Thomas E. McKeller – Male Muse

What is the first thing that flashes through your mind when you hear the name John Singer Sargent? Probably exquisite portraits, for which he is most known. Memorable portrayals of elegant ladies, distinguished men, upper class folk dressed to the nines in their satin and velvet. With Sargent, you don’t generally think of a male nude, let alone a full frontal male nude.

But few artists can resist an inspiring subject, even if it deviates from their usual genre. John Singer Sargent was no exception. We all know that a muse can happen upon an artist at anytime, anywhere. A bar, a street corner, a party. In Sargent’s case, the unexpected encounter occurred in 1916, in an elevator at the Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston.

The striking, muscular young man was Thomas E. McKeller, an African-American bellhop at the hotel. At first sight, Sargent was instantly enthralled by McKeller’s strong physique and facial features. Soon, the young bellhop was posing for the artist, and a large scale oil painting, Thomas E. McKeller Nude Study was produced:

That pose is incredible. Very “active”. First of all, Thomas is kneeling on a cushion with his arms behind him, which presents the torso with a good amount of tension and prominence. Also, his head is tilted upward and to the side, gazing to the heavens. Now let me tell you something; this guy was a great model. That is hard!! That has pain written all over it. In the knees, in the shoulders, in the neck. Thomas rocks 🙂

One of many charcoal sketches Sargent did of Thomas McKeller:

Given the mystery surrounding Sargent’s sexual orientation, one could certainly read a lot into these McKeller studies and infer a bit of erotic subtext. Some biographers and art history scholars are convinced that Sargent was gay but repressed. Others believe he was bisexual. Still others regard him as completely asexual. We know that Sargent never married and have very little evidence of any romantic relationship with either a man or a woman. (It is believed that Sargent had an affair with Louise Burkhardt, his model for Lady With The Rose, but it’s not known for sure). Regardless, Sargent was extremely secretive about his proclivities and private life. And, unlike Michelangelo, Sargent created plenty of beautiful female nudes from life, some of them quite sensual. So who knows?

I personally don’t find the McKeller painting erotic. It’s absolutely amazing for sure, but in it I see Sargent capturing Thomas from a purely aesthetic standpoint, not a sexual one. I mean, look at Thomas. There is not an artist on earth, male or female, gay or straight, who would not be inspired by his magnificent form or his soulful, earthy countenance.

The Nude Study of Thomas was never exhibited publicly during Sargent’s lifetime but it is now, proudly on display at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. In an interesting coincidence, the original site of the MFA was located at the old Copley Plaza Hotel, where John Singer Sargent first found himself in an elevator with his handsome muse.

14 thoughts on “Thomas E. McKeller – Male Muse

  1. Andrew says:

    You are right on. McKeller’s pose would not be easy to hold for a long time. It looks like he’s supporting his weight with his arms, and that’s tiring as well. (Funny… Artists look at things like color palette. Art historians ponder deep meaning. Art models analyze the difficulty of the pose. 🙂 )

    If you had not explained that it was a John Singer Sargent work, it would be difficult to guess when this was painted. There are no contextual clues. If he was dressed like Benjamin Franklin, we would guess 18th Century America. If he had an iPhone sitting next to him, we’d know it was 21st Century. But the nude human form looks the same in 2009 as it did in 1209, and so we can equally relate to a nude subject from an old master or a contemporary artist. Appreciation of the nude is timeless, like classical music.

    One thing I find odd is all the speculation about whether Sargent was gay. If a female artists paints a female nude, nobody assumes she’s lesbian.

    • artmodel says:

      Andrew,

      Your observations and insights are so perfectly stated. How true it is that we art models look at poses, before anything else, in figurative works. I do it constantly, as I’m sure you do. This one really blew me away.

      I love what you said about the timelessness of the nude. With all the different phases and trends that art assumes over the years, the human nude remains the same. That constancy alone is beautiful in itself, and speaks to the essential classic nature of our profession. Makes me proud 🙂

      Thanks so much for your comments on this post, Andrew. I really enjoyed reading them!

      Claudia

  2. fred says:

    The first one is just magnificent, and once again you’ve found something I’d never seen before – you’re an essential finder, Claudia!

    The sketch shows the figure from a low angle, looking up at it. I wonder if this was a sketch for a ceiling mural. It seems to be gridded for purposes of upscaling to a painting. I have done some drawings with that low angle by putting a mirror flat on the floor and looking through it to observe the model as though seen from underneath the floor. The image in the mirror is upside down – an interesting new way of seeing. (One drawing done that way is featured in my recent blog post “The Mind Is an Antenna”). I wonder if that’s how Sargent did that sketch.

  3. Jennifer says:

    Wow!! And with the white shading behind his shoulders, he looks rather like he’s trying to become an angel …

    Actually, looking again, I think I can see evidence of brown feathers behind him – as Fred says, perhaps it was a study for a ceiling mural.

    It’s certainly a gorgeous painting!

    • artmodel says:

      Jennifer,

      What a good eye! I have the smartest, most observant readers 🙂

      Something’s definitely up with that background. Weird brush strokes. I actually find it a tad distracting. With the figure painted so magnificently, I would prefer a subtle, minimalist background. But that’s just me, and I’m definitely no painter! Clearly Sargent did some experimenting.

      Glad you like the painting.

      Claudia

    • Hugh says:

      Looking at the painting last evening at the MFA (on a tour of homoerotic art) the wings are clearer. There’s a rotunda r\at the MFA that Sargent painted some frescos on the dome – McKeller was apparently the model for most of the figures

  4. Jennifer says:

    Have taken a look at the Boston library site and it mentions a frieze of angels, so I would suspect that McKeller was a model for a possible angel, given the feathery background painting – a rather earthly angel, though!

    I’ve fixed my i-Google page so that it’s festively snowing now … though unfortunately we are forecast real snow unseasonably early in the south/east of England (like, Friday!), so I may be experiencing the real thing soon!

  5. fred says:

    I looked at the Boston Library Mural site as well. The murals are beautifully done but they look rather dated and overly designed. They lack the spontaneity and vitality of the images in this post. Sometimes the tossed-off sketch beats the labored-over masterwork!

  6. Wow, thanks again Claudia, for finding and writing so cogently about a piece that’s totally new to me. You are a wonder.

    • artmodel says:

      Thank YOU, Jean! Wonderful to receive a comment from you. I’m glad – and not surprised – that you liked this Sargent painting, being a great admirer of his.

      Happy holidays!

      Claudia

  7. Waverly says:

    Claudia,

    Thank you for your exquisitely informative posts. The last part that the MFA was originally located in the hotel where they met? Amazing. Congrats. You inspire me to do better research.

    Happy Holidays over there!

  8. Walter Guerra says:

    If you see well the background of the figure, you can note that this painting was originally intended to be an angel, not simply an studio of a nude man.

    • artmodel says:

      Walter,

      Yes, you’re right. A commenter above also noted the appearance of feathers in the background. This was probably a section of Sargent’s mural project.

      Thanks for your comment.

      Claudia

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