping the alterable.

It’s all there in those three images: male and female, Brahmin and Yankee, Christian and not Christian, arts and sciences, Catholic and Protestant, capitalist and altruist, native and immigrant, conservative and liberal, business and culture, elite and mass education, and so on, all the way to bourgeoisie and Bohemian, and to resident and transient, to return to our discussion with Sargent.

The three images, sketches by a distinguished Boston painter who knows all these paintings and responded to my alarm very generously when I realized the three originals could hardly be made available for so controversial an arrangement as mine, are meant as archetypes, not stereotypes. The center image, which not entirely in jest I have entitled “Mediatrix of all Grace” alludes, of course, to one of Sargent’s most famous portraits: Isabella Stewart Gardner, presiding genius of art in the square, whose haunting of the square’s new art museum in the quarter century between 1876 and the early 1900s yielded her very own “ante-museum,” a ferociously creative response not untypical of Gardner. Originally a New Yorker but married into the higher reaches of the Brahminate, she quickly became the hinge, so to speak, between Brahmin Boston and what might be called Haute Bohemian Boston, where Brahmins mixed freely with all sorts and conditions, hinge as conservative as liberal in many respects, but which nonetheless knew no bounds of race or caste, ethnicity or nationality, gender or sexuality. Her principal protege, after all, virtually the co-founder of her collection, Bernard Berenson, was a Jew.

The uber-Brahmin himself is the subject of the left hand panel of the triptych:  Charles W. Eliot — America’s Headmaster — the founder of modern Harvard, the crown jewel of which — Harvard Medical School — Eliot would erect in Copley Square (the subject, of course, of a future chapter), never mind that Eliot was also one of William Barton Rogers’s founding professors at the square’s cornerstone, MIT. His cousin and fellow Brahmin of the highest water, Charles Eliot Norton, moreover, the immediate inspirer of the Gardner Museum, was the first trustee of the new art museum in the square elected by the incorporaters in 1878. The Eliot portrait, which could as fitly be  Sargent’s of Boston Symphony founder  Henry Lee Higginson, for instance, or cultural leader Sarah Choate Sears or philosopher William James or, indeed, Sargent’s own self portrait, is very much the dominant panel.

But it is the right hand panel —  Sargent’s “informal portrait,” as art historian and then MFA curator Trevor Fairbrother has called the artist’s nude study of Thomas E. McKeller — which I wish to emphasize here. Because Copley Square is always so identified with what The New York Times once called the Back Bay’s “aristocratic rectangle”  — Beacon Street to Boylston, Arlington to Massachusetts Avenue — I want to equally highlight in this chapter the Back Bay’s much narrower “bohemian rectangle”  — Huntington Avenue to St Botolph Street, Irvington Street and Harcourt to Massachusetts Avenue. A mixed institutional and residential area, Back Bay’s Bohemia was very much seen as an extension of Copley Square itself, ‘Greater Copley Square’, and so it was treated, for example, by Henry P. Dowst in his Random Notes of Boston of 1913, the heyday of Back Bay’s Bohemia, a bit ahead of where we are in this series now.

“Along Huntington Avenue lies the ‘Quartier Latin’ of Boston, a sort of expurgated Montmartre, a very real and red-blooded world of student life. Here lodge the [students] of the schools and studios. The Institute of Technology, Boston University, the medical departments of Harvard and Tufts, the Conservatory of Music and lesser institutions [some now grown much greater: Emerson College, for instance] where one may study to become an artist, or orator, an actor, or a virtuoso, constitute a floating population and an agreeable atmosphere of youth and ambition. / One might speak accurately of a ‘University of Huntington Avenue’, with its narrow asphalt campus . . . with the advantages of the great Library . . . the Symphony, the Opera, and countless freely opened doors to recitals and lectures . . .  On Huntington avenue . . . one finds almost every second portal ready to swing inward . . . and though you seek theology or theosophy, medicine or melody, religion or relaxation, you will decipher ‘welcome,’ woven underfoot or shining overhead.”

Behind Back Bay’s Bohemia, furthermore, was the much larger quarter that adjoined the Bohemian rectangle on the other side of the railroad tracks — the South End. Running parallel with and one block south of St Botolph Street, these railroad tracks, today a park which unites the Back Bay and the South End, then grimly and decisively separated the upper and upper middle class Back Bay from the lower middle class and working class South End, a rooming house district where it adjoined the Back Bay which grew into a grim slum soon enough around Dover Street. That much-larger quarter than the Back Bay, we forget, fed so importantly into the daily life of Copley Square along its southern flank — at Back Bay Station on Dartmouth Street the railroad tracks were only two short blocks from the heart of the square — that McKeller, a South Ender, stands for not only Bohemia, but also ‘the wrong side of the tracks.’

Bohemian Back Bay, sometimes called South Back Bay in the same way the Bay State Road Area is sometimes referred to as West Back Bay, supplied a vital ingredient to the life of the square. From the “aristocratic rectangle,” for example, came the hugely wealthy patrons, for example, of the artists whose studios and sometimes even lodgings were to be found in the “Bohemian rectangle,” and from the huge South End rooming house area beyond came the artist’s models, as well as stewards of the sleeping cars of the transcontinental trains that stopped at Back Bay Station, as well as the waiters and bellmen and such who staffed Copley Square’s grand hotels.

Hotel Vendome & New Old South Church

Hotel Vendome & New Old South Church

Thomas E. McKeller was one of these. He lodged at 523 Columbus Avenue in the South End, and was a bellhop and elevator operator at one of Copley Square’s two earliest deluxe hotels, the Vendome, erected in the early 1870s to the design of the architect of MIT’s buildings, William Preston and located on the corner of Dartmouth Street at Commonwealth Avenue, in the block where square and aristocratic rectangle merged. Indeed, Sargent was a sufficient enough grandee that he was one artist who lodged in that hotel, his suite on the corner of Commonwealth Avenue and Dartmouth Street, which we know because Charles Mount’s biography of the painter describes that suite as having two windows overlooking Dartmouth Street. Probably Sargent’s suite of rooms was on the fourth and topmost guest floor, moreover, which gave the artist ample time —  in his colleague Thomas Fox’s words, in his Transcript article of many years later —  to notice as he descended for his morning breakfast that the elevator operator was “possessed of a physique which he perceived would be of artistic value” — McKeller, of course.

Fox actually doesn’t specify the hotel, but we know where it was (and not, as is so widely and incorrectly assumed, the Copley Plaza) because while in the Boston Street Directory he is listed only as a “bellman” at an unnamed location, in 1917 the young man filled in his World War I draft registration card with the information that he was a “bell hop at the “Vendome,” the address and proprietor of which he also listed. We know too from another biographer, Stanley Olsen, that it was not until May of 1919 that Sargent moved to the Copley Plaza Hotel after what Olsen called the “inglorious episode at the Hotel Vendome in Boston when Nicola [d’Inverno, Sargent’s manservant and valet le chambre] and the hotel bartender had a drunken brawl.” Sargent, mortified, but unsure where the blame lay, went “to the manager and said he would discharge his man if the Vendome would do the same. The manager agreed.” But some ill will must have persisted, accounting for the move.


Art, it will be observed, opens for us a wider window on the 19th century square — on downstairs as well as upstairs, and on racial and ethnic diversity particularly, more prominent in the 19th century than most imagine. At MIT, for example, as noted in a previous chapter, Louis Sullivan, who was Irish Catholic, was a student in the early 1870s, and in 1871 Gaetano Lanza, a brilliant young mathematician and engineer, the son of a Sicilian immigrant to America, joined the faculty, by 1875 was full professor and head of the Mechanical Engineering Department, the Institute’s largest, by the 1890s. In that decade, moreover, MIT boasted its first African American graduate, Robert Taylor, the nation’s first professionally trained black architect, the subject just last year of a book by Tulane historian, Ellen Weiss, with a forward by Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Josephine St.Pierre Ruffin“[Taylor] excelled at MIT, remaining near the top of his class and even receiving a scholarship for his last two years,” Weiss writes, but notes too that his enrollment in 1888 at MIT was “unusual for a Southerner and extraordinarily rare for an African American.” Similarly at Trinity Church, where Josephine St Pierre Ruffin, the wife of Massachusetts’s first black judge, George Ruffin, and herself the founder of Woman’s Era, the first newspaper published by and for African American women, and the founder with Julia Ward Howe and Lucy Stone of the American Woman Suffrage Association, was a regular worshiper. So was son George Jr., a member of the choir, and daughter Florida, who was married at Trinity by Phillips Brooks.

In Brahmin-built, liberal-minded Copley Square, class trumped ethnicity or even race, generally.  But for the likes of the Ruffins, for instance — who lived on Beacon Hill  (in the 1870s, 80s or 90s blacks were not really welcome as householders–as opposed to butlers!– in the Back Bay) the issue was complicated but the fact there was in Copley Square a highly conspicuous black presence of a very special sort: not just McKeller, but all the servants in all of the grand hotels being built in the square were African Americans. The significance of this is explained by Andrew P. Haley in his University of Pittsburgh doctoral thesis, “Turning the Tables: American Restaurant Culture and the Rise of the Middle Class, 1880-1920”:

“No group was viewed as more fit for restaurant service in the 19th century than African Americans. Evoking images of slavery, the black waiter became a part of a restaurant’s aesthetic, a physical reminder of servitor. As E A Maccannon, himself an African American waiter, explained, . . . [P]atrons in the majority of cases prefer colored waiters . . . [an] intelligent, polished piece of ebony is just the thing needed to give force of contrast to the marble guests and at the same time properly distinguish the servitor from those he serves, and gives the exquisite and artistic variety of color-blending to the splendor of the service in the dining room.”

Visitors from abroad were apt to notice this at once. British artist Walter Crane, in town for an exhibition of his work at the art museum, observed dryly of the fashionable Copley Square hotel he was lodged in — the Brunswick, along with the Vendome the other of the earliest of the square’s deluxe hotels –that “there we made the acquaintance of the negro, the hotel [just behind Trinity on Boylston Street opposite MIT] being manned by black servants. The negro is, of course, ‘free’ in the [United] States, but” Crane pointedly remarked in An Artist’s Reminiscences, “he seems to do all the waiting.”

walter crane's sketch of black waiters - copley squareWalter Crane’s sketch of black waiters – Copley Square

Furthermore, to the extent the situation was changing, it was very much a mixed blessing. As Haley points out, by 1905 “the marginalization of black waiters in the North was the result of a growing racism . . . the availability of low-wage immigrant labor and the increasing identification of wealthy Americans with European aristocracy.” Lorenzo Greene and Carter Woodson in The Negro Wage Earner, (Wildside, 2008) agree. “[T]he Negro servant has been driven out of the first class hotels in nearly all cities by 1900. The sole exception was Boston, where they were preferred only because of their unusual politeness. . . . In all of the first class hotels of New York, however, they had been supplanted by whites. Likewise whites, and especially Irish servants, were commonly preferred to Negroes for household [service].”

One may be sure the legacy of Boston Abolitionism was felt in this respect, never mind Yankee-Protestant / Irish-Catholic animosity, though the authors do note that “like the Negro waiter, black coachmen, valets, butlers and bellboys in the North and West also tended to decline . . . A Negro butler in Boston, after answering more than 200 advertisements and having been refused each time ostensibly on grounds of color . . . exclaimed in exasperation, “These Boston people get me. They will have mass meetings to help the Negroes down South, but they will let a decent Northerner starve before they will give him a chance.”

Even in Boston, where by 1914 Negro bellboys at some of the leading hotels gave way to Japanese, although whites generally supplanted them, one African American who was still holding onto his job — the attentive reader will have seen this coming — was Thomas E. McKeller, who on the same 1917 draft card where he indicated he was a bellboy at the Vendome and roomed in the South End also recorded the fact that he was black, a native of Wilmington, North Carolina, drawn north doubtless by the chance of better opportunities.

That same month, October of 1917, the Museum of Fine Arts accepted Sargent’s proposal, in response to an invitation to submit same by the museum trustees, to execute a spectacular scheme of murals for the new museum’s rotunda. And indeed, that same month, probably with reference to the artist’s clear preference for murals over portraits by that time, Sargent wrote on October 20th to cousin Mary Hale, “My soul longs for the Pope Building [studio in Boston].”Meanwhile, Carol Troyen writes in Sargent’s Murals (MFA, 1999), Sargent had rented a huge studio loft at 221 Columbus Avenue, where he worked “on his designs through the winter and spring of 1918 . . . Sargent prepared for these murals with the conscientiousness of a much less experienced artist . . . [N]umerous drawings . . . were made by working diligently from the live model. Sargent’s favorite model [was] an African American hotel worker named Thomas E McKeller.”


What a novel might be written about that studio on the top floor of 221 Columbus Avenue. There was, for example, Vaslav Nijinksy, not the man to demur when called the greatest dancer in the world, whose portrayal by Sargent did not demur either. When in Boston while traveling with the Ballet Russe, he was a noticeable presence according to Sargent biographer Charles Mount, “the dancer [was] … likely to turn up at Columbus Avenue at any time, to stand in silence and watch . . . the glistening of Negro models beneath the skylight.” Models? Plural? Negro? On this it is not my writ to pronounce, though research on the list of models given in David McKibbin’s Sargent’s Boston would confirm this or not. Then there was the equally but differently distinctive presence of Isabella Stewart Gardner, who did not hesitate to descend on Sargent with her accustomed style: “Tom McKeller has told me,” David McKibben recounted in the same place that one day “Mrs Gardner  arrived with some Spanish folksong and a phonograph, which she wanted to play to Sargent. It was near the end of her life and she rarely went out, but she had McKeller carry her up the stairs to the studio so that she could share this great common interest with her old friend.”

Anton Kamp, one of a dozen or more models known to have been employed by Sargent, has also left reminiscences of the famously lively studio. There were actually two, the lofty “main studio,” with “a specially constructed platform about seven and a half feet high . . . built to elevate the model” and an adjoining smaller and more private studio, where Kamp posed for the artist, who in turn flirted with his model. The session over, as Kamp looked over Sargent’s shoulder at his work, the artist “turned half way about and with a twinkle in his eyes said, ‘I believe Phidias would have enjoyed you being about his workshop.’ A compliment indeed”, Kamp admitted, yet one  “leaving me a little non-plussed.”

It was of the smaller studio Kamp wrote when he described as among its contents the right hand panel of our triptych: “Above me on one of the walls hung an unframed canvas of a negro figure for which Tom McKeller, a postal employee and part-time contortionist had posed. This man had a superbly developed muscular figure. It was an impressive study, low key, broad, simple and forceful, perhaps the outcome of an afternoon when time permitted the painter to indulge in diversion away from the strain the murals may have imposed.”

Notice that while this “informal portrait” hung in Sargent’s more private than public studio, suggesting perhaps a more personal than only professional association or relationship, that Kamp was told or found out the name of the subject, and that he does not connect the portrait at all with the museum murals, except as a diversion perhaps. Kamp does not either suggest any impropriety about it. Nor does art historian Fairbrother, a distinguished Sargent scholar, in the first full-fledged public discussion of it in his 1894 study. “The lighting is dramatic and the splaying of the thighs is uninhibited,” he writes, adding, somewhat curiously,  “but the picture is not as overtly sensual as the reproduction.” Indeed, the art historian goes on to insist, as most who see the picture in person would, I think, agree, that for all its physicality, the effect is overwhelmingly, disconcertingly even, spiritual. Fairbrother again: “The subject’s spiritual reverie, enhanced by the light pouring down onto his face and chest, is unusual in Sargent’s work, and therefore all the more remarkable. I would agree there is a spiritual feeling and humanity in the work,” he concludes, arguing that the portrait is “a homage to a beautiful black model.”


“Our most outstanding American nude,” is the judgment of Elliot Bostwick Davis, the chair of the Boston Museum’s Art of the America’s collection concerning Sargent’s full-length, large-scale oil of McKeller, as quoted in Kay Bourne’s edge/New York website.  But that may not exhaust the significance of Sargent’s striking painting.  How many figures in the history of Western art can be seen in two deliberately different venues of the same museum, painted by the same artist, as a black man in one venue, as a white man in the other?

The inevitable question was first answered by Thomas Fox in his 1925 Sargent eulogy in The Boston Evening Transcript, where the young man “possessed of a physique” who Sargent had first noticed on the hotel elevator, Fox then went on to describe very clearly as “a young colored man,” who went on to be “the model for practically all the male figures” in the MFA murals, figures self-evidently ‘bleached’ to turn McKeller white. Those who see, not the murals, but The Nude Study of Thomas E. McKeller see the real person.

Still, the painting has for some time been exhibited at the museum, not with Sargent’s other portraits, where its significance as the “most outstanding American nude” would come to the fore, but with working sketches relating to poses of McKeller and other models for the museum’s murals, with which studies it would seem to have no relation at all, — as Fairbrother observed in his 1994 book, “the straddled pose in the painting does not appear to be a study for a particular figure in the [museum] murals” — and also in close and perhaps confusing proximity to the African art galleries. As Fairbrother has noted, this oil is “a tender and superbly executed image of a person in whose body Sargent saw beauty.” A modern American black man from Wilmington, North Carolina, who had come north to improve himself perhaps, whose education stopped in the seventh grade according to his draft card — not the usual type of person John Singer Sargent painted. Yet Fairbrother is clear: the McKeller is no study for any mural. It is an “informal portrait.” I am thus happy to be corrected by MFA Director Malcolm Rogers and to learn that the painting has been moved to join the main Sargent installation, where it now  keeps close company with the Boit daughters, another rather exceptional work of this great master.

Certainly it is Sargent’s depiction of the real McKeller that Fairbrother finds in favor of when, for instance, he compares the Nude Study with Atlas and the Hesperides in the museum murals, noting “the differences between the palpability of Nude Study of Thomas E McKeller and the blandness of Atlas,” suggesting not only “the extent to which Sargent compartmentalized his life,” but the relative quality of the art McKeller himself inspired. Fairbrother again: “it is the exultant nakedness of McKeller,” which the art historian calls central to this “great portrayal of the black model.”

The art museum’s murals are collectively a magnificent decorative ensemble, at once elegant and powerful. But that “most outstanding American nude” steals the show every time.


It almost didn’t survive.  At least once its destruction was imminent. With Sargent’s death the great portrait inevitably went underground, so to speak, its safety compromised for decade after decade, its very existence hidden away and only alluded to as part of a kind of cat and mouse game that went on for almost three quarters of a century, a history detailed in Gods of Copley Square for the first time.

It will have been observed that in the first known reference to McKeller, “As Sargent Goes to Rest,” Fox only partially identifies the model, who is “colored” but nameless, and makes no mention of the painting. Thirty years later Charles Mount’s biography of Sargent of 1955 also identified McKeller as black and, for the first time, reproduced the portrait, but still did not name the subject. In 1956 David McKibben, the head of the Boston Athenaeum Art Deparment, did just the opposite in Sargent’s Boston. McKibbin named McKeller, for the first time so far as I know, but he did not identify him as black, nor, again illustrate his portrait.

Leaving aside the Kamp interview of 1973, which surfaced when I do not know, it’s not for another quarter century,  until 1981, in “A Private Album: John Singer Sargent’s Drawings of Nude Male Models” in Arts Magazine that Fairbrother, for the first time, both names McKeller and identifies him as African American in the same place.(A significant followup came a decade later in Studies in the History of Art in Fairbrother’s “Sargent’s Genre Paintings and the Issue of Suppression and Privacy.”)   However, the Arts Magazine article refers to Sargent’s nude in Mount’s biography as of McKeller, notes it is in a “private collection,” but does not reproduce it. Nor does Carol Troyen twenty years later still in 1999, in Sargent’s Murals, issued by the MFA to mark their restoration. She names McKeller, identifies him as black, but does not even mention Sargent’s portrait of the model, which by then the museum had owned for a decade.

The crucial turning point in this shifting reportage came in the contrast between the huge 1998-99 Sargent retrospective in London, Boston and Washington — in the London segment of which and in the catalogue the McKeller nude was suppressed and conspicuously did not appear — and the Seattle Art Museum show of two years later. University of Washington Patricia Failing, writing in Art Notes, in May of 2001 in an article well entitled “The Hidden Sargent,” explains:

The private identity of the artist was imagined very differently in Seattle . . . Working against earlier biographies that portray Sargent as a staid, reticent bachelor, the Seattle show, ‘John Singer Sargent: The Sensualist’, presented him as ‘a complicated, exuberant, passionate individual with a homosexual identity. / Organized by Trevor Fairbrother . . . the survey incorporated [among other works] for the first time as a group . . . an album from Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum of 30 charcoal drawings of well-built men.

Thus it was that with the publication of Fairbrother’s John Singer Sargent: The Sensualist, in 2000 — three quarters of a century after Thomas Fox’s first opaque reference to Thomas E. McKeller  —   that all the pieces of the puzzle were brought together and McKeller was named, identified as African American and as the subject of this great portrait, which was published in the work.

By then, moreover, what was safeguarded for so long as an amazing memorial, intimate and penetrating, of great historical value, was coming into its own as a great work of art.  But where exactly was it all those years before in 1986   it reached safe harbor at the Boston’s art museum?

The Nude Study of Thomas E McKeller  . . . was in the artist’s Boston studio at his death [in 1925],” Fairbrother writes in his 1994 study of Sargent’s nude sketches, “but unlike so much of the material found there it was neither kept by [Sargent’s] sisters, nor given to museums. It is doubtful that this work” — talk about understatement — “would have been considered let alone purchased by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, until recently. Many interconnecting questions are raised by this painting. They cannot be answered definitively” he goes on to say, and certainly this is mirrored by the museum’s published provenance, which is absolutely accurate but also utterly opaque: “The artist, to estate of the artist; to Richard W. Hale, Boston, by 1929; on loan to MFA 1929-1931; to William James [Jr] by 1932; to David McKibbin, Boston; to Donald Kelley, Boston, by 1978; with Alfred J Walker Fine Arts, Boston, by 1986; to MFA, 1986 purchase.”

The first thing to notice is that although it didn’t go from Sargent’s estate to the artist’s sisters, it did stay in the Sargent family and was never quite out of the museum’s orbit either. Richard W. Hale, a Boston lawyer, was the husband of one of Sargent’s Boston cousins, Mary Newbold Patterson Hale, with whom the artist was very close, herself the author in 1982 of “The Sargent I knew” (The World Today, 1927), where she recounts that “between 1916 and 1925, when Sargent frequented Boston, it was my happy chance to be constantly with him”. That it was Hale who took possession of the McKeller portrait is fascinating … The Hales were very active at Boston’s art museum, which apparently accepted the McKeller on loan, as the provenance indicated, for three years. Nor was the picture exactly lost thereafter when it passed to William James Jr., the artist son of the famous psychologist: James Jr. was director of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts throughout the 1930s. Even when the picture passed from James to McKibben and Kelley, both art curators at the Boston Athenaeum, it seems not lost track of, as it were.

SargentSargent self-portrait

All that said, it is also true that the very existence of this portrait seems to have been a very closely held secret, unknown beyond a small circle, concerned perhaps to safeguard what was inevitably something of a smolderer when this spectacular example of full frontal male nudity finally surfaced, having only been glimpsed from time to time in various Beacon Hill bedrooms, that venue itself suggestive, either of the need to hide it from even semi-pubic view or of a desire to view it in the most intimate circumstances.

“[It] did not enter the public realm,” Fairbrother notes in his 1994 article, “until it was published in a biography in 1955” and then under rather problematic auspices.  The author, Charles Mount, later convicted of trying to sell stolen historical documents and sent to prison, was involved with McKibbin in disagreements that found their way into court and even into the nomination hearings of Stephen Breyer to the US Supreme Court, Breyer was the judge who heard the case) where Mount referred in testimony to the accusation that he had “appropriated David McKibbin’s work on Sargent” and asserted that it had been a matter of “McKibbin’s theft of my proof sheets and his own plagiaries and those of Richard Ormond” and finally claimed — it was a newly discovered disease! — to have long “suffered for so many years from the Boston Athenauem, due to its slanders and libels.” Whew! Mount’s only acknowledgment in his biography to any of the known owners of the picture he illustrated was to Mrs. Richard W Hale.


David Milton Kendall McKibbin is the hero of this story. When the digital library of TFAO (Traditional Fine Arts Organization), the leading online resource concerning American representational art, took note of the publication by Yale University Press of the first volume of the definitive catalogue of Sargent’s work in 1998, The Early Portraits, compiled by Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray, it reached back over half a century in noting that “the compilation of the catalogue raisonne began with the late David McKibbin (former librarian of the Boston Athenaeum) whose goal was to produce a comprehensive series of fully illustrated volumes with scholarly entries. McKibben laid the groundwork for the monumental task and locating and cataloging virtually every oil and watercolor that Sargent ever painted. McKibbin’s archive was bequeathed to Richard Ormond.”

Four years later, moreover, when Yale published the second volume, Portraits of the 1890s, by the same compilers, mention was made in the front matter of “the history of the catalogue raisonne going back to 1947, when David McKibben first began the task of collecting Sargent’s work,” a gracious gesture to a by then rather obscure scholar, who led the way in more ways than one in Sargent studies. His, of course, was the “private collection”

Another bequest of McKibben’s that would shape Sargent scholarship was made on his deathbed in 1978, to his friend and colleague, Donald Kelley, still thriving today at 85, and whom I have interviewed a number of times together with Al Walker. A graduate of Boston’s Museum School in 1957 Kelley went on to earn a degree in Fine Arts at Yale, and in the early 1960s, spent his ‘out of residence’ year in Boston working at the Athenaeum’s Art Department then headed by McKibbin.

A student, supporting himself as well through odd jobs, Kelley also cleaned the Boston apartment of the American painter, Conger Metcalf, and the two would often have lunch thereafter and go “shopping.” Thus it was that in an “antique shop” (more like a junk shop, Kelley remembers) on Le Grange Street in Boston’s “Combat Zone” in the early 1960s, the two stumbled upon what Kelley insists was no more to him than a very “dirty old canvas” — no double entendre intended — he wanted in order to reuse it for one of his own paintings, a canvass Metcalf bought for him, but that, most fortunately, before he could reuse it, was noticed by a dinner guest in his apartment one evening. The dinner guest was David McKibben, who knew Tom McKeller and was of course at work on the Sargent catalogue. Spotting the masterpiece, McKibbin exulted, and Kelley at once gave it to him. Alexander Yale Gorianski, who I have also interviewed, remembers many times thereafter seeing it in McKiben’s Beacon Hill apartment.


Meanwhile, what of Tom McKeller?

He was the supreme example, we are to believe, of one key theme in Sargent’s work — “Sargent’s fundamental predilection for the male body” and his “delight in robust masculinity” — which Fairbrother explains by comparing Sargent’s work to that of Boucher and Rodin when they drew the female body. The art historian, to whom with Al Walker we are indebted for this picture finally achieving safe harbor in Boston’s museum, adds that the artist’s ” great portrayal of the black model” very clearly “symbolized something of great consequence in Sargent’s life.”

Did McKeller return Sargent’s affection? There is a hint in the only anecdote of a friendship and collaboration of 35 years Thomas A. Fox cared to share with the readers of his Transcript eulogy, “As Sargent Goes to Rest,” an anecdote about the “young colored man” in the elevator, a young man surprisingly dominant in Fox’s article, who writes of McKeller:

“On the day of Mr. Sargent’s death, the young man came to my office. I was not there. The next morning he came again, saying, ‘I just come to pay my respects, sir.’ We shook hands and he went quietly away. Fox cites the anecdote as showing that Sargent’s relations with  “his most humble associates” could yield not only “respect and esteem” but “friendship”. Possibly, Fox is telling us more than he could know or we ever be sure of. It is also true that while McKeller did marry at one point, his death notice in the Boston Globe (July 16, 1962) lists neither wife nor children. He was survived only by a nephew in North Carolina and another in the Boston area. We are, I think, entitled to think Tom McKeller had something to do with why Sargent on October 20th, 1917, wrote from Washington to Mary Hale that “My soul longs for the Pope Building.”

It should be noted that there is the suggestion here that to the extent sexuality is involved in Sargent’s choice of McKeller as the subject for this “informal portrait” there is indicated, so to speak, something like the taste for “black athletes” which I recall when it was imputed in my The Crimson Letter to 1930s Cowley Fathers Superior Spence Burton, caused a small furor. But to confuse sexual fantasies about, say, blonds rather than brunettes, with some sort of moral choice is surely absurd.

Did any of the McKeller portraits owners through the years ever seek its subject out? Only David McKibben, so far as I know, whose bald statement, “Tom McKeller told me” indicates he was the exception, while the use of the nickname may imply some sort of friendship.

Sargent’s favorite model, meanwhile, disappears from the Boston Street Directory in the war years of 1918-1920. But when he surfaces again in 1921, when he would have been actively posing again for Sargent, there is some hint of  greater prosperity in his listing the year following as living on Rutland Square, one of the South End’s better addresses, and with no occupation noted, and “residence” rather than “rooms.” Thereafter, he seems to have lived out his life in complete obscurity but some security, a “laborer” according to the Street Directory it turns out, at the loading dock in Boston’s South Postal Annex behind South Station. McKeller died in 1962 in the seventieth year of his age.

Yet it was part of the history of Copley Square that no less than John Singer Sargent had seen in him sufficient nobility of spirit as radiance of physique: the bell hop too was a god.

How to know what all this meant or didn’t to Thomas Eugene McKeller? What it means to me is that I hope he was fortified midst life’s changes and chances by the knowledge that all the while he was working the loading dock, he led, so to speak, however anonymously, another life, in the rotunda of one of the great museums of the world — where he was Apollo, god of the sun, as he was Atlas, who upheld the world, and — ultimately — in his own right — the subject of the “most outstanding American nude.”

mckeller as atlas - mfa

Douglass Shand-Tucci is an historian of American art and architecture and Boston/New England studies. His most recent book is the second volume of his study of the architecture of Ralph Adams Cram (Univ.of Massachusetts Press, 2005) and he also teaches at the Boston Architectural College in the Masters degree program in Historic Preservation. He is the founder of the innovative new history site, Back Bay Historical | Boston CentricGlobal Studies, where his monthly longform blogs have become his principal publishing outlet.

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