Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Renaissance Rome and Emersonian Boston: Michelangelo and Sargent, between Triumph and Doubt

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Renaissance Rome and Emersonian Boston: Michelangelo and Sargent, between Triumph and Doubt

Article excerpt

Art Review Article

In 1896, when he first encountered the grandeur of the Boston Public Library's Sargent Hall-a gallery that takes its name from John Singer Sargent's resplendent mural cycle there, The Triumph of Religion-Ernest Fenollosa, the legendary curator of Japanese art, found the earliest murals evocative of Michelangelo's at the Vatican. Twenty years later, another critic, F. W. Coburn, pronounced the library's majestic, barrel-vaulted gallery, nearly a hundred feet long and two stories high, by 1916 all but filled with Sargent's nearly completed murals, an American Sistine Chapel. Both were right, according to Sally M. Promey, a University of Maryland art historian and author of a splendid and surely definitive new book1 about the murals, a book all the more welcome because it may have helped shame the library's trustees (who have lately been unthinkingly trashing parts of the building that, at great expense, they not so long ago restored) into at last doing something about the grime-coated and ill-lit gallery that enshrines Sargent's murals, surely the building's greatest artistic treasure.

What else call Sargent Hall? Its paintings are the response of a great American master, at the beginning of what has been called the American Renaissance, to Michelangelo's and Raphael's work at the height of the Italian Renaissance, work Sargent saw as "the quintessential mural cycles of western art," and which he went on, in Promey's words, to "assimilate and substantially rework aspects of, [setting] up Rome and the Vatican in particular as the artistic and religious foil for his Boston enterprise." Although it is more for his brilliant portraits and watercolors than for his murals that Sargent has been most widely celebrated, Promey's new study is the strongest indication yet that the library murals are gaining in critical estimation, despite the failure of Sargent's original conception of Sargent Hall, which he ultimately abandoned after his last work there had aroused considerable controversy Seen in the context of the great sweep of Western history Boston is ever, historically, the Puritan and then the Emersonian capital, as Rome is forever the imperial and then the papal capital, and no less than papal Rome for the Renaissance masters, Emersonian Boston offered Sargent at the library complicated times, demanding patronage, and striking opportunity.

The artist began thinking about the Boston Public Library in 1890, on the eve of what was certainly to be, whether or not it was any kind of Renaissance, the American century. It was an era when New York was rapidly coalescing into the nation's preeminent commercial and cultural center, Washington becoming more and more important as the country's governmental capital, and Boston, long thought the American Athens, consolidating its own resources so as to assert itself in the new century as the country's intellectual capital-the last assertion by no means as inevitable-seeming then as now; the idealism of the "city on a hill" Emerson declared fated to -lead the civilization of North America" had somewhat stalled in the post-Civil War era. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., for example, distinctly disillusioned, remarked after the war, according to Louis Menand, that, finally, he saw that Boston and the U.S. were not the same; Boston was not, as his father had thought, the measure of all things. Yet what Holmes Junior hardly saw, of course, was that he himself would be a luminary of a new, greater Boston, the role of which in the national life Menand has delineated well in his recent book, The Metaphysical Club. Its title derives from an obscure club that met for only a few months in Old Cambridge in 1872, its leaders three Bostonians-- Holmes, William James, and Charles Sanders Peirce. These and their disciple, John Dewey (a more conservative "Vermont Transcendentalist" as opposed to the other more Emersonian "Boston Transcendentalists"), Menand calls "the first modern thinkers in the U. …

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