John Singer Sargent’s Secret Muse

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston explores the relationship between the famous artist and his now-famous model.

Comments: 83

  1. "The Gardner was careful to consult African-American art historians, community leaders and others to ensure the exhibition was done sensitively." This is really interesting, but what does it actually mean? I understand the involvement of art historians, but what did community leaders contribute? And who were these "others"? Was this a move to community-based curatorship, giving the community a rubber stamp on museum decisions, or just PR?

  2. @Locho Probably a little bit of everything - making sure that the show gets contextualized correctly for the community, but also to cover blind spots. There are countless examples of well-meaning institutions making what seem like obvious mistakes - usually in hindsight because they failed to conduct the due diligence that the Gardner apparently did.

  3. @Locho The more people talking about art the better!! Yes, get them talking, PR or not, let’s bring art into our communities as a vibrant convo. Bravo to this exhibit and the many conversations, arguments and wonder it ignites.

  4. Two days ago at the Brandywine museum in Pennsylvania which features paintings of N. C. Wyeth, Andrew Wyeth - N. C.'s son, and Jamie Wyeth - his grandson (among others); I saw an incredible portrait of a black childhood friend of Andrew's rendered as a hunter. The painting is called "Black Hunter" by Andrew Wyeth. The model for the painting was David Lawrence. I think the painting is a masterpiece. Douglas Jay Martin

  5. @Douglas Martin how about an exhibition of Sargent's images of Keller and Mapplethorpe's images of Milton Moore?

  6. John Singer Sargent was a great artist, and Thomas Keller a beautiful man and model. Together, they produced fabulous art, but also reflected their time and our long history of using Black people to create economic, artistic, and architectural masterpieces without giving them the credit they deserved. The damage this caused to the Black community, to our founding Declaration and to our humanity was and remains massive. This is another example of why we need, as a Nation, and as a people, to acknowledge this harm in all its dimensions, and try to repair the effects that have lasted to our current day.

  7. @Steve Bell is not credit given fully to Thomas Keller's beauty, captured with genius and sent forth through time?

  8. @Estill & Steve Bell Well, what about all those women models who were simply used to advance the artists' aims. I guess you could say that artists exploit their models, eh? Black people have certainly been viciously oppressed and exploited here and elsewhere, but I'm not sure that this show highlights a very strong example of this fact. It is an interesting bit of art history, though. He also knew and painted a lot of wealthy Jews, which somewhat scandalized and titillated his contemporaries. He seems to have been uninterested in adhering to some social conventions. Maybe politics, maybe just following his muse...he was a pretty close-to-the-vest kind of guy, I think.

  9. @Estill: If truly "credit [were] given fully to Thomas Keller's beauty".... you both would have used his name correctly. The model, muse, and perhaps collaborator was Thomas McKeller (not Keller... belying his credit).

  10. Congratulations on a beautiful and interesting focus show that wrestles with historical complexity in a sensitive manner. It's easy to mount politically correct exhibitions of contemporary art right now. It is a far more difficult--but I think ultimately more rewarding--endeavor to embrace the messiness of history, and to do so in a collaborative manner. If we do not include other voices in our work, how can we hear anything but our own echo?

  11. Miraculous finding. There has been, and I think we will continue to discover, important relationships between people who, because of their time, were forbidden to have relationships. The tragedy in stories like this is the famous white artist gets the known record of accomplishment, but the black partner has no record at all of who he really was — except as reflected in the white partner’s eye. The number of people, stories and accomplishments lost to us in this way is heartbreaking.

  12. @David Law How much approbation for his accomplishment is due to a model? Would this question even arise but for the fraught nature of race relations in America? For centuries, women models have gotten zero credit for the accomplishment of their posing. Okay, the patriarchy is real, but this is a bit silly.

  13. I think this direction in looking at art and artists is fascinating. There is still so much to be told from paintings and the history of our culture black, white and every other color. Learning of the good and bad of our history is important, but in condemning people of the past from the point of enlightenment of our present, we must understand, we as humans are still evolving and will also one day be judged.

  14. Being a studio model is and was a respectable and well paying career. At the very least, we know this is the case with McKeller. The elevator operations must have only been a side job, or a more steady one. I want to believe that Sargent did have a meaningful relationship with this man. It certainly shows emotion as depicted in the portrait.

  15. The purpose of a model is simply to wear the clothes, or in this case, not wear them; and to draw no attention to oneself. Without a head, would one know the body is of African descent? I'd be interested to know what remains in the written form about their relationship.

  16. @Joseph , Long ago I was an artist's model. It was not a totally passive role. In fact, why bother with a live model if a mannequin or photo could serve as well?

  17. As an art historian I am very curious about what Professor Greene means when she refers to John Singer Sargent as a beloved painter of "early American art". Sargent was a late nineteenth century, early twentieth century artist whose work was once deplored by some modernists, like critic Roger Fry. More recently, Sebastian Smee, in an article published in the Washington Post, December 18, 2019, wrote of how the "velocity of modern life is often revealed" in his art. Might we not think of such eighteenth century artists as Gilbert Stuart, John Singleton Copley and Benjamin West as "heroes" of early American art? As to "canonical" what does that mean? Is there a canon of American art, and if so who wrote it? Locking Sargent up in inaccurate time frames and quasi-religious terminology will not disclose his genius. His genius was his appreciation for beauty and the elaborate way he captured what he saw with bravura, and a striking ability to dissemble. Thomas Keller, like his Italian model Olimpio Fusco, caught his eye and stirred his genius. He liked handsome men, he adored beautiful women...and, to paraphrase Keats, that is all we know and need to know. Try looking at Sargent without words, without the social construct of race and class and feel what you see. Surely that was what Sargent amaze and which he was an immortal success.

  18. Professor Greene might have misspoken because I dont know anyone how would place an artist painting in the early 20th Century in the category of "early American." You might get away with "American late Victorian" as a category but most would simply call his work early Modern simply because he was prolific in the 20th Century time period.

  19. @K Henderson Well, sometimes the NYTimes just doesn't make much sense, despite it's generally high quality. They also said this: One prominent exhibition to highlight models who were largely invisible because of their race was “Posing Modernity: The Black Model From Manet and Matisse to Today” in 2018 at the Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University. It examined the significance of black female models in the early years of European modernism. I went to that exhibit, and all the black (female) models were definitely visible, and shown as black women. The point was the way they were shown as such. Journalism falls into cliche quite easily, but that's life.

  20. @Estill Well, indeed. But this was a highly specific article about Sargent in terms of a highly specific exhibition at the ISGM, inspired by the revelation of seeing the portfolio of drawings. To brush that aside seems....odd. There are countless opportunities to look at Sargent without words. Here's an opportunity to look at him and think. As an art historian certainly that must have value for you. Or do you use the term lightly? Are you published? Or do you find words always problematic? As to "canon", yeah, that's not written in stone and enacted by Congress, but it's pretty much understood. More so as you reach back in time. Sargent is definitely in the canon. No doubts on that. Oh, and it's "Thomas McKeller".

  21. I believe some artist intend on letting the guessing game they create last long after their departure: deeming it the "spirit of fulfillment".

  22. John Singer Sargent, an expat American, was a man of his times, meaning a racist. The same can be said for many people living in the United States today. I knew nothing of his relationship or paintings of McKeller but this doesn't change the fact that he's one my favorite artist. I also love Caravaggio, who was a murderer.

  23. This is an astonishing revelation. The thought that Sargent might have had a relationship with McKeller seems entirely plausible, and adds to the sadness of learning about yet another black life that would have been wiped from the slate of history were it not for someone accidentally stumbling across the truth. Btw, several web sites offer a correction to the traditional narrative of Western art from the middle ages through the Renassiance that pretends blacks were never part of Europe or its art. My favorite is

  24. Just who are these mythical people that pretended that blacks were never part of Europe or its art? I think you are pretending that such people exist—see the concept “straw man”.

  25. Being an artists' model isn't as easy as many think. Holding a pose, especially while twisting or holding the arms in the air, is pretty exhausting. I know: I did it for money while I was in college. If an artist found a model whose body he liked, who could take direction and hold poses without complaint, that model would be hired regularly. It may be intriguing to imagine a romantic relationship between the two men, but there's nothing in this story to indicate that. It's more likely that it was simply a working relationship valued by both Sargent and McKeller.

  26. @Elizabeth A There something disturbingly and willfully naive about that comment, similar to the "historians" who for years denied Thomas Jefferson's relationship with Sally Hemming. I guess we all believe what makes us most comfortable.

  27. @Jerry: given the caution expressed in the article I’m jumping to conclusions, it is possible to suggest that your position could also be wilful. For now, a non-committal position would seem to be appropriate, at least according to the author.

  28. @Jerry Actually, Elizabeth is right on. As a painter for 30 years who has hired many women to pose for my me, the model is the means by which the work is realized. The simple fact that someone posed repeatedly for Sargent does not mean they had anything but a professional relationship.

  29. In this column is encapsulated a fascinating story raising the question, what was the relationship between the famous white artist and the black doorman. The one drawing depicting McKeller as black appears much more powerful, beautiful, ethereal than the others depicting white men, who appear anemic.

  30. As a Black person, I read this with a combination of elation and sadness. Elation, because recognition is finally coming due to someone who was often hidden from exposing his true identity, and now is finally free. Sadness, because this is too often the case for African-Americans in a country they have contributed generations of hard toil in helping to build, without ever truly attaining equal status in a land that prides itself as being the most egalitarian in the world. My gratitude goes out to all those who kept digging to unearth the background of Mr. Thomas McKeller, as well as John Singer Sargent for recognizing true beauty knows no color lines. And that beauty is only skin deep.

  31. @N. Smith : Note the comment by K. Henderson: "The video link on the page to a short doc about McKeller is worth watching. His few remaining relatives have only brief memories of him but it offers plenty of context."

  32. @N. Smith Ditto to your post, because I feel the same way you do as a black man. I actually wonder if McKeller was financially rewarded for posing, or was he threatened to do so, given the era. This issue seems to be missing in the other posts I've read from the contributors.

  33. @Steve The video addresses that question: Mr. McKeller needed to ask for money. This is part of the grand mystery in this relationship. Clearly, Sargent and McKeller knew each other for years, and given the times, they met as different classes,. Even if one removes the issue of race, they were different. Did Sargent care enough to ask of the life condition of his model? For his work with "society," Sargent would have needed to display the affect of a "society" man, but was there another side, one that could open up to McKeller, a man of far different background?

  34. He was a good painter, watercolorist and muralist, but he was weak in his use of line in drawing.

  35. @john michel His drawings are mostly sketches and not meant for public view. An odd comment

  36. @K Henderson That doesn't matter. Sketches are the most important of all. Lots of artists can do a fair job at tonality, but the real masters see line the way in which the Japanese and Chinese calligraphers used it. Sargent was weak in line. but I don't expect you to know that. Whistler was a far superior draughtsman, a creative genius and a much better example of an artist.

  37. Yes, the first thing that comes to mind when seeing a Sergeant painting is, “Fair job of tonality, but he’s no Whistler! Too bad others than myself can’t be expected to know that!”

  38. You have to be careful how you react to this. First, because the motives for using the body model, and not the facial one, can be technical, not social. The face is the most private and personal part of a model's body. Is the final image, then, one of that PERSON, or of a monumentalized other person? That depends on the commission. If there was a political dimension to this, it's that there were not more "historic" black male hero-figures that the public demanded to see in the models, in the first place. Also, that Sargent wasn't paid more often for paintings of black men.

  39. The video link on the page to a short doc about McKeller is worth watching. His few remaining relatives have only brief memories of him but it offers plenty of context. Sargeant will always be a cipher: his letters were destroyed and his portraits are special partly because the faces in them seem to know a secret they dont want to tell.

  40. the original photoshop skin lightening!

  41. @SPR Far from the original. In the 19th century, for instance, even the pictures of some black authors were lightened to make them more acceptable to white audiences.

  42. I very much like the works of Sargent, hovering as they do between Velazquez and kitsch. We have long known that he was homosexual. “Che pecatto”, he might have said. The same for the young man’s “race.” Commentators do not know what he called himself. It probably wasn’t “black,” an omnibus category only invented in the Federal census of 1930. The model resembled many of the young men Sargent had met in his peregrinations in the previous thirty years in North Africa.

  43. @Ibrahim Sundiata Sir, thanks for your comment. In the United States, however, Thomas McKeller would've been keenly aware that he was "black" as defined by the Jim Crow segregation of the time. The video attached to the museum link in this article ("Boston's Apollo: Thomas McKeller and John Singer Sargent") introduces McKeller's lovely family members -- African Americans who fondly remember McKeller as a beloved member of their kinship circle. It's an insightful video and well worth watching if only to hear from McKeller's remaining family.

  44. Sargent was a fantastically gifted painter. He has some real masterpieces to his name including the Boit Children and El Jaleo. I can't think of any living painters who can draw with paint as well as he did while keeping the feeling of the paint alive. Paint quality. Being of his class and time, he couldn't possibly acknowledge his homosexuality. You really can't hide it in your art. It always comes out. Sargent had real feeling for male physical beauty. It's so nice that he left a remembrance of his relationship with this man.

  45. @Displaced yankee As a woman who only paints women but has been married to the same man for 40 years, I would strongly disagree. You use the model who best expresses your ideas whether you are attracted to that sex or not.

  46. A model is a stand-in and reference for the artist's vision. They are a tool. When you model, you agree to be in their hands. A model may be a muse, but the act of serving as a model is to fundamentally relinquish your identity in service to someone else's creative purpose.

  47. @Suzanne No. A good model has more to offer than the ability to follow directions and sit there like a mannequin. They will work collaboratively, make suggestions, and imbue the poses with their own personality. Almost anyone can sit still and be painted or photographed, but a skilled model will understand how light and shadow fall on their body, how their musculature works with each pose, and how to channel emotion through their face and body. It is a skill that must be built over time.

  48. @Suzanne I very much agree with @Bonnie. I was a figure model for many years, engaged because of my personality not despite it. Although I had no romantic relationships with the artists for whom I posed, I was often glad for the exchanges of ideas and humanity I experienced with good artists. I could say more about the myth of the "great man" working in isolation but the comments of @RVC covered this point quite well.

  49. @Suzanne: Perhaps this one fact affirms the true nature of the relationship between Sargent and McKeller: That McKeller was almost always the model Sargent employed, for his most acclaimed and prominent works. So perhaps McKeller was an essential element, adding "something" to those works? Perhaps McKeller was more than a muse, and more a collaborator giving seminal ideas and poses to Sargent. Perhaps no other model could do or did this for Sargent? It is entirely possible that Sargent's works were more collaborative than we so far have believed. In the early 20th century, it would have been insulting to ascribe to a black man any importance or artistic ability, so perhaps Sargent gave his sketches of McKeller to Isabella Gardner as his way to "reward" McKeller and footnot his importance in Sargent's career.

  50. The racial and potentially romantic aspects of this story are interesting and I am glad they are being explored. But these kinds of revelations also undermine a larger myth: the myth of the "solo genius." A surprising number of great artists and thinkers were highly collaborative. Artists worked in studios, with multiple hands sometimes working on a single painting. Playwrights like Chekhov and Shakespeare worked with the same actors again and again. Einstein created his own little "academy" of friends to discuss his ideas, when he was supposedly working alone as a patent clerk. Not to mention the contributions and ideas of countless wives, family members, friends, and servants whose names are never spoken of in the historical record. If Sargent worked with this model a lot, then McKeller was probably bringing something to the table. Maybe that something was romantic, but perhaps it was his patience, ideas, energy, or suggestions of interesting poses. It's time to put aside with the "great man" theory in art or history. We need to start thinking of cultural creation as the collaborative process that it really is in order to have a real understanding of what culture is, and who is making it.

  51. @RVC No. Great men and women exist in the art world, regardless of collaborations, or collectives.

  52. @RVC Hey, JSS was a GREAT painter. Just look at his work! He really knew how to wield a brush, and he loved to do it! Maybe there was nothing more to his oeuvre than his love of the painterly, but he was a master of it. Yes, he need a model he could click with, and that maybe was important, but let's keep our perspective. Only one of them was doing the painting.

  53. Yes! We must find out the identities of the models that the insignificant Michelangelo exploited while painting the Sistine Chapel and finally give them proper credit!

  54. "The show also features Sargent’s only monumental male nude and his only portrait of McKeller as himself." This point above should have been more emphasized because it is rather central to the whole story. It is worth pointing out the full picture of the McKeller portrait makes Mr McKeller's ethnicity more apparent, which adds another layer to an already complicated picture of Sargent. It was a non-commissioned work so evidently Sergeant was content to paint the model as he himself wanted to. Without more info we wont know the whole story but the existence of this portrait is significant and adds to the mystery of Sargent.

  55. The role of the paid artist's model is by its very nature an anonymous one. The model provides an anatomical reference from which the artist creates a human figure brought forth in the desired medium, context, details and identity of the artist's imagination. This has been true for centuries, and it is the role McKeller served for Sargent's studies, classical murals, and other works -- all except those in which McKeller was actually named as the subject, such as that ravishing oil painting. That we now know McKeller was African American imposes a racial aspect onto this otherwise unexceptional professional relationship. (The rest is speculation.) Had Sargent not given Gardner those drawings, McKeller would have joined countless other nameless models and muses throughout history (of all races and genders) in anonymity, their only lasting legacy the images they left behind.

  56. @JR It's exceptional because during the very years McKellar's physique provided anatomical references for some of Sargent's most celebrated works extolling ideal Western forms and focusing the country's pathos on the losses of the Great War, elsewhere in the country black men were being lynched, burned alive, their anatomy dismembered and kept for souvenirs. This, on a routine basis (to the point that April Fool's jokes were made about it in local newspapers) and with enthusiastic public audiences to rival any of the finest museums. So it matters that Sargent at once celebrated McKellar's body while obscuring his race. Though resident in more outwardly civilized climes, Thomas McKellar (and Sargent) would have been aware of the unfolding events. This was also during the time that the African-American railway porters who traveled the eastern seaboard working for the Pullman line were dehumanized, uniformly referred to as "George," no matter their actual given name. This is not an imposition. This is history. The Gardner is seeking to tell a broader and deeper version of our cultural story.

  57. @JR The full portrait of McKeller was well known and named for Mr McKeller long before the appearance of the sketches so I am not sure your point completely tracks.

  58. @K Henderson Yes, the portrait was known. But McKeller was not known to be Sargent's paid model for other work until a curator connected the dots.

  59. I am not a professional art academic but this is very clear to me: a viewer can quickly tell whether John Singer Sargent was intrigued or bored by the subject sitting before him. Handsome and athletic men (Dr. Pozzi, Thomas McKeller) were lovingly painted. Dramatic women (Madame X, Ellen Terry) were a favorite. And attractive children usually fared well. On the other hand, there are a number of society commissions—often the pleasant wives of rich and powerful men—that seemed to leave the artist cold. These portraits were part of a day's work. But I guess every artist needs to take the high-paying commissions in order to fund the projects that are done for love.

  60. I remember a major show at MFA on Sargent. In that show was the picture of McKeller that opens this article. I still remember how glorious it was. I'm going to be in Boston this summer. Perhaps I'll take in this show because I've never found any information about this picture and this model. Thank you for the article.

  61. "Other works of naked black males by Sargent" In the summer of 2000, the Metropolitan had a small exhibit of works by Sargent, either watercolors or sketches in a different medium. He did them while visiting his friend in Coral Gables who built Vizcaya, the grand estate on the water. I distinctly recall a number of sketches of African-American men with fine physiques, naked or nearly unclothed. They were construction workers taking their noonday rest. One could certainly find them homoerotic. So my question is whether other art historians have made a connection to that cache of work? No reference to it is made in the Gardner show (but I have not read the catalogue).

  62. @JW I am finding all sorts of examples of images that paint ethnic diversity. Look at Sargent's paintings while visiting the Ottoman ruled Levant, Jerusalem, Beirut and Syria. In addition to the Quarry watercolors, you can find some figures with dark skin in some of his most famous depictions of soldiers. (Gassed)

  63. @JW Other examples of Sargent's work, including his watercolors at Vizcaya, are included in the catalog. They make a fascinating comparison in relation to the drawings of McKeller.

  64. @Alejandro N. Oh, thank you for letting me/us know that the Vizcaya watercolors are in the catalog. We attended the members' preview and I'm taking some students there later, but I had not yet had time to study the catalog. All's well, then.

  65. That Sargent changed a model's gender, race, or features when working on commission is unexceptional--artists have used available models and reference to create imaginary people for their clients since at least the Renaissance. That Mr. McKeller was black, and that he may have had a romantic relationship with the painter--those things are exceptional. And while they complicate the erasure of McKeller's likeness from Sargent's murals, the implication that this should be seen as evidence of Mr Sargent's personal racism (a painter who, on his own time and at his own expense CHOSE to paint Mr McKeller as he appeared, race and features intact, for the simple beauty and joy of it) and not of the prejudices of the patrons for whom he labored and the society in which he lived, is irresponsibly facile at best and a misleading smear at worst. It's probable that Sargent was a man of his place and time, and carried at least some of the baggage that implies. But John Singer Sargent was, himself, kept partially in hiding by the prejudices of his day, saw Thomas McKeller for the human being he was, and made a gift to him of their shared labor. Those are the things we KNOW. Why assume or invent the worst of the things we don't?

  66. @Jake W agree with you

  67. @Jake W Thanks for your wise and irenic comment.

  68. The end of the article suggests that Sargent gave these drawings to Isabella Gardner, as his final coda, because he wanted her to eventually reveal what McKeller meant to him. It shows that while Sargent was both racist and demeaning to him, he put great importance on this one black man. Or perhaps the importance he placed was on his own drawings of this one black man. We may never know!

  69. @Incredulous of 45, as I learned at the exhibit yesterday, Sargent did not give the drawings to Mrs Jack. She died in 1924 and John died in 1925. John Singer Sargent's sisters, as his beneficiaries to his estate, made the donation of all the drawings in 1926. I agree that we may never know, but I do not support your hypothesis.

  70. @Eugene Doherty Fascinating! I am quite sure that at the members' opening, it was stated by a speakers that he personally gave them to Mrs. Gardner i 1921/22, but your information sounds very reliable. Was that in the catalog?

  71. How titillating - - and fabulous - - that Sargent potentially loved (and obviously adored, through his drawings and paintings of the subject) Mr. McKeller, all while discreetly dismantling the vivid separation between Gilded Age excess (those wallowing in it) and the invisible work force (black servants) that held it in place! The monumental portrait of Mr. McKeller is in a word, exquisite. I so enjoyed reading this fascinating article NYT, thank you and please keep up the excellent work!

  72. "As he looked more closely, he realized the man was black, which was unusual for Sargent’s work, “and as I realized most of them were of the same person, I wanted to find out more,” he added. Dr. Silver is the museum’s head curator." I realize this makes a great story, especially for an academic these day who can make a career off of identity politics, but I still don't understand how Dr. Silver knows the man was clearly black and not biracial or some other race? I think it is interesting if he were black, and "whitewashed," but I read the article and remain unsure how Dr. Silver so assuredly identified the subject's race? Any photos or written documents to support this claim?

  73. @sansacro Hello there! Great question. I was fortunate to be a curatorial researcher on this project, and am happy to say that Dr. Silver and the team were able to locate archival documents and contact McKeller's extended family to identity Thomas E. McKeller's background. There is more info on the museum's site if you are interested.

  74. @Alejandro N. Thanks. Wish that was in the piece. Will definitely look at the site.

  75. That there is only a single portrait of Thomas McKeller speaks to both the racism and the tendency of artist's to objectify human beings. I'm thinking not only of Sargent but of Picasso's treatment of "muses--" women objectified with verbal or emotional abuse. It does not speak well for the artistic temperament and belies the humanity art lovers insist is inherent in works of art.

  76. @Laurence Bachmann That flawed human beings may produce works of art that very flawed human beings, less flawed human beings, and some saints may deem worthy for the ability of those works to display and evoke certain truths about humanity in its glories and its flaws strikes me as inherently reasonable.

  77. @Wölfflin Panofsky Does it? I find it troubling. Watch Hannah Gadsby's excoriating critique of Picasso on Netflix. It's really rather brilliant. And infinitely more humane.

  78. Not exactly true... his water-colours in the Caribbean 'Figure and Pool' , 'Bathers' and others show nude black figures ... 'Figure with Red Drapery' at the Met may also be the same model.

  79. Black or white or any other race, the models for art work are in a strange category all their own. They are both the focus and image of the artists' craft, the object the viewer sees, and non-existent as individuals, having been transformed into what the artist sees or imagines. If you go to a sketch class, and draw the models there, usually you are drawing form and ignoring the person before you. You are using their physical attributes as the armature to build your own vision upon.

  80. @LO I don’t agree. It. Figure drawing as well as portraiture is an intimate relationship with the model’s spiritual, physical and mental states, and how could it be otherwise? They are stark naked! Ignoring the person before you is like being a pilot and ignoring the vast space in front of you. See how that turns out. Drawing is an opportunity to break through the barrier between appearance and reality, to bypass judgment and to allow yourself to feel that person’s electricity as well as their physical uniqueness.

  81. There's a Henry James short story called 'The Real Thing' - I'm sure Sargent would have known it, or maybe even been its inspiration. In it, an impoverished but genteel couple lower themselves to model, as gentility, for an artist's illustrations. They eventually quietly, have to switch with the role of the servants who look much more 'the part'. I'm reminded of it because it's a contemporary story of appearances and necessity that imply Sargent and his circle (James was a friend) were well aware of, and utilized as a matter of course, the distance between the authentic and theatric idealization.

  82. John Singer Sargent was gay and a society painter. As a young man in Paris he was "burned" when his portrait of Mme. Gatreau (Madame "X") was exhibited and caused a scandal. Commissions dried up. (His transgression was to represent a woman of racy reputation, heavily powdered and wearing a gown with one strap falling off her shoulder.) In London a chastened Sargent started afresh, learning how the game was played in the era of Oscar Wilde. The lesson that Sargent learned is one that all artist who depended upon private and public patronage had to learn. Society has its rules. It would be a shame if the rules of our time led us us to confound society's limits imposed upon the artist with the self-limit of personal prejudice. It isn't fair to judge Sargent against the contemporary ideal of an out gay man in an equal, interracial relationship. Sargent possessed what one critic called "a relentlessly elegant eye." He rarely bothered with anything that did not please it, especially when he was not obligated to paint tiresome society "mugs." For me the important thing is that his private work makes it clear that when he was working for his own pleasure he found black people--black men in particular--beautiful and entirely worthy of his pictorial gifts. It is those superlative gifts that have singled out McKellar for our consideration. They do not represent a crime against him as much as they confer upon him a glorious immortality few are privileged to have.