“Boston’s Apollo,” a new exhibition at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, spotlights the life of Thomas McKeller, John Singer Sargent’s principal model for the murals in the Museum of Fine Arts. McKeller’s story and the questions of race, class, and sexuality that it raises are explored through juxtapositions of the artist’s drawings of the young black model next to images of the finished works featuring immortal white gods and goddesses. The visitor experience is enriched by the inclusion of modern-day perspectives on the works from artists, scholars, community leaders, and McKeller’s own descendants.
“We are proud to collaborate with scholars, artists, and community leaders to give voice to what history has erased, and to consider how the art in our collection can stimulate much needed dialogue on contemporary issues."
—Peggy Fogelman, Norma Jean Calderwood Director
In 1916, John Singer Sargent (1856–1925) met Thomas Eugene McKeller (1890–1962), a young Black elevator attendant, at Boston’s Hotel Vendome. McKeller posed for most of the figures—both male and female—in Sargent’s murals in the Museum of Fine Arts. The painter transformed McKeller into white gods and goddesses, creating soaring allegories of the liberal arts that celebrated the recent expansion of the city’s premier civic museum.
Sargent then gave the preparatory drawings of McKeller to Isabella Stewart Gardner, ensuring their preservation in perpetuity. Displayed together for the first time, the drawings provide a window into the metamorphoses of race, gender, and identity, and attest to a relationship between two men, artist and model, at a time of intense social upheaval. This exhibition brings together Sargent's drawings and related historical materials to tell the story of McKeller’s life. His central importance in Sargent’s major artistic commissions in the Boston area considers critical questions of race, class, and sexuality—as relevant today as they were in Gilded Age Boston.