Some of Sargent’s richest portrait work was of a subject who wasn’t

Sebastian Smee

THE WASHINGTON POST – “How do you like your Sargent drawing?”

That, hilariously, was the conversational icebreaker adopted by a distinguished diplomat whenever he found himself seated beside ladies he didn’t know at London dinner parties.

It was successful, allegedly, nine times out of 10 – an indication of how common it was among the great and the good to be the subject of a portrait in charcoal by John Singer Sargent.

Sargent is the subject of two exhibitions, in Washington and Boston. Although both shows are rich in gossipit value, neither is focused on Sargent’s dashing ways with brushes and oil paint. Rather, the emphasis is on his drawings.

One show, at the National Portrait Gallery, is about fleeting encounters amid the upper echelons of English and American society. It comes here after a stint at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York.

The other, at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, is smaller but deeper.

“Boston’s Apollo,” as the show is called, homes in on a favourite model of Sargent – a young, poor, African American man named Thomas McKeller.

FROM LEFT: Among those who sat for John Singer Sargent charcoal portraits was poet WB Yeats; author Kenneth Grahame (1912) and Chilean heiress Eugenia Errázuriz. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST

It is about what happens when a model becomes that old-fashioned-sounding thing, “a muse.” And it makes you wonder, in that context, about how Sargent and McKeller navigated more up-to-date-seeming issues of race, sexuality and class. (The catalogue includes smart reflections by black writers, including art historian Nikki A Greeneand artist Lorraine O’Grady, and by other writers, including novelist ColmTóibín and curator Trevor Fairbrother.)

Both shows address an artist whose skill never ceases to astonish. Together, they reveal something about a tension at the core of his creativity: between transient, commercially based encounters and sustained commitment, the freedom that comes with familiarity and the hope that inheres in “getting to know someone by heart.”

For many years, portrait commissions must have seemed a kind of salvation to Sargent. His reputation had suffered in 1884 when he exhibited ‘Madame X,’ a superbly stylized, full-length portrait of Madame Pierre Gautreau that, for its time, was more than a little saucy: the dress revealed as much as it concealed; the shoulder strap was suggestively loose; Sargent was persuaded to repaint it. Gautreau was humiliated; Sargent decamped to London.

As he licked his wounds, he painted landscapes. A few years later, he returned to America where he was, according to Richard Ormond, “mobbed”: His portrait skills were in such high demand that he almost had to fend off Boston’s worthies. (Ormond is the NPG show’s curator and the grandson of Violet Ormond, Sargent’s sister and one of his favourite models.)

By 1907, when Sargent was 51, he’d had enough: “No more paughtraits,” he wrote in a now-famous note, “I abhor and abjure them and hope never to do another especially of the Upper Classe.”

Tough talk. But read the fine print: Sargent was talking about painted portraits, which involved much preparatory work, multiple sittings and large sums of money. Portraits in charcoal were another matter.

They could be done in one or two short sittings and they brought in useful cash. So Sargent was willing to suspend his abhorrence and make an exception.

A total of 750 exceptions, as it turned out – hence the diplomat’s reliable conversational gambit: “How do you like your Sargent drawing?”

Sargent was an immortalizer for hire. He worked with sticks of charcoal, which he applied to white paper and removed, or “fogged up” (smudged), using balled-up pellets of bread. “He worked longer with the bread at the second sitting than he had with the pencil at the first one” marveled one sitter.

He was brilliant at conveying both a rich inner life and a dignified reserve. Very alluring! He portrayed the wealthy and well-born, as well as writers, performers, politicians, suffragists, academics and athletes.

So the show is good fun. The walls of each room have been painted the colour of a different flavour of Italian gelato. Each caption is a fascinating little pocket biography.

Among his sitters were Winston Churchill, the Queen Mother, Eugenia Errázuriz (the Chilean heiress and modern art patron), Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, Henry James (a great supporter of Sargent), Nancy Astor (the first woman to take her seat in the British House of Commons), Eleonora Sears (the groundbreaking tennis and squash champion), the poet WB Yeats and the fashionista Daisy Fellowes.

Some portraits feel rote – as if achieving a decent “likeness” (no easy feat) were all Sargent could muster on the day.

Others are more than merely faithful, more even than virtuosic: Combining dazzlingly fluent mark-making with a nose for whatever is aroused or unsettled at the core of each sitter’s personality, he achieved – in portraits of Henry Lee Higginson, Ruth Draper and Sir William Blake Richmond – something that transcends its presentation here as a roll call of worthies.

Portraits were, by this point, Sargent’s side hustle. What he really wanted was to reinvent himself as a landscape painter. That, and to rededicate himself to the work he thought would secure his legacy: a trio of mural decorations in Boston. This is where the Gardner Museum show (researched and organised by Nathaniel Silver) comes in.

Sargent had installed the first two phases of the ambitious mural project for the Boston Public Library in 1895 and 1903. But the project had stalled, overtaken by the incessant demands of painted portrait commissions.

Finally, when Sargent was 60, he returned to Boston to complete the BPL murals. It was 1916. Over the next decade, he returned three more times to Boston, and devised two more murals: one for Harvard University’s Widener Library, the other for the Museum of Fine Arts.

On the first of those stays, Sargent noticed McKeller, who had migrated from North Carolina as a teen and was working as an elevator operator in a Boston hotel. He asked him to model for him. McKeller obliged, and when Sargent came back, he sought him out again.

Over eight years – interrupted only by his brief stint in the Army and subsequent relocation to New York – McKeller posed for numerous figures in the MFA and Harvard murals. Sargent transformed him into classical gods, goddesses and allegorical figures.

McKeller even posed in a borrowed gown for Sargent’s portrait of Harvard University President Lawrence Lowell after Sargent had completed Lowell’s face. The irony was acute, as Silver points out in the catalogue: Lowell had expelled black students from Harvard’s dormitories in 1922 and lent his support to a tribunal that purged the university of certain students.

Sargent’s charcoal studies are ravishing. Intimate. Tender. Efficient. Assured. The mark-making unbelievably confident.

One shows McKeller’s recognisably African American head in meager outline transformed on the same sheet of paper into a more worked-up head of Apollo, based on a plaster cast of the Apollo Belvedere. This looks, to our eyes, like an uncomfortable case of “whitewashing” – part of a broader, centuries-old pattern of suppressing and denying blackness. And so it was.

And yet it’s true, too, that artists routinely transformed models in this way. It seems that Sargent chose – and stuck with – McKeller for convenience. He needed a body. McKeller had an impressive physique. Sargent wasn’t particularly interested in other aspects of who he was …

Or was he?

One asks because McKeller also posed for a striking nude portrait in oil. Sargent never exhibited it, and although it was published in a book in 1955 and purchased by the MFA in 1986, it was not well known until recently. It is one of the artist’s most poignant and beautiful paintings.

McKeller sits on cushions set up on a table. His legs are jackknifed so that his knees push forward, his feet back. His upright pose is supported by two straight, weight-bearing arms which push his chest forward.

Light bounces off the skin just below his neck, which is also exposed, and the open, almost imploring look on his upturned face combines with these elements to create an effect of tenderness.

Fairbrother hailed the painting’s importance as a major document of Sargent’s time in Boston; a fascinating example of his use of a black man to model figures from classical history and mythology; an example of his alla prima (wet-on-wet) painting technique, which connected him with his great hero, Diego Velázquez; and an example of his affiliation with the tradition of the nude study as advanced by the great artist-decorators Michelangelo, Rubens and Delacroix.

What is obvious now is that Fairbrother wasn’t talking it up at all. The painting entered the MFA’s collection, it is the centerpiece of this fascinating show, and it only seems more important as time goes on.