Located on the third floor of the Boston Public Library, John Singer Sargent’s Triumph of Religion murals are a great Boston experience. Sargent spent over twenty years melding his painting prowess with, well something really weird.
Sargent painted the murals between the years of 1895-1919 in his London studio. The murals now call the Boston Public Library home and are some of the strangest paintings I’ve seen. I’m a huge fan of Sargent. Sargent’s canvas paintings demonstrate his mastery of hazy, dramatic atmospheres combined with amazing, flourishes and highlights from his brushmarks. Combined with his handling of faces, figures and composition, there’s rarely a miss in his oeuvre.
The Triumph of Religion
The Triumph of Religion murals have been controversial from the start. Sargent himself wanted to create a work that would be the apex of his career. His paintings were panned from the start. Charges of anti-semitism caught Sargent off guard. Later they achieved ‘America’s Sistine Chapel’ status and now lie somewhere in between for all art historians to argue over.
The ambitious series of murals are meant to represent the history of religion. Starting with Babylonian and Egyptian gods, the murals depict prophets and Moses. Christianity rises from the older religions, arcing through the life of Christ through the Last Judgment. The north end starts with the old gods and a line of prophets, with a three dimensional! Moses handling the Ten Commandments.
Like all artists who take their own leap into source material, the murals have a strong whiff of the Joe Rogan/’Do Your Own Research’ way of thinking. He plays fast and loose with the subject matter. Sargent seemingly makes up his own references surrounded by a shiny layer of gold leaf. All these paintings have a cryptic, overly theatrical vibe that does well for the weird results, but may not hold up to religious scrutiny.
The Sargent murals, overlaid with multiple materials, including ample gold leaf, sculptural elements, iron swords, faux leather and even paper mache, are a lot to take in. Sargent’s mastery of figures is almost enough to save themselves. Horror vacui sets in with the figures packed in like sardines. The filled spaces largely negates the dramatic, hazy atmospheres his canvas work uses to great success. The faces and figures are Sargent’s strongest hand here. Still, they are emotionless, and surrounded by so much junk it’s hard to stay focused anywhere for long. The lack of focus created by the busy panels further relegates any meaning in the work.
Every panel was created for maximum effect. They all fall apart in an overworked pastiche of techniques and ideas. In this case, pastiche is meant with the most negative of connotations. The ‘Israelites Oppressed’ mural makes up the large arc of the North Wall. Sargent fills the composition with Egyptian and Babylonian elements taken straight off the walls of the British Museum. Despite Sargent’s deft handling of figures creates a kitschy mismatched array of forms.
The hodgepodge of everything is reinforced by the ever present overuse of sculptural wings and figures jutting out from the walls. The overworked composition matches the overbearing gold leafed surface. All of this is forcibly framed by a hard to read script of Psalm 106 (around verse 40). Complicating matters, the central panel is surrounded by more Egyptian and Babylonian gods, Jewish Prophets and the Ten Commandments. I will admit the overwhelming absurdity of the panel is enjoyable in itself, but is an all around garish mess.
The South Wall mirrors the general disarray of the North Wall. The ‘Trinity and Crucifix’ makes up the large arc of the room, above the ‘Frieze of Angels’. Again, a pastiche of medieval icon painting is utilized to depict the Trinity, complete with a wildly raised Crucifix with angels and rosettes. Gold leaf unifies the entire mural, befitting any European cathedral built 800 years ago. There is less Sargent in this work than anywhere else with staid figures stiffly lined up surrounded by more sculptural elements.
The East and West walls are the closest Sargent comes to mimicking his own style. The paintings run through a variety of concepts, ending with ‘Judgment’ and ‘Hell’. In these pieces, Sargent finally drops so much of the sculptural elements and paints figures and more approachable scenes. The crowded compositions leave little room to breathe, but the colors feel refreshing. The cooler colors give the viewer a respite in the face of the north and south walls. Soft blues and whites quietly dominate the West wall. a surprising contrast with the usual darkness artists have used to depict the moments of judgment and hell.
The murals were a fight for Sargent throughout their creation. Painted with a ⅓ scale model of the space in London, he shipped them and installed them in pieces for decades. The Synagogue mural depicts the Jewish religion as crumbling and inept. Surrounded by Christian murals, it was so despised it was attacked with ink. Sargent had to repaint parts, and the frustration and rejection of his ‘masterwork’ laid heavily on him. An empty panel speaks to the troubles he had on the project, as a space reserved for his “Sermon on the Mount’ remains bare to the day, unfinished before his death.
The murals are a super bizarre concoction of disparate elements, bound by a loose narrative of the rise of Christianity. Painted with the best of intentions, and longing to be his masterwork, the murals serve as an odd footnote to his already renowned and established career. While he lived almost exclusively in Europe, he held strong ties to Boston. He even completed a more traditional series of decorative murals in a rotunda in the city’s Museum of Fine Arts.
The Sargent murals in the Boston Public Library really are a unique footnote to his work. They are uncharacteristically garish, filled with sculptural elements that are absolutely unique to his work. They leave out many of the essential devices that made him such a great canvas painter. Often the most interesting work an artist produces are the things done as a side project or a personal project. Left to their own devices, artists can really get to weird places their normal work never allows. These murals, despite Sargent’s own wishes, are just a side note to a great career. While the work follows an undeniably unique train of thought, it’s filled with wild choices that display an artist willing to take chances, but perhaps needed a bit more incubation time.
The Sargent murals are a testament to the dedication and availability of culture on display throughout Boston. They are free, easy to get to, and worth a visit. Revel in the odd choices and bizarre sculptural elements! Soak up the gold leaf and then take a break and relax at the MFA or Gardner and see his true genius.