John Singer Sargent, his Life, his Legacy, and the Problem Space It Reveals Regarding LGBT+ History

6 min read

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.

Thomas Eugene McKellar painting by John Singer Sargent

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.”

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  1. 1

    A bigger question is why statements by those who knew Sargent that bluntly state he was homosexual, or insinute it, continue to be ignored –– despite having being published for decades. If Jacques Emile-Blanche was so exasperated at Ethel Sands’ niavity regarding his sex life in 1927, to the extent he burst out at the lunch table that ‘he was a frenzied bugger’, why almost a century later are some people still whittering about the possibility?

  2. 2
    Jeffrey Paszko

    The common response by historians is , He never identified himself as gay. At the same time how many people say they identify themselves as straight . They do not. . It is assumed. Why because even in a world that says it is pro alternative life styles there is an ambivalence towards calling anyone gay even when it is apparent . Why,,, because the underlying belief is that it is still considered a taboo.. No one has a problem asserting someone is straight even thought they have no hardcore evidence , but the are unable to call some one gay until they have caught them in the act and even then they will say it is not conclusive

  3. 3

    Ironically, I got to this article while trying to research if Sargent was asexual. I think you raise many good points and I admire your sensitivity to not forcing a modern narrative/sensibilities on the past. I think modern historians delving into sexuality and gender is very interesting, but an issue I have is that so often asexuality and/or aromanticism are overlooked as possibilities, likely because there is so little awareness around these identities and their nuances. I get annoyed with the show about Emily Dickinson showing steamy love scenes between Dickinson and her sister-in-law because frankly we don’t know if they had a sexual relationship and it seems to be beyond people that you can love people of the same gender (or opposite) without wanting them sexually. Anyways, all this is to say that I hope more people will realize there’s another option besides gay if one didn’t marry in the past. Of course, there’s also a lot of other reasons to never marry. Interesting essay!

  4. 4
    Michael F

    I just saw the Sargent exhibition at the MFA. Men as „
    „dandys“ was downplayed but was present in the young man who was a close affiliate of Oscar Wilde. I was unfamiliar with Sargent before the exhibition but I thought gay the first time K saw Dr. Pozzi‘s portrait. Dr. Pozzi was a renowned Lothrio but I think his story was more complex. A friend pointed out the book The Man in the Red Coat as an interesting read about Dr. Pozzi.

    My grandfather was painter and editor of an art magazine in Sweden. I was looking at his collection of books and noticed that many of the artists painted female nudes when in their prime years. I thinking it telling that Sargent painted the male nude shown in this article. Did he paint any female nudes (perhaps too risky then?)? Maybe Madame X‘s impatience with him was that he wasn‘t titillated by her like most men she associated with.

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