Nude Study of Thomas McKeller (1917) by John Singer Sargent is considered one of the most fascinating and outstanding nude paintings in America. Much is known about Sargent as an artist and professional, but very little is known about his personal life. Next to nothing is known about his muse, Thomas E. McKeller, and even less about their relationship with each other. According to the book, John Singer Sargent The Sensualist, written by noted curator Trevor Fairbrother, McKeller was a "blue collar Bostonian who often modeled for Sargent after 1916, and the setting was the artist’s studio." For roughly the next five years, McKeller served as Sargent's favorite model.
It is thought that Sargent, known for his public admiration for black men, first glimpsed Thomas McKeller at the Copely Plaza, where he worked as a bellhop and elevator operator. When one notices the feathers painted behind the Mckeller nude study, it could be deduced that perhaps the artist saw him as a type of earth angel.It is generally agreed that McKeller posed for almost all of the male figures (and some of the female forms) in the artist's mural cycles inside Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. However, while McKeller's body may have provided the inspiration, none of the figures retained the model's African American identity. Not so with the Nude Study, a bold full frontal in a large scale oil measuring at 491/2" X 331/4".
It wasn't intended for public viewing. Sargent kept it all for himself! The painting was never displayed publically in Sargent's lifetime (1856-1925), and wasn't even discovered until the artist's death. There were many other charcoal drawings and painted sketches of McKeller, but it wasn't until 1955 that the public first saw the glory and majesty of Sargent's Nude Study in any form.
An extremely private man, John Singer Sargent (above, self portrait 1906) is said to have had no significant romantic involvements with either men nor women, although many now believe him to have been a closeted gay man. However, the artists enjoyed many deep friendships with noted gay men like the writer, Oscar Wilde.
Jacques Emile Blanche, Sargent's peer and early sitter (above, 1886) spoke out on the subject after the artist's death by saying Sargent's sex life was "notorious in Paris, and in Venice, positively scandalous. He was a frenzied bugger." He was a man of letters, too, but at his death, his family mysteriously destroyed all of his personal papers.
No more can be said of Thomas McKeller. Was he homosexual? Did he die young and beautiful or live to a ripe old age? Who was he? And what is he to you?
McKeller's arresting beauty and dedication as a model will live on forever thanks to John Singer Sargent's keen eye and appreciation of the ethnic male asthetic. His famous portrait can be seen in the Susan Morse Hilles Gallery of the MFA, Boston.