Now On View

Boston's Apollo

Thomas McKeller and John Singer Sargent

February 13 - May 17, 2020
Hostetter Gallery

In 1916, John Singer Sargent (1856–1925) met Thomas Eugene McKeller (1890–1962), a young Black elevator attendant, at Boston’s Hotel Vendome. McKeller posed for most of the figures—both male and female—in Sargent’s murals in the Museum of Fine Arts. The painter transformed McKeller into white gods and goddesses, creating soaring allegories of the liberal arts that celebrated the recent expansion of the city’s premier civic museum. 

Sargent then gave the preparatory drawings of McKeller to Isabella Stewart Gardner, ensuring their preservation in perpetuity. Displayed together for the first time, the drawings provide a window into the metamorphoses of race, gender, and identity, and attest to a relationship between two men, artist and model, at a time of intense social upheaval. This exhibition brings together Sargent's drawings and related historical materials to tell the story of McKeller’s life. His central importance in Sargent’s major artistic commissions in the Boston area considers critical questions of race, class, and sexuality—as relevant today as they were in Gilded Age Boston.


Community Collaborators

An inclusive interpretation strategy and several community roundtable discussions for this exhibition have yielded multiple perspectives from local artists, scholars, community thought leaders, and Thomas McKeller’s descendants, whose responses form a powerful presence through wall texts, audio, an in-gallery video, and a rich program of public talks and performances. We invite you to experience this multifaceted exhibition that brings together our own voices with those of the past, and to click or swipe through the images below to learn more about the community collaborators.

Gardner staff also convened an academic roundtable, which helped shape topics for the exhibition’s catalogue and programming. The participants of the academic roundtable include: Trevor Fairbrother, Independent Curator; Paul Fisher, Associate Professor of American Studies, Wellesley College; Nikki A. Greene, Assistant Professor of Art, Art Department, Wellesley College; Erica Hirshler, Croll Senior Curator of Paintings, Art of the Americas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Steve Locke, Professor, Fine Arts Department, Pratt Institute and Gardner Artist-in-Residence; Alejandro Nodarse, PhD Candidate, Department of History of Art and Architecture, Harvard University; Casey Riley, Curator and Head of the Department of Photography and New Media, Minneapolis Institute of Art; and Harold Steward, Producing Co-Executive Director, The Theater Offensive; Affiliated Faculty, Performing Arts Department, Emerson College.

Helga Davis, Finding Thomas McKeller (2019). Video by Helga Davis and Derrick Belcham. Shot and edited by Derrick Belcham.

Finding Thomas McKeller


Research conducted by the Gardner Museum over the last three years revealed the story of Thomas McKeller’s work with John Singer Sargent to his family. Gardner Museum’s Visiting Curator of Performing Arts, Helga Davis, interviewed descendants of family and friends who knew McKeller. In this film, McKeller’s great-niece Deidre O’Bryant shares her thoughts and several project collaborators describe their roles in this journey. 

Boston's Apollo catalogue cover

Exhibition Catalogue

Featuring drawings published in full for the first time, a portrait of McKeller, and archival materials reconstructing his life and relationship with Sargent, this catalogue transforms our understanding of Sargent's iconic American paintings. Essays by Nathaniel Silver, Trevor Fairbrother, Paul Fisher, Nikki A. Greene, Erica E. Hirshler, Lorraine O'Grady, Casey Riley, and Colm Tóibín.


Boston's Apollo is one of three exhibitions opening this season—along with Adam Pendleton's Elements of Me and Lorraine O'Grady's The Strange Taxi, Stretched. Each explore race and representation, while delving into Black and Brown lived experiences to expand the story of American art.

Adam Pendleton's Elements of Me

Fenway Gallery, February 13-September 27, 2020

Lorraine O'Grady's The Strange Taxi, Stretched

Anne H. Fitzpatrick Facade, January 14-May 19, 2020


Saturday Open Studio

Represent Yourself

March 28, 2020, 11 am - 4 pm

In connection with the special exhibition, Boston's Apollo, mix a custom color that celebrates your individuality and honors the uniqueness of us all.

The Erasure of Thomas McKeller

with Dr. Nikki A. Greene

April 2, 2020, 7 - 9 pm

This lecture has been canceled.

Saturday Open Studio

Represent Yourself

April 4, 2020, 11 am - 4 pm

In connection with the special exhibition, Boston's Apollo, mix a custom color that celebrates your individuality and honors the uniqueness of us all.

Photo at top: John Singer Sargent (American, 1856-1925), Study for Chiron and Achilles for the Rotunda of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1916-1921 (detail). Charcoal on paper, 47.2 x 63.2 cm (18 9/16 x 24 7/8 in.) Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston (S.G.Sar.4.1.8)

The lead sponsors of Boston's Apollo: Thomas McKeller and John Singer Sargent and exhibition-related programming are Amy and David Abrams, Bank of America, and the Henry Luce Foundation. Additional support is provided by the Arthur F. and Alice E. Adams Charitable Foundation, Chauncey & Marion D. McCormick Family Foundation, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Wyeth Foundation for American Art. The Museum receives operating support from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, which receives support from the State of Massachusetts and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Media sponsor: The Boston Globe