In 2017, Nathaniel Silver was on a foraging mission in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s archives, on the hunt for some etchings by James Abbott McNeill Whistler. That’s when he found a flat file, not cracked for years, that opened a window to history. It was a portfolio of drawings by John Singer Sargent that Silver, the museum’s curator of collections, had never seen, and no one had ever shown.
Even that much was extraordinary — Sargent, a giant of American art, was close to Mrs. Gardner herself, and Silver knows the collection front to back. But that wasn’t the end of it. The drawings — mostly sleek, sinuous nudes — were unmistakably the form of one lithe black man, captured in heroic poses. In one, the head of Apollo is grafted onto his shoulders in a pose that appears in Sargent’s signature public commission: The murals for the Museum of Fine Arts’s rotunda, inspired by classical mythology.
There’s a story here, Silver thought, and after three years of research and consultations — with Sargent scholars, with Black community leaders, and with Thomas McKeller’s descendants themselves — here it is: “Boston’s Apollo: Thomas McKeller and John Singer Sargent,” which opened at the museum earlier this month. Sargent won’t need much introduction, though McKeller surely will. As the principal model for Sargent in the last years of the artist’s life, he has the strange distinction of being much seen in New England and completely invisible, all at once. You’ll find him on the ceiling at the MFA many times over (McKeller’s body served as model for both male and female figures). He’s in Sargent’s “Entering the War” mural at Harvard, from 1922, for which McKeller modeled various soldiers; and in the sinewy form of the Native American chief Massasoit by sculptor Cyrus Dallin, overlooking Plymouth Harbor. (Dallin, lamenting to Sargent his lack of a robust enough model, was referred to McKeller.)
Sargent came upon McKeller while a guest at the Hotel Vendome, a domain of the elite, where McKeller was working as an elevator operator in 1916. There’s a metaphor here, a bleak irony that our 21st-century minds can surely appreciate. Here was a famous artist, consort to the elite and wealthy in his own right — Sargent was paid $40,000 for the MFA commission, an outlandish fortune at the time — employing a young Black man for a few dollars a day to build timeless monuments for the glorification of institutions that did all they could to exclude Blacks. It was, you can fairly say, another form of servitude — an erasure of self, brought on by financial need, that helped to lionize the very structures that held Black people down. (McKeller didn’t come to the opening of the murals in 1922, some speculate, because Blacks were known to be unwelcome there. He also stood in for Sargent’s portrait of Harvard president Abbott Lawrence Lowell, who had tried to ban Black students from living in the school’s freshman halls.)
If there were nothing more to “Boston’s Apollo” than this ugly paradox, it might be enough. But it’s not. The exhibition is troubling, more broadly and in a good way, prompting thinking about power and how it’s wielded in all kinds of ways. Artists can have complicated relationships with their models, developed over hours in isolation. Sometimes a model is a muse, vital to the finished work (as, for Sargent, McKeller may well have been; he instructed associates to find McKeller, wherever he was, each time he came to Boston from London to paint). Sometimes modeling is just a side hustle, simple work-for-hire. And centuries of art history, of course, are littered with stories of artists — overwhelmingly male — who either abused or took sexual advantage of their models — overwhelmingly female.
McKeller and Sargent’s relationship — over almost a decade, conducted almost entirely behind closed doors — won’t ever be fully known. But the power dynamic, artist to model, has always been one of extreme imbalance (the likelihood of nudity on the part of one, not the other, makes that much clear) and it’s not uncommon for a model to be swallowed up by the finished work. But in early-20th-century Boston — a city famous for segregation, a place largely overlooked by the Great Migration that brought hundreds of thousands of Black Americans fleeing racial terror in the Jim Crow south — McKeller’s near-complete vanishing seems like something more than a consequence of the transactional artist-model standard.
The Gardner has spent three years exhuming McKeller from beneath the pale figures that mostly obscured his place in local history. The museum means the show as a tribute to him, a counter-narrative to “gilded age” Boston — the era of building cultural riches, of legacy projects (the Gardner itself being one of them). But it’s also a way of resetting the organization’s own agenda. This year, “Boston’s Apollo” is the centerpiece for a slate of exhibitions and programs designed to tease out the complications of race and class in the cultural field here and afar (Adam Pendleton’s pocket-size “Elements of Me” show is one, Lorraine O’Grady’s “Strange Taxi” facade commission is another).
“Boston’s Apollo” does important work well beyond the reclamation of McKeller from obscurity (which, to be fair, could be done only to an extent; after Sargent’s death, McKeller drifted into anonymity as an employee of the US Postal Service, never re-entering the local art world). It asks questions about the divisions of race and class, the myth of artistic genius, and how the labor of many is often obscured and presented as the work of one.
It does one more very important thing: Deep in the exhibition, past videos and historical ephemera and the drawings themselves, it presents Sargent’s full-blown painting of McKeller, legs splayed open, chin titled skyward, arms hoisting his muscled torso atop a green pillow, completely naked. Light falls on his face and body; his flesh glows, bronze and warm. Wings, or what remains of them, unfurl in the soft background (Sargent seems to have started, then changed his mind). They remain a ghostly presence, conferring something otherworldly, maybe holy. McKeller’s expression sparkles with amusement — the painter’s choice or the model’s, we’ll never know.
For years, the piece was displayed at the MFA, where it enjoyed one-of-these-things-is-not-like-the-other status amid a gallery of Singer’s commissioned portraits of wealthy luminaries. Borrowed for “Boston’s Apollo,” the painting’s presence at the Gardner feels like the circle drawing to a close. Why did he do it? We’ll never know. Sargent, weary of spending his talents to serve the wealthy, may have been indulging his desire, as he wrote to an associate, to nourish his imaginative side; its indistinct background lends it an unfinished quality, making it possible that the painting was a more intensive study for another project.
But I like to speculate, and many have, that it was Sargent doing in private what social strictures of the day may not have allowed in public: Paying tribute to his most important associate and his principal collaborator in the works he imagined would be his legacy. It’s the one painting Sargent kept for himself, hanging it prominently in his Boston studio until his death in 1925 (the MFA acquired it from a private dealer in 1986, after it spent some decades in storage at the Boston Athenaeum, where it was shown, discreetly and infrequently, to a small number of people).
That’s a little rose-colored, I know. The painting is an enigma, though this much is clear: It was painted with affection, and with verve. What Sargent meant to convey, well, keep guessing. “Boston’s Apollo” asks all kinds of questions we may never be able to answer. What matters, finally, is that we’re asking them at all.
BOSTON’S APOLLO: THOMAS MCKELLER AND JOHN SINGER SARGENT
Through May 17, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 25 Evans Way. 617-566-1401, www.gardnermuseum.org