‘Boston’s Apollo’ at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Studies Racial Identity

The rotunda at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) is easily recognizable and identifiable by many Boston residents and art enthusiasts. The massive murals, painted by John Singer Sargent, depict beautiful scenes and figures from Greek mythology. For a project of this scale, however, Sargent had to have composed pre-drawings to test different styles and ideas before painting the final product. These charcoal sketches were just recently discovered in January 2017 in the Gardner collection storage and are the center for the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s (ISG) newest exhibit, Boston’s Apollo.

The exhibit features the preparatory drawings of Sargent for the rotunda murals. What intrigued curators about these drawings, however, was the model: a young, black man identified as Thomas McKeller. While these sketches star a black man, Sargent’s final works portray white gods and goddesses. 

As displayed at the exhibit, McKeller was born in North Carolina in 1890 and joined the Great Migration as a teenager. This journey led him to Boston, where he worked as an elevator attendant at the Hotel Vendome. In 1916, he met Sargent by chance and became his principal model for nearly a decade. Sargent transformed McKeller into countless Greek gods and goddesses, allegories, soldiers, and more in many of his portrait works from 1916 to 1928. The exhibit at the ISG showcases these drawings to explore the model’s life in conjunction with Sargent’s. Its goal is to show how their hidden queer relationship and, furthermore, their art was influenced by social standards and prejudices of the time. 

Boston’s Apollo raises questions about racial and sexual identity, as well as the social statuses that came with those identities in the early 20th century. The exhibit also includes installations from contemporary artists and poets, and comments from art historians alongside Sargent and McKeller’s past works—placing modern questions alongside past works. 

Upon entering the exhibit, visitors are immediately greeted by a timeline spanning the entire length of the front wall. The timeline spans from 1884, when Sargent met Isabella Gardner, to 1964, when the Civil Rights Act was passed. The timeline provides a cultural context for what was happening in Boston when Sargent was drawing McKeller and emphasizes how significant the social situation at the time was for both the artist’s and model’s lives. 

Almost every portrait on display in the exhibit is accompanied by two plaques on either side: one giving a description of the picture with a side by side of the final product, and the other displaying a reaction, comment, or work of poetry written by a community collaborator, local artist, or scholar chosen by the museum to provide a new perspective on the art. This multifacetedness marries the voices of the modern Boston art scene with those of the past. 

One of the walls in the exhibit is solely devoted to Sargent’s Atlas, a Greek titan condemned to hold up the heavens for eternity, which is displayed with a quote from McKeller that reads, “Atlas, with the world on his shoulders, this was my body.” On the adjacent wall is a circular pendant covered with pegs where visitors can write down the story of any individual that they believe deserves to be told and add it to the exhibit. Boston’s Apollo emphasizes interaction between the art and its viewer. 

McKeller’s great-niece, Deidre McKeller O’Bryant, was present for the exhibit’s opening last Thursday. 

“It’s not a matter of whether or not I had pride in my family, I always did, but [the exhibit] just makes a whole new world. This has opened up my pride, I suppose, more,” O’Bryant said. “I’m so glad to see the attention, and I think that was what was deserved from this. I’m so glad that the attention is focused not only on the artist because certainly the artist couldn’t do his work without the models. I hope [McKeller] would be pleased with the exhibit.” 

The printed versions of the MFA murals displayed next to portraits of McKeller in the exhibit emphasize the contrast between the model and the finished works. 

“It has made me want to learn more about art,” O’Bryant said. “Every time I come back and see something here or look at a sketch, I’m seeing something a little bit different that I hadn’t noticed before. I suppose you could study it for years and still find something different every time.” 

Boston’s Apollo is on display at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in the Hostetter Gallery from now until May 17. Admission to the museum is free with an Eagle ID.

Featured Image by Aneesa Werners/Heights Staff