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Painting Religion in Public:
John Singer Sargent's Triumph of Religion at the Boston Public Library
Sally M. Promey

Winner of the Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion in Historical Studies, American Academy of Religion

Paperback | 1999 | This edition is out of print | ISBN: 9780691089508
Hardcover | 1999 | This edition is out of print | ISBN: 9780691015651


A brilliant painter of society portraits, John Singer Sargent also devoted many years at the height of his career to a project of an entirely different order: an ambitious, multi-media decoration titled Triumph of Religion (1890-1919) for the Boston Public Library. The library cycle Sargent imagined as his most important work, however, would ultimately remain unfinished, quietly abandoned in the face of religious opposition, one critical painting short of completion. Truncation dramatically altered possible readings of Triumph, redirecting its narrative energies and generating new meanings in tension with the idea Sargent had proposed. In Painting Religion in Public, Sally Promey tells the story of an artist of international stature and the complex and consuming pictorial program he pursued in Boston. Highly celebrated in its day, with individual panels retaining immense popularity even in the years of discord, this artistic project and its constituent images tell us much about broad cultural and political exchanges concerning the public representation of religious content in the United States.

Sargent's library decoration attracted the attention of multiple audiences and engaged concurrent debates about class, race, art, and religion. Representatives of various religious and cultural backgrounds hailed portions of the cycle as indicative of the strength of their own positions, and reproductions of the images appeared in everything from books and encyclopedias to stained glass and public pageantry. Promey analyzes the conception and production of the cycle, persuasively demonstrating that Triumph of Religion, far from promoting a narrowly sectarian version of religious practice, represented instead Sargent's public recommendation of the privacy of modern belief. The artist recast contemporary religion as spirituality, she argues, linking it not with institutions and dogma but with personal subjectivity. For Sargent, this ideal was a sign of Western, especially American, progress. Carefully reconstructing patterns of reception in an increasingly diverse religious climate, and exploring the extent and character of Sargent's personal and artistic investment, Promey boldly illuminates the work Sargent hoped to make his masterpiece. At the same time, she enriches understanding of religious images in public places and popular imagination.


"A fascinating new book. . . ."--The New York Times

"Painting Religion in Public is a tightly framed study, a model of scholarly argumentation leavened with methodological self-consciousness . . . , [It] offers a powerful example of the impact that the study of visual culture can make as an important contribution to many disciplines as fine art and other forms of visual imagery are woven back into the fabric of social, cultural, political, and religious life."--Daniel A. Siedell, Church History

"A dense and dazzling must-read."--Christine Temin, Boston Globe

"It is most refreshing to have Sargent's mural projects taken seriously at last, and Promey must be congratulated on producing a richly researched, book-length study addressed to one of them."--Mary Crawford Volk, Burlington Magazine

"Nearly thirty years in the making, John Singer Sargent's murals for the Special Collections Hall in the Boston Public Library are a paragon of the so-called American Renaissance. Sally M. Promey's engrossing book lays out the whole imbroglio [and] the relationship of the pictures to their architectural setting."--Keith Miller, Times Literary Supplement

"By addressing the importance of the visual, Promey's book makes a valuable contribution to an aspect of religion that is often neglected. Promey's integration of American history, art history, religious history, and ritual studies, combined with her meticulous archival research, will help scholars in several disciplines understand the complex cultural currents underlying Sargent's mural project."--Paula Kane, Journal of the American Academy of Religion


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File created: 3/10/2015

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