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 several preparatory drawings of McKeller to Isabella Stewart Gardner, ensuring their preservation in perpetuity.
Poised on a cushion with arms raised, Thomas McKeller poses for pairs of nude figures modeled in plaster relief above the rotunda’s four roundels. These sculpted images have no individual identities but collectively celebrate the figurative arts and the bodies they depend on.