John Singer Sargent was an American portrait artist synonymous with the gilded age. His portraits are frequently loaded with psychological complexity driving an emotional dialogue between the viewer and the subject.
Nude study of Thomas E. McKeller (1917-21) is an uncompromising and sometimes uncomfortable work that presents the viewers with a single nude male figure placed awkwardly on a block. An overhead light illuminates his upper chest, and the angular contours of his shoulders and ribcage vibrate with highlights and shadows. His arms closely frame his torso, his legs bend backwards and outwards while his muscular neck holds his head high as he gazes upwards and out of the frame.
The composition places the athletic torso in the very centre of the frame and Sergeant has carefully delineated the impressionistic contours of the body from the broad impasto strokes of the background. It’s here in the background, obscured and almost imperceptible (possibly partially erased), we see the splayed feathered wings of an angel suggesting quasi-religious overtones.
The portrait exists somewhere between a close study of anatomy and musculature, a glorification of the male nude or an evocation of religious ecstasy. Sargent never sold this image, instead choosing to leave it hanging on his studio wall.
The naked, vulnerable and beautiful model captured in oils is Thomas McKeller, an elevator operator in the Hotel Vendome in Boston. An African American born in South Carolina, increasing racial violence forced his relocation to Massachusetts as a teenager. It was probable that Sargent first encountered McKeller in the elevator during one of his stays at the hotel. This chance encounter led to eight years of frequent modelling, which saw Sargent reimagine McKeller as a wide roster of allegorical and historical figures. McKeller was painted as the God Apollo, he modelled as Massasoit, the leader of the Wampanoag confederacy and he posed as the body for Sargent’s portrait of Abbott Lawrence Lowell, who famously ejected black students from Harvard Univerisity.
A cultural historian of the Belle Époque, Paul Fisher recently wrote about the relationship between the two men wondering: ’was it exploitative, or was it close, affectionate, or erotic (on one side or both), or that of an artist and his “muse”’.
The image has been viewed through the prism of the ages since it was painted. Originally entitled dismissively as Negro nude, it was stored out of sight and perhaps regarded as a lesser predatory work for over 60 years. Its only likely outings were as an educational prop for fine art students akin to the Greek marbles and bronzes from Herculaneum. (Which incidentally, may have also been modelled on the anonymous bodies of black men). In more recent years the painting has been held up as evidence of the artist’s homosexuality. More broadly, his capacity to capture the otherness in the English Jews, black models and the sensitive depiction of women suggest he might have considered himself an outsider, perhaps gay.
The jury is still out. However, in 1923, just two years before Sargent’s death, the ageing artist wrote to his Boston agent asking about his long-time model. The message implied an affection and perhaps even a longing: ‘I wonder if you have heard from McKeller? [. . .] I hope he will be available – don’t know what I shall do without him’.
As for the McKeller, while little is known about his personal life, he married and lived out his life quietly working for the post office before dying in 1962.
This singular work, capturing the sensitive elegance of a black nude male, his vulnerability, his pride and his spirit is now finally recognised as a masterpiece of Sargents. The personal story that underpins the relationship between the two men may never be known. And in many ways, it’s irrelevant. Whether sexual, transactional, unrequited or professional, the artwork speaks for itself. A famous painter saw the beauty of another man and sought to capture it for eternity.
March 30, 2023