Sculpture Journal

Painting photographed sculpture: John Singer Sargent’s Spanish photographs and the Boston Public Library murals

Sculpture Journal (2017), 26, (2), 175–192.

Abstract

This article explores a collection of nineteenth-century photographs of religious Spanish sculpture, originally belonging to John Singer Sargent, and now in the Victoria and Albert Museum. It argues that many of the prints were purchased in 1895, when the painter travelled to Spain to research dressed sculptures of the Virgin; and that Sargent drew inspiration from them for his Virgin of Sorrows figure in the Boston Public Library murals. Considering how the sculptures were mediated through photography, the article argues that the photographic representation of many of the sculptures as static, hieratic, impassive and divorced from the present coincided with how the painter wished to present Catholic ritual in the mural project. Sargent’s moral and aesthetic approach is considered alongside the literary portrayal of sculpted Spanish Virgins by his friend, Vernon Lee. Church is also discussed in relation to the photographs and to Sargent’s gendered contrasting of Spanish Virgins with the more emotive representation of Christ.

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Author details

Sharpe, Chloe