The New York Times, December 7, 1913
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"The Prophets," by Sargent Added Greatly to His Fame
New York Times
  December 7, 1913

“To Illustrate the monotheistic and spiritual principles of the Jewish religion” –-such was the tremendous task which John Singer Sargent set himself when he started to paint his great frieze “The Prophets” in the Boston Public Library [pic], a reproduction of which, in colors, forms part of to-day’s Christmas number of The New York Times.

It was in 1890 that the Trustees of The Boston Public Library invited Mr. Sargent to decorate both ends of the gallery. They offered him for the work the sum of $15,000.

By November, 1894, the work was approaching completion, and a section of the decoration at the north end was shown at the Royal Academy in London. It was the sensation of that years exhibition. The public came in great crowds to see it and the critics were unanimous in their enthusiasm.

When this completed decoration was put in place in the following Spring it was so generally admired that $15,000 was immediately raised by popular subscription to enable Mr. Sargent to carry out a scheme comprehending the entire gallery. Mr. Sargent’s plan was to represent the triumph of religion
[pic], to show in the complete mural decoration the important stages of Jewish and Christian history.

For a thorough understanding of the Frieze of the Prophets – which many critics consider the most important part of the whole series of paintings – it is necessary to know something of the other pictures. Mr. Sargent has taken for his text the following lines, which are considered from verses 21-45 of Psalm 106: They are inscribed in blue on a gilt ground on the rib between the lunette and the arch.

Text for the Pictures

Theey forgot God, their savior, which had done great things in Egypt; And they served – idols; which were a snare unto them. Yea, they sacrificed their sons and their daughters unto devils, and shed innocent blood, even the blood of their sons and their daughters, * * * unto the idols of Canaan; * * * Therefore was the wrath of the Lord kindled against his people, *  *  * and he gave them into the hand of the heathen; and Their enemies also oppressed them, and they were brought into the subjection under their hand. Nevertheless. He regarded their affliction, when he heard their cry; And he remembered for them his covenant.

So in the ceiling he painted the hideous figure of Moloch
[pic], four-armed and bull-headed, and Astarte [pic], goddess of sensuality upon a crescent with a cobra coiled at her feet. These typify the deities of man’s fears and vain imaginings, for whom the Jews forsook Jehovah.

In the lunette
[pic] are shown the Jews fallen from the true faith, bowed in subjection before the Egyptian and Assyrian. Twelve in number (for the Twelve Tribes of Israel) they huddle naked in the foreground. Beseeching again the mercy of Jehovah. And Jehovah, His countenance concealed by the crimson wings of Cherubin, holds back the cruel arms of  Pharaoh and Assyrian King.

Moses in the Centre

In noble contrast to these tragic figures stand the Hebrew prophets [pic], scorning the idols of polytheism and looking steadfastly to the true God. The central figure of the frieze is Moses [pic]. The golden wings of the Spirit enfold him, and his hands support the Tablets of Stone on which are engraved the Law. He is the spokesman of Jehovah. Mr. Sargent has followed Michel Angelo’s (sic) example in treating his figures conventionally [pic]. His priestly garment is arranged in folds as straight as formal as the pillars of a temple; his eyes look steadfastly ahead toward some tremendous vision.

On the left is Elijah
[pic], “the Tishbite, who was of the inhabitants of Gilead.” In his right hand he grasps the staff that he carried out into the wilderness; his left hand is clenched and his face is rapt in prayer. His figure is not conventionalized like that of Moses. “Elijah was a man subject to passions as we are.” wrote St. James.

Joshua is on the left [sic should be on Moses' left
pic], clad in a scarlet robe and hood. He is a mighty man of war; not without reluctance, it seems, he sheathes the sword with which he discomfited Amalek. Next to him stands Jeremiah, robe in white, his hair disheveled, lamenting over the city that sits solitary. Jonah, in brown, with a white turban, bears a scroll inscribed in Hebrew with the word Jahovah. Isaiah lists his hands in a gesture of entreaty, and Habakuk draws his white garment closely about him.

[pic] Micah covers his eyes with his hand in grief, but the three figures by him -- Haggai, Malacchi, and Zechariah—are looking forward exultingly toward the Messiah whose coming they foresee. These are the prophets of hope, contrasting with the prophets of despair at the other end of the frieze [pic]-- Zephaniah, Joel, and Obadiah. But just as the despairing Micah [pic] stands next to the exulting Haggal, so Hosea [pic], the very personification of hope, is placed among the prophets of despair. Hosea, it is said, is Mr. Sargent’s favorite of all the figures on the frieze.

Between Hosea and Elijah, are four prophets—Amos
[pic], “who was among the herdmen of Tekoa,” Nahum, Ezekiel, and Daniel. Daniel’s strong, stern feature suggest, to some beholders, the appearance of Dante. He carries a scroll inscribed in Hebrew “and they that be wise shall shine.”

[pic] Mr. Sargent has shown the Jewish religion, in the form of its greatest exemplars. Like a Greek chorus, it has been said, the Frieze of the Prophets interprets and supports the movement of the great drama, suggesting a solution, as it were, to the problem expressed in the tragic group on the lunette, and preparing for the panels yet to be completed, which are to show Jesus Christ preaching to the nations of the world.

These panels are not yet painted, [Editor's Note -- the painting "Sermon on the Mount" was never completed]  but the second portion of the decoration is in place. It is called “The Dogma of Redemption”
[pic] There is a frieze of angels, bearing the Instruments of Passion. Two of them uphold the Cross [pic]. Adam and Eve, bound to the body of Christ, receives His blood in chalices. Enthroned above the Cross are the Three Persons of the Trinity.

The Boston Public Library is famous for its wealth of art. Henry Abbey
[pic] and Puvis de Chavannes [pic] gave to its walls paintings that are known throughout the world. But the Sargent Hall [pic], as it is called, is by many considered its crowning glory.

Among the artists who have given enthusiastically commendation to the frieze of the Prophets is John W. Alexander. He was busy at the Academy, serving on a jury judging the paintings when a Times reporter saw last week, but he stopped work long enough to express his views on his fellow-craftsman’s mural decorations.

Likes the Choice Made.

“I congratulated The Times,” he said, “on its selection of such works of art for reproduction. Too often the pictures chosen by newspapers are of a kind that are not exactly what artists would select. Here is one of the most noted works of art that we have in this country and the public is to be congratulated on having such an opportunity to acquire really valuable things.

“The paintings in this frieze are recognized as being remarkable examples of work of one of the very greatest living painters. They are portraits of his friends, and while actual portraits, the portrait quality does not interfere with decorative quality. If one could compare them with any modern work abroad, it would be with decorations by Besnard in the Ecole de Pharmacie.  While in subject they are not all the same, in mastery of his material and method, there is a certain resemblance.”

“What are some of Sargent’s distinguishing characteristics?” the reporter asked.

“One of his strongest characteristics,” answered Mr. Alexander, “is that he never hesitates to destroy any part of his work that does not seem to him to be his best. This, it seems to me, is one of the points of contrast between his work and that of some other to-day, who have not the least hesitation in sending out work that seems to lack study and application.

“So much of the modern work seems to be done by men who ignore anything that requires study and labor. My feeling is that the great objection to this kind of work is in its influence of the students, who are reduced into a condition of rank carelessness and, one might say, impertinence. I have seen many students of unusual ability who have been affected in this way, with the result that their later work becomes a jumble of incomplete and ill considered study.

“It is true that later they often come back to a more modest view of things, but as a rule they have lost the power of sincere application and study. It is very much like a pianist who has been led off into playing cheap dance music which soon makes it impossible for him to get back to the finer harmonies.  On the other hand, many of them answer as a danger signal and warn other students away from the rocks.

“Sargent is a wonderful example of patience and diligence.  He never hesitates in a way of work. His power of application is most extraordinary. In giving to the public these color reproductions The Times is undoubtedly presenting to the art student wonderful examples that will stimulate them to their best efforts.”

John singer Sargent is an American, but his birthplace was Florence, Italy. His father was Dr. Fitzwilliam S. Sargent of Boston
[pic]. He studied painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence, and in Paris under Carolus Duran [pic]. His present home is London [pic], but he has made many extended visits to the United States, painting, and exhibiting paintings.

He has particularly successful as a painter of portraits—and this in spite of his constant refusal to flatter his subjects. Indeed, he has been said of some of his portraits that they show the real personality of the subject so clearly as to embarrass him. He has received many honors, perhaps the most important of which was the title of Royal Academicain.

One of the Greatest of Artists.

Kenyon Cox wrote in his “Old Masters and New”  (Fox, Duffield & Co.) as follows:

Since the death of Whistler, Mr. Sargent holds by all odds, the highest and most conspicuous position before the world of any artist whom we can claim as in some sort an American—indeed, he is to-day one of the most famous artists of any country, easily the first painter of England, and one of the first wherever he may find himself. Not only is he indubitably one of the most brilliant of living artists, but his enthusiastic admirers are ready to proclaim him one of the great artists of all times, and to invite comparison of his works with those of the greatest of his predecessors. He has painted a vast number of portraits, a few pictures, and some mural decorations, which, from the ability displayed in them and the originality of their composition are certainly to be reckoned among the most considerable efforts in that branch of art produced within a century past.

Mr. Sargent’s portraits are not to be passed over lightly—they are important contributions to the world’s permanent art. But it is nevertheless true that such an accomplishment as the Frieze of the Prophets
[pic], the portrayal of a race’s very soul, would insure his fame.

When he received the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws from Cambridge University last June, Sir John Sandys applied to him Lowell’s remark about Emerson:

“The many cannot miss his meaning,” he said, “and only the few can find it. It is the open secret of true genius.”

Special thanks to John Lockwood of Washington, D.C. a friend of the JSS Gallery, for his wonderful research in producing this article for us

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By:  Natasha Wallace
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Created 1/21/2006
Updated 1/21/2006