The Crucifixion plaster mounted on altar retable 127 x 188cm (50 x 74in).
PROVENANCE: Property removed from The Community of the Ressurection, Mirfield, West Yorkshire.
The crucifix, a model for a sculpture created for display in the Boston Public Library, is a remarkable departure from the painterly style more normally associated with John Singer Sargent. The finished crucifix in high relief formed the centre-piece of Sargent's mural, Dogma of the Redemption (installed 1903), on the south wall of the Library's upper staircase hall, giving access to its special collections. Sargent's scheme of decoration, for which he also designed the architectural enrichments and the lighting, tells the story of the Judaic and Christian religions in murals that are iconographically complex and visually stunning. On the north wall Sargent depicted the suffering of the Jews at the hands of the Egyptians and the Assyrians. The matching lunette on the south wall represents the Trinity behind the relief sculpture of the Crucifixion, representing man's redemption through the sacrifice of the Saviour. Library users first see the Dogma of the Redemption as they ascend the main staircase of the Boston Public Library, creating at first the impression of entering a chapel. However, Sargent's intention was to narrate the story of religion not its practice, as Sally Promey explains, "Given its public context, the subject Sargent selected may initially seem odd or even inappropriate. In its own time, however, Sargent's approach to religion was quintessentially modern, democratic, and American. Religion's triumph, according to the artist, was precisely the privacy of modern belief. Sargent grounded his mural cycle in an ideal fundamental to American religious liberty: the conviction that religion is an interior matter, to be determined solely and freely by the individual...Consistent with its location in a public library, Sargent's mural cycle represented the study of religion rather than religion's practice." [give reference] Sargent was commissioned to paint the hall in the spring of 1890 by the Trustees of the Library, recommended by architects Charles F. McKin and Stanford White, who were the artist's friends. With little previous experience in sculpture or mural art, Sargent eagerly took on this enormous challenge which would occupy him for nearly thirty years, and which he regarded as his greatest artistic achievement. He travelled widely to Egypt, Spain and Italy to gather ideas and imagery for his murals. They were installed in stages to widespread public acclaim. The originality of Sargent's work and the scale of his ambition were recognized by public and critics alike, though there were dissenters who felt that Sargent had misused his talent. Recently restored by a team of conservators from Harvard's conservation studio, the murals have regained their original splendour, and can be seen as one of the most original and successful essays in American public art. The artist used many different materials in the production of his murals, including relief sculpture, for which he took advice from Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the leading American sculptor of his generation. The sculptures, like the murals, went through a long process of gestation and were the subject of intensive designs, and maquettes. The artist created a third life-size model of the staircase hall in order to help him judge the effects of his emerging designs within the architectural space. The present maquette for the crucifix must have been produced early on in the process of design. Like the final relief, but on a smaller scale, it is in plaster, the head painted and gilded. While the emaciated and tortured figure of Christ and the draperies around him are similar to the final relief, the figures of Adam and Eve holding chalices beneath the arms of Christ to catch his blood, and the pelican feeding its young (a symbol of Christian sacrifice and charity) at his feet, are omitted. Sargent played with the design of the cross, including a lower horizontal line jutting out of the cross, seen in this model, which does not appear in the library sculpture. The exact provenance of the sculpture is unknown, although it is very likely that it was a gift from Sargent's sister, Violet (Mrs Francis Ormond), to The Community of The Resurrection, an Anglican order at Mirfield, West Yorkshire in the mid 1930s. Mrs Francis Ormond is known to have gifted an oil of the crucifixion (a much earlier work of c.1879) to the Community in 1936 which was sold by Bonhams in New York in December 2009. The support for this model is clearly later and is believed to have been designed in the 1930s when the Community was in the possession of the sculpture. Sargent was extremely proud of the final design of the crucifix, creating smaller bronze casts for friends of which there is one in the Tate Gallery. A full-scale bronze cast was given by the artist's sisters to St Paul's Cathedral, where it remains as a memorial to the extraordinary talent of this exceptional and sensitive man.