More information about Sargent
John Singer Sargent
(1856-1925) is best known today as a painter of brilliant society portraits. In
1890, however, he embraced the opportunity to prove himself at mural decoration, a genre
he and his era judged superior to portraiture. Triumph of Religion
(1890-1919; see fig. 1) was Sargent's first and
most complex mural program; it was also the work he hoped to make his masterpiece.
If the Boston Public Library, in the words of Sargent's contemporaries, was the city's
"shrine of letters," the library's special collections on the third-floor most
firmly established this reputation. Here literate Boston stored and consulted the
books and documents that constituted its most "sacred" intellectual
treasures. Here, in the entry hall to these riches, Sargent would paint his Triumph
Given its public context, the subject
Sargent selected may initially seem odd or even inappropriate. In its own time,
however, Sargent's approach to religion was quintessentially modern, democratic, and
American. Religion's triumph, according to the artist, was precisely the privacy of
modern belief. Sargent grounded his mural cycle in an ideal fundamental to American
religious liberty: the conviction that religion is an interior matter, to be determined
solely and freely by the individual. Moving from materialist superstition in the
"pagan gods" on the north ceiling vault, to fossilized dogma in the
medievalizing images on the south wall, to an enlightened spirituality of the heart, the
artist recast contemporary religion, linking it not with such external factors as
institutions or creeds but with personal subjectivity. For Sargent this ideal was a
sign of Western, especially American, progress. This is the notion of religion's
"triumph" that he planned to depict in Sermon on the Mount, the
never-completed "keynote" panel, destined to fill the large vacant space that
remains above the stairwell. In Triumph of Religion, the Hebrew prophets
signaled the emergence of religious subjectivity as Sermon on the Mount would
signal its distilled expression.
Consistent with its location in a public
library, Sargent's mural cycle represented the study of religion rather than
religion's practice. The artist deliberately ordered the room and its decoration to
create an educational space, not a devotional one. Among his chief efforts in this
regard was his decision to make the long east wall his focus. This would insure that
while the initial impression of the room might be that of a chapel, with the first view
from the stairs showcasing the south wall's Dogma of the Redemption, visitors would soon
discover that the artist's narrative had reconfigured the space to accent the short
east-west axis rather than the long north-south one. This meant that the room
itself, as orchestrated by Sargent, now resembled a lecture hall or schoolroom rather than
In keeping with this educational motif,
Sargent's Triumph of Religion took up a subject of intense scholarly
interest and debate. Contemporary experts in many fields charted the
"evolution" or "progress" of Western civilization in terms very
similar to the ones that Sargent employed, often mapping the story of cultural development
with reference to religion. Sargent thus allied himself, in his conception of Triumph
of Religion, with informed scientific opinion, allowing the thinking of Ernest Renan,
James Frazer, and William James, for example, to participate in shaping his art. As
an artist Sargent was interested not only in the works of literary, scientific, and
philosophical luminaries, but also in the painted and sculpted masterpieces of Western
culture -- and in literally bringing culture to Boston. He constructed his visual
narrative by assembling versions of recognizable artifacts from abroad. Never
content to simply copy, he radically revised the materials he "collected," using
the artistic treasures of the past to create a pictorial story of particular significance
to modern Boston and its celebrated library.
When observers called the library a
"shrine of letters," they linked spiritual and intellectual enlightenment.
Reiterating this cultural sanctification of education, Sargent's Sermon on the
Mount and the painting immediately above it, Israel and the Law, would
present their protagonists, the "Jewish" God and the "Christian"
Jesus, as teachers. At the artistic focus of the room (along this central axis of
the east wall), Sargent would assert the similarities between Judaism and Christianity
rather than their differences. He established this kinship by creating unique
variations of a set of specific artistic precedents -- most notably, paintings by
Michelangelo, Raphael, and Cosimo Rosselli in the Sistine Chapel and other Vatican
chambers. In Israel and the Law Sargent reworked the conventional
iconography of the Lawgiving on Mount Sinai. In Sargent's rendering, the recipient
of the Law is not Moses but the child Israel and the action in the image is not the solemn
handing over of stone tablets but an intimate moment in which God is engaged in teaching
the child from a scroll.
The artist's parallel introduction of a
child to the iconography of Sermon on the Mount (see fig. 2) underscored the
innovation. While children had appeared in earlier representations of this scene,
they did so not as individuals but as part of a crowd. Sargent's picture differed
from all others in his insertion of a child not as one of many but in immediate proximity
to and attentive contact with Jesus. In the case of these two Sargent compositions (Israel
and the Law and Sermon on the Mount) the introduction of the child
transformed the activity represented. God became a teacher rather than a stern
dispenser of regulations; Jesus would appear below him, not as preacher but as teacher
too. In the educational space of the library, this was a significant alteration: a
mysterious but tender God and a very human Jesus would take up their places at the front
of the lecture hall Sargent had designed.
But Sargent never painted Sermon on
the Mount -- and, while other factors figured in, the principle reason for his
abandonment of this important project was surely the controversy that arose immediately
following the 1919 installation. To communicate his idea of the demise of all
external expressions of religion, including religious institutions, Sargent made an
unfortunate and misinformed choice. As the contrasting "frame" for his
central paintings of Israel and the Law and Sermon on the Mount, he
selected Synagogue and Church, a conventional medieval artistic
iconography with an antisemitic past. Sargent's point was to rework the problematic
convention and to establish it for a new and current content. He would use the
allegorical pair to represent the joint obsolescence of the two institutions. Rather
than Synagogue yielding before Church, Sargent's cycle relegated both to
a distant religious past -- but this was not evident to many in his Boston audience who
spoke eloquently and persuasively against the two paintings. Sargent, an intensely
private person, failed to understand his detractors and defended himself by repeating that
his choice represented the "point of view of iconography," that it rested in
artistic precedent and not in religious bias.
From Sargent's perspective, the attack
on the paintings must have had an essentially hidden and powerful private resonance.
Both Synagogue and Church were closely related to his own
devastating experiences of the First World War. In 1918, he traveled to the front to
make studies for a major war painting. Upon his return, he worked simultaneously on
his final version of Synagogue and on the enormous war image he called Gassed.
Because the victims of mustard gas were blindfolded to protect their eyes, both Gassed
and Synagogue depicted blindfolded individuals. When Sargent described Synagogue
for a library publication, he referred not her blindfold, but to her "bandage."
His principal artistic source for Synagogue (Michelangelo's Cumaean Sibyl)
also connected Sargent's picture to themes of war and mortality.
Likewise, the artist's association of Church
with obsolescence and death went beyond the figure's unseeing stare and the lifeless body
of Christ in her lap. Over and over, Sargent asserted that he had turned to the
medieval sculpture of cathedrals like Reims for the pairing of Synagogue and Church.
In the years of combat, the cathedral at Reims was under almost constant
bombardment. In 1918, while Sargent was at the front as he was making final plans
for his painting of Church, the sculpture of Church at Reims was
completely demolished by enemy fire. But it was not just the military destruction of
Western cultural heritage that preoccupied Sargent as he created this painting. The
artist had suffered a far more personal loss. His beloved niece and model,
Rose-Marie Ormond André-Michel, had been killed in the bombing of the Catholic church of
Saint-Gervais in Paris in March of 1918. Perhaps unconsciously, Sargent used
Rose-Marie's features, broadly treated, for the fact of his painted Church.
He thus connected the tragedy of his young niece's war-time death with the
institution and the building (a church) in which she literally died. The mural panel
became a funerary image for Rose-Marie and, through its connections to the sculpture of Church
at Reims, for Western culture. These meanings (Synagogue in relation to Gassed
and the Cumaean Sibyl and Church in relation to Reims and Rose-Marie)
complicated the two paintings' presence in Triumph of Religion. No longer a
"simple" medieval notation fading into the background "behind" Sermon
on the Mount, each now contained disarmingly personal references.
While the controversy over the 1919
installation was the principal factor in Sargent's abandonment of his project one painting
short of completion, the war had already arrested the momentum of the cycle's optimistic
content. Before the war, the progress Sargent imagined from superstition and
materialism to subjective spirituality was one many could confidently endorse. In
this scheme, morality and higher values were matters of self-control, not deference to
institutions, codes, or hierarchies. The war introduced a strong dose of ambiguity,
challenging assumptions about the degree to which moral behavior could actually be
internalized. If the late nineteenth century had been an age of religious doubt and
secularization, commented Boston bishop Charles D. Williams, the post-war years were an
age of "disillusionment," the "bitter fruit of the shattering experience of
the world war."
Despite its incompletion, Triumph of
Religion stands as a monument to Sargent's complex visual intelligence, his
commitment to the American city he loved, and his great hopes for Boston's "shrine of
letters": the public library on Copley Square.
For further reading, see:
Sally M. Promey, Painting Religion
in Public: John Singer Sargent's "Triumph of Religion" at the Boston Public
Library. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999 (2000 Excellence in
Religion Book Award winner)
Elaine Kilmurray and Richard Ormond,
eds. John Singer Sargent. With essays by Richard Ormond and Mary Crawford Volk. Exh.
cat. London: Tate Gallery; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998.