Sargent’s Israel and the Law

In the fall of 2010, I received a call out from a man inquiring if we would be interested in a painting by Sargent—John Singer Sargent (1856–1925), the most celebrated portrait painter of the Gilded Age, a wizard with a brush who could transform parvenus into aristocrats and aristocrats into royalty. Would we be interested in a Sargent? [Pause.] Yes, of course—very interested. Who is the sitter, I asked. The caller then told me that the painting he owned was not a portrait. It was much rarer. It was a large oil study for one of Sargent’s mural paintings in the Boston Public Library. The caller went on to explain that he had acquired the painting a few years before from a Boston art gallery. He enjoyed researching the painting but now felt that he needed to find a permanent home for it. As a frequent visitor to the NCMA, he told me that he was always impressed by the Museum’s Judaic Art Gallery. That an art museum would have such a gallery inspired him to pick up the phone and offer us the painting. You see, he said, my painting is a study for the mural titled Israel and the Law.

Israel and the Law is part of an ambitious cycle of murals created by Sargent to decorate a palatial hall in the library. Titled “The Triumph of Religion,” the murals chart the evolution of Western religious thought from polytheist beginnings in Egypt and Mesopotamia to the “enlightened” monotheism of modern times. A central theme of the cycle is the dialogue between Judaism and Christianity carried out in corresponding paintings that occupy the spandrels of the vaults, three on each lateral side of the hall. In Israel and the Law, a cowled Jehovah, his face unseen, crouches on a mountaintop teaching the Divine Law to the boy Israel. The pair is protected by a ring of warrior angels.

Judging by the number of drawings made for Israel and the Law, Sargent worried over this painting more than any of his other murals.  In addition to the drawings, now at Harvard, he made two full studies in oil. The Museum’s painting is most likely the first of the two. Close examination reveals clear evidence of the artist fine-tuning the composition. For example, in the group of angels at right, one can see under the buildup of paint where Sargent adjusted the placement of the winged figures. The other study, in the collection of London Royal Academy of Arts, has few editorial changes. It was probably made for exhibition, whereas the Museum’s painting is a true study, all the more interesting for showing the artist at work.

Israel and the Law is unique in our American collection for being essentially a work of civic art, not intended for a private home or even a museum. It was composed for a grand public space and meant to be viewed from below. This posed a challenge for us. The painting arrived at the Museum in a handsome gilt frame that made the picture “behave” as though it were any easel picture circa 1900. That was clearly the wrong message. As a corrective, we looked back to the practice of American mural painters of Sargent’s generation. We found that it was common for artists to paint small versions of a proposed mural for approval by a client or architect. Some of these paintings were framed in elaborately constructed and painted frames that would give the client a suggestion of the architectural context for the final mural. One such frame was designed by the artist Elihu Vedder for his study for Rome, or the Art Idea. Using that frame as inspiration, we asked Raleigh furniture maker Evan Lightner to build a frame for Israel and the Law. The design incorporated some of the beaux-arts architectural features found in Sargent Hall at the Boston Public Library. We then asked decorative painter Rosa Patton to paint the frame using marbled colors matched to those in Sargent Hall. The resulting frame endows Sargent’s mural study with appropriate majesty and distinguishes it from the rest of the American paintings.

On February 24 Israel and the Law was unveiled in a special single-painting exhibition in West Building in the space immediately preceding the Judaic Art Gallery.

And all of this followed from one phone call.

NOTE: “Israel and the Law: The Key to a Missing Keynote,” is the subject of a public lecture by Yale University Professor Sally M. Promey to be presented as 12th annual Abram and Frances Pascher Kanof Lecture, Sunday, March 25, at 2 pm in the Museum Auditorium.  The lecture is free to the public. More info

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