On a recent trip to plein air paint in Boston, we inspired ourselves by revisiting the Boston Public Library to study the grand mural sequence, The Triumph of Religion, by John Singer Sargent, located on the third floor of the McKim building. The gallery is named for Sargent, who spent 29 years traveling the world to collect research materials and working to create this amazing artistic tour de force. The gallery is enormous, measuring 84 feet long, 23 feet wide and 26 feet high, and Sargent created his most imaginative and masterly paintings for the space. At the time they were unveiled, they created a national sensation.
|The Sargent Gallery in the Boston Public Library.|
The Library was designed by McKim, Mead and White to be "a monument to the aspirations of the American Renaissance," referring to an attempt to unite all the visual arts. The architecture and decorations of the building are filled with outstanding examples of sculpture and painting which reflect on and reinforce the intellectual collections stored within.
Commissioned by McKim in 1895 to create the murals for the new library, Sargent chose as his subject the history and evolution of Judaism and Christianity:
"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." – Boston Public Library Sargent Murals.
|Sargent's model for the project.|
Sargent plunged into the work immediately, even before he had a contract from the library. From 1891 to 1895, he worked in E.A. Abbey's 64-foot long studio in Fairford, Gloucestershire, England. In 1895 he moved to a spacious new studio near Fulham Road, London, where he created a one-third scale mock-up of the library gallery, a huge, modular construction that allowed him to test and manipulate his small-scale models and maquettes for the space and figure out how to paint the work he'd taken on. To create three-dimensionality in the friezes, he experimented with papier-mache, plaster, gilt, glass and a type of gilded, corrugated wall covering called Lincrusta-Walton. Sargent personally oversaw certain stages of the installations, adjusting the angles of some of the three-dimensional elements to reflect light in the way he desired.
We recommend a visit to anyone interested in the mural work of Sargent, Abbey or Puvis de Chavannes. It is well worth the trip.
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–John and Ann