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.
With quick and confident charcoal marks, Sargent captures McKeller’s face in profile and traces the contours of his muscular arms. Like the others in this series, McKeller’s pose does not correspond to a single painted or sculpted figure in the rotunda. Below, Sargent sketches the contours of the rotunda and one of its cartouche frames in profile.