Open Studio with Jared Bowen

S10 E1 | FULL EPISODE

Special Edition: Turn of the Century Artists

Favorite pieces highlighting turn of the century artists. Artist John Singer Sargent and Thomas McKeller, his longtime African American model in the exhibit, “Boston’s Apollo”, writer Henry James, artist James McNeill Whistler, Pulitzer Prize winning author Edith Wharton and the Crane Estate in Ipswich, Massachusetts.

AIRED: July 02, 2021 | 0:26:46
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TRANSCRIPT

>> 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.

>> BOWEN: I'm Jared Bowen-- coming up onOpen Studio,

we span a trove of turn-of-the-century artists,

including John Singer Sargent

and his longtime African-American model.

Then, the world according to writer Henry James.

>> He and others in that, that orbit

understood that artistic expression could come out

in music, it could come out in dance,

it could come out on the page.

And, in fact, he ends up really painting with words.

>> BOWEN: Plus James McNeill Whistler and his mother.

>> Because of her very conservative

religious appearance,

she was able to act as an anchor for him

in this very sort of eccentric way that he led his life.

>> BOWEN: And at home with novelist Edith Wharton.

>> Edith Wharton had always done her best work writing in bed.

That was where the creative genius inspired her.

And so I think in building The Mount, she created a space

where she could have the privacy she needed

to get her best work done.

>> BOWEN: It's all now onOpen Studio.

Welcome to this special edition of the show.

We're taking a look at a group of artists who are friends,

frenemies, or just traveled in the same circles

at the turn of the century.

We begin with a look at painter John Singer Sargent.

And, to toot our own horn for a moment,

we recently won an Edward R. Murrow Award

for piece we aired in 2020 about Sargent and Thomas McKeller,

his longtime African-American model.

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.

>> 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?"

>> 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.

>> In 2017, I was in our storage facility

looking for another work of art,

and I opened the wrong cabinet, and...

And happened to find this portfolio-- it was huge.

And I thought, "What's that?"

So I pulled it out, and I had a look through it.

And I had never seen these Sargent drawings before.

>> BOWEN: That find has led toBoston'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.

>> 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.

>> BOWEN: Sargent was a celebrity painter,

and tired of doing the portraiture

that was his bread and butter

when he received the MFA commission.

There are no known pictures of Thomas McKeller,

who was a 26-year-old bellman when he met Sargent

at Boston's posh Hotel Vendome.

>> He was a veteran, a Roxbury resident.

He came from Wilmington, North Carolina, in the 1890s,

in the wake of devastating racial violence.

So certainly, coming to Boston meant

the opening up of professional opportunities

that he never would have been able to explore in Wilmington.

>> BOWEN: In these charcoal sketches

Sargent ultimately gave

to his friend and patron Isabella Stewart Gardner,

we find the artist drawing

the fine contours and musculature of McKeller,

a sometime contortionist

turned stand-in for mythological gods.

>> There were specific skills that a model needed to have.

You needed to be able to hold difficult poses

for very long periods of time.

But you also had to be able to work with somebody

who was constantly moving you around.

>> 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.

>> 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.

>> The first thing I saw was all the drawings together,

and so that impact, that first and initial impact

on my eyes and on my senses and...

That got me so excited!

>> BOWEN: 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.

>> The posing of my great-uncle for these sketches was...

really a means of survival for him.

>> He had many jobs, but...

the modeling feels like his work, his life's work.

>> BOWEN: Sargent was paid $40,000 for the murals,

a tremendous sum in 1916.

McKeller, as this letter reveals, was cash-strapped,

and for his modeling made just a few dollars a day.

>> He had this life that, that put him in a uniform,

that put him in a box.

That perhaps people would see him

and they identified him as one thing.

And we are never only one thing.

And he certainly was not one thing.

>> BOWEN: McKeller was also the model

for Sargent's murals at Harvard University

and for the body of onetime Harvard president

Abbott Lawrence Lowell,

who had expelled Black students from freshman dorms.

He also stood for this statue of Massasoit in Plymouth.

But with the exception of census and military records,

Thomas McKeller has been erased from this story.

>> How could we possibly forget somebody who was so pivotal,

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.

>> 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.

What do you see when you look up at those murals

at the Museum of Fine Arts?

>> I see yes, and...

Yes.

You, you made Apollo, you made...

You made these things, and...

here's the body that inspired it.

Here's the body that really made it.

>> BOWEN: We'll stay at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

now for a story we first reported in 2017

about John Singer Sargent's good friend, the writer Henry James,

who committed his life to the page, but as fiction-ish.

This is the famed author Henry James,

painted on the occasion of his 70th birthday.

The artist is his friend John Singer Sargent,

one man looking at another after decades of friendship.

>> They were very close.

They were, in some ways, a mirror image of each other.

They're sort of rootless, in a way.

Extensive travelers across Europe.

>> BOWEN: Such was the life of Henry James,

wandering the world with a tightknit artists' circle

that included Sargent, James McNeill Whistler,

and the collector Isabella Stewart Gardner.

Art was in his blood

and was the lifeblood of his writing,

says curator Declan Kiely.

>> One of his earliest forms of writing

was both criticizing fiction and also criticizing art.

He sort of did one with the left and one with the right hand.

And he remained an art critic for many years.

>> BOWEN: At this early age,

when James was painted by his friend John La Farge,

he'd hoped to become an artist himself.

But he soon became aware enough

to realize he didn't have the skill,

says Gardner Museum curator Christina Nielsen.

>> He and others in that orbit understood

that artistic expression could come out in music,

it could come out in dance, it could come out on the page.

And, in fact, he ends up really painting, with words.

>> BOWEN: His words, in novels likeThe Golden Bowl,

did in prose what friends like Sargent

were doing on the canvas.

>> He describes, in great, lengthy, parenthetical phrases,

people in their environment

or sort of deep psychological states.

And so he would look at us, and he would say,

"Jared sat on the seat across from Christina,

"the Persian rug before them.

A million flowers, and books were strewn on the table..."

And, you know, he would...

He wouldn't just say we were having a conversation.

>> BOWEN: Ever the traveler,

the New York-born James was a fixture

in Whistler's fogged-in London

and in Sargent's sun-kissed Venice.

>> James and Gardner and others would meet with people,

whether it was in Boston, or London, or Venice, or Rome,

for breakfasts.

Apparently Whistler was a very good maker of breakfasts.

The buckwheat pancakes were terrific, according to James.

But they would meet in each other's studios,

in each other's homes.

They would meet in salons

and have sort of grand parties or more intimate gatherings,

clearly challenging and inspiring each other.

>> BOWEN: So much so that James' friends

would often appear in his novels as thinly disguised characters.

>> Artists like Whistler crop up in later novels.

The Ambassadors, Whistler is sort of transmuted

into Gloriani, the sculptor.

And both artists, their studios, and galleries

are very important places in James' fiction.

>> BOWEN: James was a frequent guest at this Venetian palazzo

rented by Isabella Stewart Gardner,

painted by Sargent,

and documented by Gardner herself

with snapshots in her scrapbook.

Theirs was a friendship that deepened dramatically

over more than 30 years and countless letters.

>> They grow deeply affectionate and passionate.

He goes from, "My very dear Mrs. Gardner,"

to, "Donna Isabella, I am picturing you

lying on a chaise in Venice in a green gauzy gown."

He describes the green,

and he distinguishes it from pea green,

which is a very different green.

So even in his letters,

he's writing like in his novels.

>> BOWEN: In her own palazzo, now the Gardner Museum,

Isabella memorialized James, as she did with many writers,

in her Blue Room.

>> She's showing how close she is to him

and really revering him

by keeping his letters and first editions

that he gave to her and signed with his hand,

and then clipping out

little pictures of him from the newspaper

and putting them in tiny little frames,

almost like a teenage girl would do.

It's really sweet.

>> BOWEN: Here, the curtain is pulled back

on an illustrious turn-of-the-19th-century moment,

when Henry James and company poked and prodded one another.

They journeyed and jockeyed,

and they recognized a spirit in themselves

that would outlast them all.

As we just heard, artist James McNeill Whistler

was also a fixture in the London art circle

populated by Henry James and John Singer Sargent,

and London is where he painted what's become

his most famous work.

We saw Whistler's Mother up close and personal

at the Clark Art Institute in 2015.

She sits serenely, if not sternly,

an older woman dressed in mourning clothes,

staring into a room equally devoid of color.

She is Whistler's Mother,

a painting much beloved... and bastardized.

But roiling with artistic furor.

>> He saw it not only as an artistic breakthrough,

but it was, of course, a portrait of his mother

with whom he was very close.

>> BOWEN: By the time James McNeill Whistler

painted his mother in their London flat in 1871,

the artist was already the darling of an artistic circle

that included Oscar Wilde, Degas and Rodin,

a long way from his birth in Lowell, Massachusetts.

A prolific portrait painter,

he was long on ego and eccentricity.

>> He had this white lock of hair.

He had a very bad temper a lot of the time.

So he was known to have sued people.

>> BOWEN: Jay Clarke is the curator

ofWhistler's Mother at the Clark Art Institute.

Landing the painting is a coup for the museum

situated in the Berkshire Hills of Williamstown.

It normally resides at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris

and rarely travels abroad.

Here the Clark explores how the picture came to be.

The 67-year-old Anna McNeill Whistler,

Clarke says, was as she appears,

which was the antithesis of her son.

>> Because of her very conservative,

religious appearance,

she was able to act as an anchor for him

in this very sort of eccentric way that he led his life.

>> BOWEN: Anna Whistler championed

her son's artistic career just as an agent would.

She loomed large in his life,

even taking precedence over this voluptuous vision

Whistler once captured.

>> He had a beautiful redheaded girlfriend

named Joanne Heffernan, who was one of his models.

And he kicked her out promptly before his mother arrived.

That part of his life was certainly not something

he discussed with his mother.

>> BOWEN: This marked the first time Whistler

ever painted his mother, and it was spur of the moment.

>> As the story goes, his model did not show up for the day.

And so he said, "Mother, will you stand for my portrait?"

So she started out standing, but then after two days,

she became tired and he changed the arrangement

so she could be sitting down and more comfortable.

>> BOWEN: The piece's formal title is,

Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1,

and it was a direct move by Whistler to depart

from his previous work,

to be bold and radical.

It was not, he said, a portrait.

>> When it was first shown in London

the year after it was painted, in 1872,

people marveled at the emptiness of it.

What was popular in painting at the time was a lot of detail,

subject matter, narrative.

And the art critics said things like,

"Why didn't you paint your mother when she was alive?"

>> BOWEN: The less catty critics were also struck

by Whistler's technique.

He was inspired by the noir-ish River Thames

just outside his studio walls,

a subject he returned to again and again.

>> One of the things that interested him at this time,

the idea of a sort of hazy reflection on water.

He was trying that for the very first time in this painting,

this idea of a sort of hazy, symbolic light.

There's one quote that people described it as,

"like breath on glass."

>> BOWEN: Whistler loved the portrait.

His mother, we're not so sure.

He refused to part with it until bankruptcy forced its sale

to the French government 20 years later.

The painting gained fame in America decades after that,

when it toured the country during the Great Depression.

>> And that's really when it became an icon of motherhood,

of solace and safety and security-- the mother.

After the stock market crash, the breadlines,

it was a very difficult time in America.

>> BOWEN: Today the painting has all the appreciation

Whistler wished for and the satire he'd despise.

Whistler's mother is an icon and a shill,

a touchstone for all that is sacred and profane.

She is an arrangement in grey

and a study in the power of painting.

It wasn't totally a boys' club at the turn of the century,

so we turn now to author Edith Wharton.

She was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize.

It was forThe Age of Innocence,

and awarded 100 years ago this year.

Although an acclaimed novelist,

she much preferred designing homes and gardens,

where she would entertain friends like Henry James,

as we discovered in a visit to her estate in 2013.

If ever a house could serve as an autobiography,

The Mount is it.

The home of novelist Edith Wharton,

it is Edith Wharton.

Situated on a hill overlooking a lake

in Lenox, Massachusetts, The Mount was conceived

by the writer from the ground up.

She dreamed its location, guided its aesthetic principles,

and designed her elaborate gardens.

It was in a sense, her own House of Mirth,

which she wrote while living here.

>> This house was an opportunity for her

to really do things the way she thought

they ought to be done, and that was to really

champion a return of classicism, symmetry, balance, proportion,

lots of light, and really opening up spaces,

and to make them livable.

>> BOWEN: We spoke with The Mount's Kelsey Mullen

in Wharton's drawing room.

The house's largest room when it was built in 1902,

she used it to entertain frequent guests

like fellow writer Henry James.

>> They were very, very good friends,

and she matched him in literary skill, I think,

towards the end.

>> BOWEN: Wharton designed her home practically--

no space went unused.

It was large, but not grand.

And it favored her predilection for privacy.

Despite carefully crafted images of Wharton as a writer

staged in her library, she actually wrote elsewhere.

>> Edith Wharton had always done her best work writing in bed.

That was where the creative genius inspired her.

And so I think in building The Mount, she created a space

where she could have the privacy she needed to get

her best work done.

>> BOWEN: She did love her library, though,

and a full two-thirds of her collection

has been returned to The Mount.

What does her library tell us about her?

>> It's been a remarkable window

into Edith Wharton's intellectual life.

She was reading across genres, really a voracious learner.

And she was reading in five different languages,

sometimes ancient Norse when she was feeling up for a challenge.

She was reading books on astronomy and theology.

>> BOWEN: Her books are riddled with marks,

notations, and destruction.

Dismayed with one publisher's choice to feature illustrations

in one of her books, she found a remedy.

>> In her own copy of The House of Mirth,

you can see on the title page she has crossed out the name

of the illustrator in pencil, and then all

of the illustrations have been razored out of the book.

>> BOWEN: Amazingly, Wharton considered herself

a better landscape gardener than novelist.

Although that's slightly less astonishing when you see

her gardens, which, fully recreated, appear

as Wharton saw them.

>> She built the garden in stages as she was receiving

advances from her books.

And it was during that time that she's taking

these European ideas and placing them

in an American context, and fitting together

a French garden with an Italian garden

and an English lime walk all on the shores

of a Massachusetts lake.

>> BOWEN: All of this is a welcome second chapter

to The Mount's history.

Threatened with foreclosure just five years ago,

the home has managed to climb out of its fiscal abyss,

says executive director Susan Wissler.

>> We've cut our debt from almost nine million

down to less than four.

We are $1.5 million in the black as opposed

to $4 million in the red.

And our programming is robust.

>> BOWEN: A footing regained, today The Mount

is positioning itself as the Berkshires' literary hub,

drawing the attention of writers the world over.

Its champions also include former First Lady Laura Bush,

whose most recent visit was days before ours.

>> People read Wharton and realize that, in fact,

while a lot has changed, a lot is still

very much the same.

And she just is so clean and muscular

in the way that she sort of expresses it and observes it

that her writing is as relevant today than it ever was.

>> BOWEN: Meaning this is Edith Wharton's renewed

Age of Resonance.

Moving a little bit further into the 20th century,

the Crane family built an equally glamorous home

in Ipswich, Massachusetts.

Like a cross between Downton Abbey and Wayne Manor,

the Crane estate was the epitome of no expense spared,

as we found in 2017 during a summer getaway.

On the outer reaches of the coastal town Ipswich

is the house on the hill.

With 59 rooms and 30,000 square feet,

it was designed to bring the best of English country living

to craggy New England.

>> They pulled in a dream team

of architects, landscape architects, and artists

to help build what was really a saltwater farm on a drumlin

into this great country place or estate.

>> BOWEN: They were the Cranes--

a Chicago family in the era of the Vanderbilts and Fricks--

who amassed a fortune in the plumbing business.

They built their home here in the late 1920s

as a summer getaway.

Well, Susan, this isn't ugly.

(laughing)

>> It's sublime.

In fact, we have a supporter who says

people should come straight from Logan Airport

right up to Castle Hill

because this view is just magnificent.

>> BOWEN: Susan Hill Dolan is the property's curator,

who has spent much of her career here

restoring the home to its roaring heyday.

A model of English living,

its interiors were imported directly from two English homes.

>> Industrialists and a lot of museums like the MFA and the Met

were buying these antique rooms from English country houses

that were being razed after the war,

and so, it was this combination

of looking like an ancestral home, but also with club chairs

and these state-of-the-art, Art Deco bathrooms.

>> BOWEN: Of course, a plumbing magnate's bathrooms

had to be flush with the most glamorous accents.

All in a home in which the family portraits came

from the most sought-after artists,

with Anders Zorn painting Mr. Crane

and John Singer Sargent sketching Mrs. Crane.

>> There's a magnificent beauty here, whether it's the cultural,

the architecture, the landscape architecture,

the sculpture that was here.

>> BOWEN: For all of the house beautiful,

this is the reason to come and never leave.

By very deliberate design,

the Cranes crafted this Grand Allee,

a half-mile promenade that rolls from the home's steps

all the way out to the sea.

Expansive and enticing on the ground,

overhead, it's a rippling green ribbon

of another place, another time.

>> You're immediately drawn to it.

The scale and grandeur of it is quite remarkable

and more along the traditions of European models.

>> BOWEN: These gentlemen look like they're having a good time.

>> Yes, that's right-- so this is Bacchus,

who was the spirit of winemaking and debauchery.

So I think that's sort of an indication

of the use of this place,

to come down here and have fun sort of away from the house

in a way, in a place that would be appropriate.

>> BOWEN: Or inappropriate, as that may be.

>> (laughing): That's right.

>> BOWEN: How long did it take the Cranes to build this space?

>> It took almost three years.

>> BOWEN: Bob Murray has overseen the ongoing restoration

of the landscape,

a seven-year, $2.5 million investment

by The Trustees of Reservations, which operates the property.

Most recently this space, thecasino--

Italian for "little house"--

has been made as it was.

>> Just recently, we completed the courtyard space

that captures all those Italian design principles,

sort of an enclosed garden space,

with the central water feature,

which was a saltwater pool at that time.

You know, strong architectural details,

a lot of decorative elements

and then a lot of use of greenery and topiaries

and so forth.

>> BOWEN: Adding to the landscape this fall

is a new installation by artist Alicja Kwade,

fresh off rave reviews for her work at the Venice Biennale.

>> I will build it up in concrete walls

and so I will create, like, in all this nature,

I will create a very formal, you know, strong and straight thing.

>> BOWEN: When it's installed in September,

Kwade's piece will be situated on the site

of the estate's former maze.

Like a maze, her creation is an assemblage of spaces

offering only little glimpses of nature.

Here they'll play with our senses and notions

of what we're actually seeing.

>> It's more, like, about this question of what reality is

and what information about reality is.

Because we are getting more and more in a world

just made of information and no matter,

and so we are forced to believe things or to deny things

or to question things because they will just appear

as an information to us.

>> BOWEN: Indisputable, though,

is the nourishment of nature here,

from a home that settles satisfyingly

into its surroundings.

And that is all for this edition ofOpen Studio

and our turn-of-the-century tour.

I'’m Jared Bowen, thanks for joining us.

As always, you can visit us online at GBH.org/OpenStudio

and you can follow us on Instagram and Twitter,

@OpenStudioGBH.

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