The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum's 2020 exhibition catalogue Boston’s Apollo: Thomas McKeller and John Singer Sargent has been recognized by the Art Libraries Society of North America (ARLIS/NA) for excellence in art publishing. Established in 1980, the Wittenborn Award honors the memory of George Wittenborn, a premier New York art book dealer and publisher who was a prominent supporter of the Society in its formative years.
Boston’s Apollo: Thomas McKeller and John Singer Sargent inaugurates a new chapter in the history of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum as its first focus on images of a Black man and its first to address the history of African American experience in Boston. The catalogue features drawings given by Sargent to Isabella Stewart Gardner, published in full for the first time and accompanied by an impressive variety of perspectives from artists, curators, and scholars. (Learn more about the exhibition on YouTube.)
In 1916, renowned artist John Singer Sargent (1856–1925) met Thomas Eugene McKellar (1890–1962), a young Black elevator attendant, at Boston’s Hotel Vendome. Mckeller became Sargent’s principal model for a set of murals in the rotunda of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, murals in which McKeller’s poses were transformed into gods and goddesses.
Sharing McKeller’s story and the preparatory drawings for the first time, the catalogue explores the intersection of the model’s life with Sargent, serving as an overdue and welcome reassessment of the relationship between two men, artist and model. The catalogue’s contributors examine intersections of race, gender, and identity, using archival records to piece together the life of McKeller and firsthand accounts of African American experience in early twentieth century Boston. The essays present the reader with the museum’s exploration of their complex past while shedding light on their equally complex present, inclusive of marginalized voices not reflected in traditional histories.
In addition to the textual content, the catalogue is saturated with rich images of Sargent’s drawings of McKeller, which highlight the detail of the line drawings and the intimate relationship of artist and model. Reproductions of archival documents and enlarged handwritten letters fill book pages. Back matter in the form of maps of the Museum of Fine Art’s murals, a selective index, and an extensive bibliography round out this exquisite production. This volume beautifully exemplifies the Wittenborn Award ethos through its emphasis on scholarly content paired with thoughtful design.
Published in association with Yale University Press and edited by the William and Lia Poorvu Curator of the Collection Nathaniel Silver, the publication was the output of a distinguished group of contributors: Trevor Fairbrother, Paul Fisher, Nikki A. Greene, Erica E. Hirshler, Lorraine O’Grady, Casey Riley, Nathaniel Silver, and Colm Tóibín. The museum’s Elizabeth Reluga served as project manager, and Alejandro Nodarse was the research assistant. Laura Grey provided a sensitive and sympathetic design, and Conti Tipocolor was the printer and binder.
The members of the 2020 ARLIS/NA George Wittenborn Memorial Book Award Sub-Committee were: Andi Back (Chair), M.J. Poehler, Thomas Young, Megan Macken, Andrea Degener, Skye Lacerte, and Jennifer Akins.