John Singer Sargent’s Secret Black Male Muse

By Alina Tugend
A detail from John Singer Sargent’s “Thomas McKeller” (1917-21), the only portrait he did of the model as himself.
Thomas McKeller worked as an elevator operator in an elite Boston hotel. His life, which spanned the first half of the 20th century, was largely unheralded. But the countenance of McKeller, who was African-American, is everywhere in Boston, in the work of one of the most prominent painters of the Gilded Age, John Singer Sargent. McKeller appears as classical gods and goddesses in a mural in the rotunda of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; as a World War I soldier in a stairwell of Harvard University’s Widener Library; and as the body in a portrait of A. Lawrence Lowell, an early-20th-century Harvard president. But McKeller never appears as a black man. Although it is not definitively known, it is thought possible that the relationship was also romantic. [More]
McKeller was the model for both figures in Sargent’s “Chiron and Achilles” (1921). This is a detail from the mural, in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.