Painting Religion in Public: John Singer Sargent's Triumph of Religion at the Boston Public Library.

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9780691089508: Painting Religion in Public: John Singer Sargent's Triumph of Religion at the Boston Public Library.
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A brilliant painter of society portraits, John Singer Sargent also devoted many years at the height of his career to a project of an entirely different order: an ambitious, multi-media decoration titled Triumph of Religion (1890-1919) for the Boston Public Library. The library cycle Sargent imagined as his most important work, however, would ultimately remain unfinished, quietly abandoned in the face of religious opposition, one critical painting short of completion. Truncation dramatically altered possible readings of Triumph, redirecting its narrative energies and generating new meanings in tension with the idea Sargent had proposed. In Painting Religion in Public, Sally Promey tells the story of an artist of international stature and the complex and consuming pictorial program he pursued in Boston. Highly celebrated in its day, with individual panels retaining immense popularity even in the years of discord, this artistic project and its constituent images tell us much about broad cultural and political exchanges concerning the public representation of religious content in the United States.


Sargent's library decoration attracted the attention of multiple audiences and engaged concurrent debates about class, race, art, and religion. Representatives of various religious and cultural backgrounds hailed portions of the cycle as indicative of the strength of their own positions, and reproductions of the images appeared in everything from books and encyclopedias to stained glass and public pageantry. Promey analyzes the conception and production of the cycle, persuasively demonstrating that Triumph of Religion, far from promoting a narrowly sectarian version of religious practice, represented instead Sargent's public recommendation of the privacy of modern belief. The artist recast contemporary religion as spirituality, she argues, linking it not with institutions and dogma but with personal subjectivity. For Sargent, this ideal was a sign of Western, especially American, progress. Carefully reconstructing patterns of reception in an increasingly diverse religious climate, and exploring the extent and character of Sargent's personal and artistic investment, Promey boldly illuminates the work Sargent hoped to make his masterpiece. At the same time, she enriches understanding of religious images in public places and popular imagination.


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"With very impressive intellectual range, Promey deftly interprets the imagery in the context of diverse social, religious, and cultural currents in nineteenth- and twentieth-century America, and Boston in particular. Painting Religion in Public will instantly become and remain the definitive study of its subject."--David Morgan, Valparaiso University


"Painting Religion in Public is a brilliant book, meticulously crafted, engaging, and challenging. It is full of marvelous insight and a deeply matured sensitivity to Sargent, his experiences, and his art. Sally Promey does a splendid job protecting the genuine ambiguities and contradictions in Sargent's views and in the realization of his plans for Triumph of Religion. Her ability to weave together historical, cultural, visual, and biographical resources without imposing a false unity gives authoritative restraint to her arguments while allowing her enthusiasm and sympathy for the project and the man to come through clearly. This is a truly wonderful work."--Ellen Smith, American Jewish Historical Society


"Painting Religion in Public is a full retelling of the story behind one of the most ambitious and, in its own era's eyes, most important public art monuments in the United States. Sally Promey establishes this importance through a thorough exploration of documentary materials, her creative use of these documents, and a wide-ranging inquiry into both the art and the religious culture of that time and place. Readers in many fields will find the text rewarding."--Marc Simpson, Bibliography of the History of Art, Getty Research Institute


"Promey's thorough study of the contexts of and reactions to this most ambitious of Sargent's projects is not only timely but most welcome . . . .[Her] analysis of the multi-layered and religious attitudes and practices, patriotism, and sociological currents during the three decades of the installation of the murals is intricate and masterful . . . will undoubtedly become the definitive scholarly study of this complex series of murals."--Marianna M. Archambault, Religion and the Arts


About the Author:

Sally M. Promey is Professor of American Art in the Department of Art History and Archaeology at the University of Maryland. She is author of Spiritual Spectacles: Vision and Image in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Shakerism and contributing author and co-editor of The Visual Culture of American Religions (forthcoming).

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