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.