Murals by John Singer Sargent at Boston Public Library
Yes really, I do mean at the Boston Public Library. It is quite a surprise to go into the public library and find a wonderful set of murals painted by the great American artist. One room has a huge set of murals on an Arthurian theme and then right at the top of the building is a room that the library calls quite simply ‘Sargent Hall’. This are adorned with a set of Christian sacred imagery all conforming to a unifying schema.
I had heard about them before but only this past month have I seen them for the first time. They are oil on canvas set into the wall, with some painted plaster cast reliefs and were painted in a 20 year period from 1895. What surprised me was how Catholic the imagery is for civic buildings. Boston’s Irish Catholic heritage is well known, but I hadn’t anticipated that this Catholic influence would have reached up to the level of the dignitaries of the city at this time. Perhaps there is a high Episcopalian influence here as well?
We have murals of the Old Testament prophets, of the crucifixion with the a representation of the dogma of the Trinity and angels carrying the instruments of the passion, Our Lady of Sorrows and the 15 mysteries of the rosary. Apparently when artistic tastes turned against the naturalistic style around the early middle 20th century, they were almost destroyed. Luckily for us were saved and the suggestion to paint over them was opposed.
If these had been painted in England at the same time by any other artist, they would most likely have been in the pre-Raphaelite, and indeed there is some of that feel about them. However, Sargent, who is vastly superior to the English pre-Raphaelites, in my opinion, brings his knowledge of the 17th century baroque (which is the authentic liturgical root of the Western naturalistic tradition) into play. So just we would have seen in this earlier original period, we see in Sargent’s work here the controlled intensification and depletion of colour; and variation in focus, carried out selectively to ensure that our eyes are drawn first to the most important points in each composition. The pre-Raphaelites in contrast painted with sharp outlines and even colour and so they overburdened their paintings with detail.
It is very difficult to manage complicated compositions with many figures Sargent handles the variation of these components so brilliantly and subltely that I find it difficult characterise further what he is doing beyond knowing that he is doing it.
The room, which is just a 3rd floor hall in the library leading to others containing library books, is difficult to photograph and so I give you the best I have been able to get hold of. One thing to point out about the style is that even though Sargent was trained as portrait painter, he seems to have understood the difference between sacred art and portraiture. The faces are less emotional and quite often placed in shadow, allowing us to identify with the general human characteristics of the person portrayed. This is in contrast to other sacred art of the 19th century and in accord with what a master of the 17th century, such as Zurburan, would have done. I have talked about this in more detail in an article called Is Some Sacred Art Too Naturalistic? We can see this brought out especially in the sketches for one of the mysteries of the rosary. The ones shown are for the finding of the boy Jesus in the temple.
As I studied these I was trying to picture these as a focus of prayer if they had been placed in a church. My personal taste in this regard is for the iconographic or gothic, so I am not the best person to make a judgement here, but my sense is that for those who are strongly attracted to the baroque style as liturgical art, these would seem appropriate and helpful. Certainly, I think that those Catholic artists who are interested in painting sacred art and have been trained in the academic method should study Sargent’s style, which owes so much to the earlier 17th century form. This will help them to avoid the trap of imitating inferior artists of the late 19th century such as the aforementioned pre-Raphaelites and William Bougeureau (the reason that his style should be avoided, in my opinion, is described in the article linked above).
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