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The unveiling of painter John Singer Sargent's unsung muse


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: There are times the story behind a painting match the beauty of the work itself.

And special correspondent Jared Bowen reports on a hidden history behind the ceiling of the Rotunda in Boston's Museum of Fine Arts.

Jared Bowen: The upper reaches of the Museum of Fine Arts Rotunda is where the gods and goddesses live. They stand in radiant glory. They ride chariots. And they soar on feathered wings. They are white and idealized. But they are him.

Nathaniel Silver: The man in these drawings was clearly black, and I thought, what's going on here? Who is this man? Has anyone figured out who he is?

Jared Bowen: These murals and figures have hovered over the MFA for roughly a century, since they were conceived by painter John Singer Sargent in 1916.

But it's only now that there's been a comprehensive look at Thomas McKeller, the Black model behind the murals. It's all thanks to an accidental discovery at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum by collection curator Nathaniel Silver.

Nathaniel Silver: I opened the wrong cabinet, and happened to find this portfolio. It was huge. And I had never seen these Sargent drawings before.

Jared Bowen: That find has led to Boston's Apollo, an exhibition examining the relationship between Sargent and McKeller, who was the painter's principal model for the MFA Murals, an artistic relationship lasting eight years.

Nathaniel Silver: It wasn't that just anyone could have helped Sargent get to this point. It was Thomas McKeller specifically that allowed Sargent to unlock a creative potential that had not been tapped before.

Jared Bowen: Sargent was a celebrity painter, and tired of doing the portraiture that was his bread and butter, when he received the MFA commission.

In these charcoal sketches that Sargent ultimately gave to his friend and patron Isabella Stewart Gardner, we find the artist drawing the fine contours of McKeller, a sometime-contortionist-turned-stand-in for mythological gods.

Nathaniel Silver: He was a veteran, a Roxbury resident. He came from Wilmington, North Carolina, in the 1890s in the wake of devastating racial violence.

Jared Bowen: There is little known about the extent of the relationship between the two men. But consider this Sargent painting of McKeller. It's Sargent's only major nude, and was hung prominently in his studio, never intended for public view.

Nathaniel Silver: Sargent lavished attention in making this work. You can see it in the highlights on the shoulders and on the chest here, this incredible tiny little shadow just over the Adam's apple, and another one just under the bottom lip.

This was not a painting that was dashed off in a few strokes. This was a painting that he spent an incredible amount of time, effort and love in making.

Helga Davis: The first thing I saw was all the drawings together.

Performance artist Helga Davis is a visiting curator who directed this short film in which the last of McKeller's direct descendants literally comes face to face with his legacy.

Helga Davis: These sketches of my great-uncle are really a means of survival for him.

Jared Bowen: What do you see when you look at those murals?

Helga Davis: I see, you made Apollo. You made these things. And here is the body that inspired it.

Nathaniel Silver: How could we possibly forget somebody who played so pivotal a role in the production of Boston's public art? That's a question that revolves around blind spots in the discipline of art history, of history, and of society in general.

Jared Bowen: The Gardner is confronting history here, calling out the erasure of a Black man by a white artist a century ago, and what that looks like today, when there is finally a reclamation.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jared Bowen in Boston, Massachusetts.

Judy Woodruff: So fascinating.

Thank you, Jared.

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