John Singer Sargent and the Boston Public Library
September 28, 2012 6:23 PM   Subscribe

In 1890, the painter John Singer Sargent--best known for portraits like Madame X and The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit--accepted a commission to execute a large-scale mural cycle in the Boston Public Library, The Triumph of Religion. His last completed mural was installed in 1919, but the cycle remained unfinished. After years of decay, the cycle has undergone extensive conservation work, and the Library now has a detailed site devoted to Sargent Hall.

The site provides a detailed overview of the cycle's history and conservation, with a map allowing viewers to visualize where each mural occurs in the hall.

For examples of other notable mural cycles in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, see the following:

William Bell Scott, the central hall at Wallington

Edward Burne-Jones, William Morris, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and quite a few other artists, the Oxford Union Murals

Ford Madox Brown, Manchester Murals

Frank Brangwyn, Murals
posted by thomas j wise (20 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Given its public context, the subject Sargent selected may seem odd to us. In his own time, however, his approach to religion was quintessentially modern, democratic, and American. According to Sargent, religion’s highest achievement was precisely the privacy of modern belief, an ideal fundamental to American religious liberty. Freed from superstition, fanaticism, and the veneer of established creeds and institutions, religion could become an interior matter, to be entered into by each individual according to choice.

How far we've come since the Victorians!*

* Note: This is from my comment cycle "The Triumph of Sarcasm."
posted by maxwelton at 6:47 PM on September 28, 2012 [3 favorites]

The murals are amazing, but you should probably do some neck stretches before visiting them. Or if you're braver than me, bring a pillow and view them laying on the ground.
posted by benito.strauss at 6:59 PM on September 28, 2012

The BPL is one of my favorite places to take visitors to Boston, these murals are absolutely breathtaking. Original paintings in the Stewart Gardner museum are also not to be missed, and there's more at the MFA, plus the murals there (pictured in my profile). Sargent is one of the greatest American painters of all time, and Boston is lucky to have a ton of his work.
posted by condesita at 7:22 PM on September 28, 2012

Why oh why do art sites only put up tiny thumbnails of the artworks? Even the zoomable QTVR is like 200 pixels wide. This isn't 1990, we have screens bigger than 640x480.

Sargent was a hell of a painter. I visited an art curator friend and she had the new Sargent book, I just sat there and looked through it for an hour. But of all the hundreds of images, the Palmetto watercolors stuck in my mind. Even the early studies are amazing. He makes it look effortless. It definitely isn't.
posted by charlie don't surf at 7:33 PM on September 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

John Singer Sargent is one of my all-time favorite artists - great post!
posted by Lipstick Thespian at 7:38 PM on September 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

> Why oh why do art sites only put up tiny thumbnails of the artworks?

Because they're terified, TERRIFIED that somebody might STEEEEEAL a reproduction of something of which they own the reproduction rights. And, I dunno, make posters of it in China or something.
posted by jfuller at 7:59 PM on September 28, 2012

The 2004 restoration of "Excalibur" (at the Oxford Union Murals link) is breathtaking.
posted by various at 8:20 PM on September 28, 2012

I spent quite a bit of time at the BPL in the early 90s studying in the fine art reference room which is, or at least was, on the same floor as the murals. The fine arts reference room had some random nineteenth century portrait paintings displayed by relatively unknown artists. I cannot tell you how many times people walked through the gallery with the Sargent murals and came into the fine arts ref. room assuming that the portraits were the Sargent paintings.

I also was a volunteer art and architecture tour guide there during this time, which coincided with when they were just beginning planning the library renovation/restoration. The murals were exceedingly dark and murky at that time. You could see a few small test strips of areas that had been cleaned by conservators and the difference was pretty dramatic. I would love to go back and see the finished work some day.

As a small aside for those who are familiar with the library, there also was supposed to be a mural in the main reading room. Whistler purportedly produced a rough sketch for it, but for whatever reason, it never happened.
posted by kaybdc at 8:26 PM on September 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

Yeah of course, but these images are in the public domain. I hate copyfraud.

I did an online article using an obscure painting by Grant Wood. It's still under copyright for a few years (death of the artist +50 years). My publisher paid the legitimate rights administrators about $30 bucks for publication rights, they take a cut and forward the royalties to the estate of Grant Wood and his heirs. Then we contacted the Cincinnati Art Museum (they own the painting but not the copyrights) for a high quality image. They wanted $800 for the image alone, and another fee for publication rights, starting at about $1000, dependent on circulation. I said we already paid royalties to the Wood Estate for publication rights. They didn't care, pay up or no image. I called the licensor, told them the museum was double-dipping, they were essentially stealing royalties from the estate. They could keep the alleged royalties and not forward it to the rights-holders, duping users into thinking they had clearance. But for those who aren't duped by the scam, the museum is devaluing the estate's properties by making them unaffordable and keeping them from a wider audience. The licensor totally agreed, and I suggested they sue the museum to recoup lost royalties. They said that suing museums is not "fighting the good fight." I disagreed. It turns out that the estate was inherited by Wood's sister, who donated it to a small museum in Davenport, Iowa. The Cincinnati Art Museum is stealing royalties from a smaller museum.

So I ripped a low quality image from some website that scanned it from a book and used that image in the article.
posted by charlie don't surf at 8:26 PM on September 28, 2012 [6 favorites]

Oh, man. I know this isn't what John Singer Sargent is most known for, but for some reason his painting Gassed sticks with me like no other. The complete breakdown of everything western men knew and believed about honor and courage in warfare in the face of technology; the slight yellow tinge of a field saturated with mustard gas; the earnest hope of the one guy in the hat, all the way on the right, trying to lead these blinded men home. I work on sixteenth-century stuff for a living - terrible, awful, violent, bloody stuff - but even I understand that we call it the Great War for a reason. Sargent understood too.
posted by amy lecteur at 8:54 PM on September 28, 2012 [5 favorites]

Thank you for this post. I remember looking at Hell as a kid thinking that was pretty rad for the land of Cabots and Peabodys. OM NOM NOM!
posted by drowsy at 9:09 PM on September 28, 2012

I absolutely adore that the painting of the Bolt girls (which is quite large, by the way) is (or was, at least) displayed in the Boston Museum of Fine Art with two large blue and white vases almost identical to those in the painting standing on either side of it. There isn't really any thing else in that room besides painting and statues, so it really stands out that that painting was made from a real scene. It was the first thing I saw in an art museum that impressed upon me what a "collection" can do.

It's been too long. I need to go to the MFA again soon.
posted by maryr at 11:08 PM on September 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

One of the most surprising things I've recently learned about John Singer Sargent: this is Tilda Swinton's great-grandmother.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 3:58 AM on September 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

Maryr, I had a similar experience with The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit when it was displayed flanked by those vases. The girls are so, so alive in the painting, and the vases are just as beatifully, perfectly rendered. And the vases are right there, in front of you, but the little girls have all been dust for years and years.
posted by dirtdirt at 7:54 AM on September 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Ars longa, vita brevis.

That was carved into the stone lintel of my art school, about 100 years ago.
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:22 AM on September 29, 2012

maryr, those aren't just almost identical vases, they are the actual vases John Singer Sargent painted. The family that owned the vases donated them to the MFA.
posted by bootswiththefur at 12:24 PM on September 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose in the Tate is one of my favourite pictures by Sargent.
posted by Azara at 12:40 PM on September 29, 2012

I have had a poster of the Boit girls for years. After I owned it a while I noticed that one of them looks like a high school classmate, and I was vaguely curious for years what their names are.

Finding out would only ruin it for me.
posted by wenestvedt at 7:21 PM on September 29, 2012

I also love the painting of the Boit sisters. A year or so ago I read an interesting book about the paintings and the lives of the 4 sisters titled Sargent's Daughters. Interestingly for their times none of them ever married. If I remember correctly, two of the sisters had unspecified mental illnesses and their brother was institutionalized at an early age.
posted by kaybdc at 7:34 PM on September 29, 2012

I couldn't remember if it was or not, but reading the MFA's notes on the painting and the family, it makes sense that they'd donate them. That is great.

(Also, that Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose painting was the cover of a book of poems I loved growing up. Pretty sure it's still in my childhood bedroom. Will be reading it next time I'm home now.)
posted by maryr at 11:25 PM on September 29, 2012

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