Beginning in the late 1870s, in emulation of the elaborate public buildings they admired in Europe, Americans began to decorate their libraries, capitals, churches, and museums with large-scale paintings and sculpture intended to evoke civic pride. Few of the country's artists had any training...
Beginning in the late 1870s, in emulation of the elaborate public buildings they admired in Europe, Americans began to decorate their libraries, capitals, churches, and museums with large-scale paintings and sculpture intended to evoke civic pride. Few of the country's artists had any training as muralists, so building committees turned instead to men (and occasionally women) who had earned acclaim as easel painters. With his incredible facility with the brush and keen understanding of the psychology of his sitters, John Singer Sargent had become one of the most successful portraitists of the late nineteenth century. In 1890, in search of new artistic challenges, Sargent accepted an invitation to decorate one of the large halls of the Boston Public Library with murals. He was delighted to undertake such an important commission, for murals were at the top of the traditional hierarchy of painting. Sargent, trained in the academies of Europe and well educated in the history of art, had always drawn inspiration from Old Master paintings. The greatest artists of the Renaissance and Baroque periods had all been masters of public art, and Sargent welcomed the opportunity to work within that illustrious context. Mural painting would fascinate him for the rest of his life. When the trustees of the Museum of Fine Arts decided to embellish their Huntington Avenue building with permanent decorations in 1916, they naturally turned to Sargent, the city's favorite artist. Originally invited to contribute three lunettes over each doorway to the Museum's main galleries, Sargent convinced the board to allow him to redesign and redecorate the entire rotunda, a program that resulted in a sophisticated blend of architecture, sculpture, and painting. He devised an imaginative scheme that used images from classical mythology to pay homage to the arts. Architecture, Painting, and Sculpture Protected by Athena from the Ravages of Time was the first painting visitors would see after climbing to the top of the Museum's grand staircase. Sargent devised a new painting technique for his murals, using strong outlines, a soft color scheme, and flat unvarnished surfaces that from a distance evoke the famous fresco cycles of Italy. He selected three figures-one on a plinth, one with a mallet, and one with brush and palette-to represent the fine arts. Athena, goddess of wisdom, shields them from the destructive scythe of Father Time. Sargent intended this allegory to illustrate and to validate the Museum's mission of collecting and preserving the greatest examples of art. He based his figures on a variety of ancient and Renaissance sources, appropriating their prestige to add luster to his composition. When these murals were unveiled in 1921, Sargent was praised as a modern Michelangelo. This text was adapted from Davis, et al., MFA Highlights: American Painting (Boston, 2003) available at www.mfashop.com/mfa-publications.html.
Lower left: J S S ©
The artist; commissioned by the MFA in 1916 for $40,018 (for 21.10500-21.10515), installed in the Rotunda in 1921.
Francis Bartlett Donation of 1912 and Picture Fund