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Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Opens Sargent Rotunda Featuring Rarely Seen Works
Sketch for Perseus on Pegasus Slaying Medusa, 1922–24. Oil and graphite on canvas. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The Sargent Collection. Gift of Miss Emily Sargent and Mrs. Violet Ormond in memory of their brother, John Singer Sargent. Photo: © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

BOSTON, MA.- Considered one of the greatest portraitists of his generation, John Singer Sargent (1856–1925) set aside portraiture in 1907 to pursue what he deemed a more challenging artistic endeavor—mural design. His ambitious achievements in this genre grace the Dome and Colonnade at the heart of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), and are the focus of a special installation which opened last week in the Sargent Rotunda at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA). Titled John Singer Sargent and Mural Decoration, the installation is located directly below the Ruth and Carl J. Shapiro Rotunda and Colonnade, which features the famed murals Sargent created for the MFA between 1917–25. The extensive mural programs he developed for the Museum include 20 paintings, 18 bas-reliefs, and the architectural reconfiguration of the MFA’s Rotunda and Colonnade. The installation highlights paintings, oil sketches, and rarely seen preparatory drawings related to Sargent’s mural projects in Boston. To further enhance the visitor experience, improved lighting and an interactive kiosk offer new ways for visitors to better appreciate the Museum’s Sargent murals.

"Sargent considered these murals to be his most important achievement—the culmination of his career—and they are certainly among the most prized works here at the Museum," said Malcolm Rogers, Ann and Graham Gund Director of the MFA. "The installation of the artist’s oil sketches, paintings, and preparatory drawings enables visitors to examine the extensive behind-the-scenes work that went into the execution and preservation of these magnificent murals."

The Sargent murals highlight classical heroes and themes popular during the Beaux Arts period and those related to the protection and glorification of the arts. They were restored to their original splendor during a year-long conservation process from 1998–99. The eight Rotunda murals, in soft shades of ochre, blue, and cream, with 12 bas-reliefs, were the first to be commissioned in 1917 and were completed in 1921. The 12 additional murals in the Colonnade, painted with a more vibrant palette and complemented by six bas-reliefs, were completed in 1925. Sargent, who also created murals for the Boston Public Library (1891-1919) and the Widener Library at Harvard University (1922), planned to oversee the final installation of his MFA murals, but died suddenly on April 14, 1925, on the eve of his departure for Boston from England. The artist was lauded posthumously when his Colonnade murals were unveiled in 1925.

Sargent’s oil sketches and drawings in John Singer Sargent and Mural Decoration showcase individual figures, compositional sketches, and working drawings for various details executed in preparation for the monumental murals he painted on canvas at his studios in Boston and London. These were then adhered to the Museum’s Dome and Colonnade at the top of the Museum’s grand staircase. Selected drawings for the MFA murals will be rotated during the installation. The curator is Elliot Bostwick Davis, John Moors Cabot Chair of the Art of the Americas department at the MFA.

Among the works on view are paintings: Nude Study of Thomas E. McKeller (about 1917–20), a depiction of Boston hotel elevator operator Thomas McKeller, who served as the artist’s model for many of the figures in the murals; and Frieze of the Prophets (about 1892), a study for the mural of the same name completed in 1895 for Sargent’s Triumph of Religion mural cycle at the Boston Public Library. Numerous colorful sketches for the Colonnade also are featured: Sketch for Chiron and Achilles (1922–24), Sketch for Atlas and the Hesperides (1922–24), and Sketch for Perseus on Pegasus Slaying Medusa (1922–24). In addition, the installation includes drawings made by Sargent, ranging from individual studies, as seen in Sketch for Astronomy (MFA Rotunda) (1917–21), to the compositional study, Sketch for Classical and Romantic Art—Study for Whole Composition— (MFA Rotunda), 1917–21; to the architectural study Sketch for Rotunda of Museum of Fine Arts —Architectural sketch for rotunda and stairway, 1917–21, which shows Sargent’s reconfiguration of Guy Lowell’s original plans for the grand Huntington Avenue Staircase to make room for his paintings and reliefs.

"The range of paintings, oil sketches, and drawings on view explores the artist’s creative process and offers various windows into Sargent’s rationale for these distinctive combinations of painting, sculpture, and architecture in the mural programs that were his primary focus during the last 35 years of his career," said Davis.

An interactive kiosk in the Sargent Rotunda encourages visitors to explore the history of the murals and mythological themes depicted on the domed ceiling, from Architecture, Painting, and Sculpture Protected by Athena from the Ravages of Time to Apollo and the Muses. The kiosk’s touch screen allows users to zoom in and look closely at details of the murals that are approximately 70 feet overhead and identifies the various subjects depicted. In addition, visitors can learn more about John Singer Sargent and his connection to Boston, the creation of the murals, and their extensive restoration.

The MFA houses the most comprehensive collection of Sargent’s work anywhere in the world. In addition to the two mural programs, the Museum features many of the artist’s most celebrated works, such as The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (1882). It also includes almost 500 works on paper: 61 watercolors and 420 drawings, of which 220 are preparatory drawings for the MFA’s Dome and Colonnade, and 125 are drawings for the Boston Public Library murals. More than 350 works were given to the Museum by Sargent’s sisters in memory of their brother, and about 50 drawings were given by the artist for the benefit of students at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. Selections from this important collection of paintings, drawings, and watercolors will be featured in the Ruth and Carl J. Shapiro Sargent Gallery in the new American Wing, scheduled to open in the fall of 2010.

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