Friday, April 13, 2018

Checking out Sargent

"Frieze of the Prophets." John Singer Sargent. Installed 1895. (Sargent Gallery, Boston Public Library)
Copyright © Edward Riojas

My, how times have changed.

One can hardly move through the public spaces of the United States without stumbling on a scar where a representation of the ten commandments once commanded a view. In the quest to equalize all citizens – especially the tiniest and most vocal minority groups – the Judeo-Christian segment of society has taken a massive hit. City halls and public schools and courthouses and libraries have become so sanitary that one wonders how any of our freedoms can freely roam at all.

Of course, this wasn’t always the case. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, the seeds of free thought were being sown almost willy-nilly, and at least one celebrated artist rather unintentionally set a high bar among public spaces.

John Singer Sargent, portrait painter of the rich and famous, and widely known for his then-controversial portrait of “Madame X,” was sharing a cavernous, English studio with another well-known artist, Edwin Austin Abbey. Abbey had been commissioned to paint a series of lavish murals to decorate a large gallery in the new McKim building of the Boston Public Library, and, in keeping with a romantic literary theme, based his 15 paintings on “The Quest and Achievement of the Holy Grail.” The quasi-religious, Arthurian legend was certainly enough to loudly inspire, even among the hush of library patrons.

While Abbey was working on his project in the studio, the building’s architect, Charles Follen McKim, gave a similar commission to Sargent for murals in a different gallery. The brilliant portraitist was given free reign on subject matter. Early on, Sargent leaned toward a theme based on the imagery of Spanish literature. And then he changed his mind.

Perhaps it was that Sargent knew his Boston audience. Perhaps the robust Irish-Roman Catholic population had something to do with it, or maybe it was the large Jewish community. Perhaps it was the emergence of off-beat belief systems, hybrids of existing religions, or simply his own curiosity that caused Sargent to choose the “Triumph of Religion” as his theme.

Sargent may have aimed at what, in his own mind, was a broad target, but the result can easily be viewed with a very narrow scope. Instead of including a truly global set of religions, inclusive of Far Eastern religions and those of Central Africa and South America, Sargent chose to highlight only those connected to civilizations mentioned in Holy Scripture. There is, for example, strange imagery of the Egyptian goddess, Neith, the Canaanite god, Moloch, and Gog and Magog, but that is where paganism ends in the murals.

The lion’s share of imagery contained in the Sargent Gallery highlights the Israelite’s oppression, Old Testament prophets, depictions of angels, a multitude of Marian-themed images, and, perhaps most significantly, a lovely image of the Holy Trinity and a sculpted crucifix commanding one end of the gallery. The Three Persons share a single robe emblazoned with “Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus...” Slightly below is a crucifix with Adam and Eve collecting the blood of Christ and, below His feet, an image of the Pelican in Her Piety.

Sargent’s gallery was never finished. Drawings exist of an intended addition, “The Sermon on the Mount,” but other commissions increasingly pulled the artist away and, ultimately, his own death ceased all work on the project.

It is questionable that a full accounting of his own beliefs can be construed from Sargent’s progress on the Boston Public Library. At one point, however, the artist was forced to repair damage to a section when disgruntled members of the Jewish community threw ink on a blindfolded representation of the Synagogue, and, in spite of attempting a mere historic view of Israel and the manifestation of the Messiah, it is remarkable that Sargent’s result is a decidedly lofty, if not edifying, set of murals. Perusing the library’s Sargent Gallery with its depiction of Old and New Testament imagery certainly puts to shame the collective public spaces of our entire nation, and, quite frankly, many of our churches, as well.

"Dogma of Redemption." John Singer Sargent. Installed 1903. (Sargent Gallery, Boston Public Library)

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