Jules Bourbeau ’25
A & E Editor
The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is one of the largest art museums in the world, and John Singer Sargent’s work comprises one of their largest collections. As one of the most well-known American portrait painters, he is far from obscure, but for every thousand people that are familiar with his famous “Madame Pierre Gautreau” (“Madame X”), only one or two will know about his personal life. Like the painter Basil Hallward in Oscar Wilde’s A Picture of Dorian Gray, Sargent was quite a private person, preferring to present a limited view of himself to the world in the form of his art. Much like Basil Hallward, however, he was also completely infatuated with one particular male muse.
Look closely at the faces of the gods and mythical figures in the ceiling mural of the Museum of Fine Arts’ rotunda. If you can get past the height and the dizzying immensity of it, you’ll notice that they all have the same exact face. This is the face of Thomas Eugene McKeller, a Black bellhop at the Hotel Vendome. McKeller posed for every one of the forms in the mural, even the women. Of course, one of his features you will notice is conspicuously absent from the painting: his skin color. One can imagine that in 1921, portraying Athena et al. as Black, especially in a commissioned work, would hardly have gone over well. Magnificent as the work is, it cannot escape from the prejudices of the time.
McKeller’s genuine beauty is allowed to shine, however, in Sargent’s private creations. The single known depiction of McKeller in color is undoubtedly my favorite work of art in the entire museum. Sargent once complained about the restrictions of portraiture that his constant commissions placed upon him, but he chose to make this untitled and undated piece of his own accord. A nude McKeller sits perched on a green cushion atop a marble platform of some sort. His lightly joyful face is tilted upwards and to the side, as if looking at something beautiful just out of view. Behind him is the streaky impression of a striking pair of eagle’s wings. Were these part of a previous, unfinished painting that Sargent chose not to paint over, or were they a planned element of the initial piece? Either way, they give McKeller an angelic effect.
On the one hand, the painting is remarkably progressive for the time due to its status as one of the few works by a major American painter to depict a Black person, at least not in a blatantly disrespectful light. On the other hand, the relationship between Sargent and McKeller still tastes of the familiar dynamics of racial oppression. McKeller contributed heavily to Sargent’s work in his later years but received no recognition until art historians uncovered his name; furthermore, Sargent used to display the nude portrait of McKeller in his studio to potential commissioners, treating his de-identified Black body as an advertisement. Like any figure from history, Sargent is a complicated one, and we ultimately know very little about the two’s relationship.
Another complicated matter is that of Sargent’s sexuality. He never married, a statement which is now so frequently associated with historical homosexuality that it has become a running joke! He also socialized with the more “notorious” Oscar Wilde and Violet Paget (“Vernon Lee”). I hesitate to label Sargent at all, though, for a number of reasons. He never did so himself, and it would be disrespectful to enforce an identity on him on his behalf. Additionally, “gay” had yet to take on its modern meaning, and it now carries so much cultural baggage that it would likely hardly resonate at all with someone from the 19th or even early 20th century. Such is the problem with all LGBT+ history. We can reach into the past and recognize people like ourselves, but we also risk distorting it in the process.
Incidentally, the field of LGBT+ history is a fierce battleground partly for this very reason. The debate is divided into two camps: constructionists who believe that sexuality and gender identities are entirely shaped by cultural and social forces and essentialists who posit that there is some inherent, natural element to sexuality and gender that the identities merely put a name to. It is unlikely that we’ll ever know the answer, so why bother arguing over it? Well, that would be an excellent question to pose to academia as a whole. At the least, we have for the most part left the era of outright denial in which Sappho was “just good friends” with the subjects of her poetry.
In fact, we may be veering towards a shift too far in the opposite direction; thus, I reveal my constructionist bias. Sometimes, they really were just friends! Take, for example, the bountiful examples of daguerreotypes of Victorian men hugging, holding hands, and even sitting on each other’s laps. Undoubtedly some of the men in these photographs were lovers, but most were likely not. Simply put, they had yet to be infected with the relatively new fear of tainting one’s masculinity by expressing affection towards other men, especially considering that Freud had yet to hold psychology in the grasp of his (suspiciously phallic) tentacles.
So does this mean that we must abandon entirely the concept of “LGBT history”? Not at all; in fact, it is imperative for people to know that variations in sexual and gender identity have occurred throughout history, whether they are socially constructed or not. What’s more, a shared history helps foster a sense of identity in the modern day. Rather than a singular, historically consistent gay experience, we may recognize a genealogy of multiple homosexualities. Perhaps we cannot definitively “claim” people like John Singer Sargent as “one of our own,” but it is enough to see, as author E. M. Forster wrote, “occasional glimpses of the happiness of 1000s of others whose names I shall never hear.”