Though John Singer Sargent has become increasingly popular in recent decades, and even moved up in the begrudging valuation of art critics and museums from his position in the mid 20th Century as a “facile craftsman” to one of a more respected artist, there are still elements of his work and career that are much less well known than they should be.
In particular, his series of remarkable murals for the Boston Public Library, which he may have considered his most important work, as well as murals for Harvard University’s Widener Library and those in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston should get greater attention.
The murals are certainly Sargent’s largest scale works, and are in large part painted in a style uncharacteristic of his more familiar portraits and landscapes. Those in the Boston Public Library depict the history of world religion and are painted in the style of Italian Renaissance frescoes, incorporating the surrounding architectural elements of the building into the work.
He also incorporated an unorthodox combination of canvas panels with raised relief elements attached to the canvas. All of these elements presented challenges with the murals were restored in the late 1990’s.
The library has a website devoted specifically to the murals. Unfortunately the images are on the small side and not as easily navigated as they might be. The site has worthwhile information, though, as well as some Quicktime VR interactive panoramas of the spaces.
There are some larger images of the Boston Library murals on Brian Yoder’s Goodart Gallery and a multi page article on Mural Crew about high school artists painting works inspired by the murals that includes photos of the originals. There is also a video on YouTube of the library murals, accompanied by music.
There is a book of Sargent’s Murals by Carol Troyen, that may be out of print, but can be found used.
You can also find good images by doing a Flickr search for Sargent Murals.
[Idea and Brian Yoder Gallery link via Zelda Devon]