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

by Sally M Promey Princeton University Press
Pub Date:
10/2001
ISBN:
9780691089508
Format:
Pbk 376 pages
Price:
AU$94.00 NZ$100.00
Product Status: Available in Approx 14 days
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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.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS viii INTRODUCTION PAINTING RELIGION IN PUBLIC 2 CHAPTER 1 THE SUBJECTIVITY OF MODERN RELIGION 10 CHAPTER 2 RITUAL PERFORMANCES 62 CHAPTER 3 CULTURAL SELECTIONS 104 CHAPTER 4 EDUCATION FOR DEMOCRACY 144 CHAPTER 5 THE SYNAGOGUE CONTROVERSY 174 CHAPTER 6 SYNAGOGUE, CHURCH, AND THE SELF CONCEALED 226 CHAPTER 7 THE MANY PUBLICS OF SARGENT'S PROPHETS 272 EPIL0GUE REPRESENTING RELIGIOUS PLURALISM IN PUBLIC 306 ABBREVIATI0NS 317 N0TES 318 SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY 349 INDEX 356

Winner of the Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion in Historical Studies, American Academy of Religion

A fascinating new book.

Painting Religion in Public is a tightly framed study, a model of scholarly argumentation leavened with methodological self-consciousness . . . , [It] offers a powerful example of the impact that the study of visual culture can make as an important contribution to many disciplines as fine art and other forms of visual imagery are woven back into the fabric of social, cultural, political, and religious life.---Daniel A. Siedell, Church History

A dense and dazzling must-read.---Christine Temin, Boston Globe

It is most refreshing to have Sargent's mural projects taken seriously at last, and Promey must be congratulated on producing a richly researched, book-length study addressed to one of them.---Mary Crawford Volk, Burlington Magazine

Nearly thirty years in the making, John Singer Sargent's murals for the Special Collections Hall in the Boston Public Library are a paragon of the so-called American Renaissance. Sally M. Promey's engrossing book lays out the whole imbroglio [and] the relationship of the pictures to their architectural setting.---Keith Miller, Times Literary Supplement

By addressing the importance of the visual, Promey's book makes a valuable contribution to an aspect of religion that is often neglected. Promey's integration of American history, art history, religious history, and ritual studies, combined with her meticulous archival research, will help scholars in several disciplines understand the complex cultural currents underlying Sargent's mural project.---Paula Kane, Journal of the American Academy of Religion

"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

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).