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ArtSmart Roundtable – Copley Library Galleries in Boston

The monthly ArtSmart Roundtable brings together posts from some of the best art history-focused travel blogs on a common theme.  For January (and just in time for your 2013 travel planning), we are discussing “The Best Museum You’ve Never Heard Of”.  This is a great topic and I can’t wait to read about all the great finds from the rest of the roundtable!  You can find links below to all the group’s articles.

Boston has some incredible art museums – The Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the Institute of Contemporary Art and the (currently condensed) Harvard Art Museums .  While I definitely recommend these places, some of my favorite paintings in Boston are actually public art in the central library!  The Copley Square Library was constructed in 1895 and was decorated in a Renaissance revival and Beaux Art style.  Inside are three incredible and overwhelmingly beautiful mural cycles including one by my favorite portrait painter.  The Galleries are free, open to the public 6 days a week and worth a trip for any serious art lover.

The John Singer Sargent Gallery, or The Triumph of Religion

John Singer Sargent Triumph of Religion - Boston Public Library

John Singer Sargent – “Triumph of Religion”, Boston Public Library (Photo: Bill Kipp & BPL)

John Singer Sargent intended the Triumph of Religion murals (installed 1895-1919) to be his most memorial piece, rather than the aristocratic portraits he is known for today.  The paintings fill a third floor room which appropriately branches into the Prints Department  and former Rare Books room.  The iconography is complex and mystical, highlighting the role of faith to elevate and free humanity but focusing on metaphysical rather than dogmatic “Religion”.  Unfortunately, after public misinterpretation and criticism of some of the paintings, Sargent refused to complete the final “Sermon on the Mount” panel which was both the thematic and artistic height of the series.

John Singer Sargent - Israelites Oppressed

John Singer Sargent – “Israelites Oppressed” from The Triumph of Religion, Boston Public Library (Photo: Wikipaintings) with accurate reproduction of Egyptian and Assyrian drawing styles., phenomenal color and emotional drama.

The pure scale of the images, erupting with rich golds, red and three dimensional elements, is incredibly impressive.  The figures and symbols will be familiar to anyone who has “read” Christian art before but are treated in a modern way.  While some figures are very realistically painted and allude to Sargent’s incredible skill with portraiture, the overall mural series is strongly influenced by the Italian Renaissance.

John Singer Sargent "Hell" from The Triumph of Religion, Boston Public Library

John Singer Sargent, “Hell” from The Triumph of Religion, Boston Public Library (Photo: Bill Kipp & BPL). It’s amazing to think that this same artist created the provocative but quite still Madame X.

I particularly like the hauntingly natural and emotional figures in the four panels of Old Testament prophets.

John Singer Sargent, Prophets Micah, Haggai, Malacchi, and Zechariah

John Singer Sargent, “Micah, Haggai, Malacchi, and Zechariah” from The Triumph of Religion, Boston Public Library (Photo: Bill Kipp & BPL)

John Singer Sargent, prophets Zephaniah, Joel, Obadiah, and Hosea

John Singer Sargent, “Zephaniah, Joel, Obadiah, and Hosea” from The Triumph of Religion, Boston Public Library (Photo: Bill Kipp & BPL)

The Edwin Austin Abbey Room, or The Quest and Achievement of the Holy Grail

The enveloping dark wood paneling and massive per-Raphelite paintings of the Abbey Room make you almost forget that you are on the second floor of a library and not in a medieval manor.  In the 1890’s, Edwin Austin  Abbey created these 15 narrative panels describing the Arthurian Holy Grail legend.  A successful illustrator, Abbey’s life-sized images are filled with the appropriate heroic drama and done in a Pre-Raphaelite style.  Besides the wood paneling and decorative ceiling beams, red and grey marble has been used in the fireplaces and in columns around the doors.  The architectural trimmings and ceiling beams are inlaid with delicate gold medieval motifs.  With the low light in the room giving the space a mysterious aura, this grand space is only one large roundtable away from bringing the murals to life.

Abbey Room, Boston Public Library

Massive red marble fireplace and mural panels of Edwin Austin Abbey’s The Quest and Achievement of the Holy Grail in the Abbey Room, Boston Public Library (Photo: Wally Gobetz)

Panel 3, Galahad joins the Roundtable (or the fable of the Seat Perilous)

Panel 3, “Galahad joins the Roundtable (or the fable of the Seat Perilous)” by Edwin Austin Abbey (Photo: mmwm)

The Puvis de Chavannes Gallery, or The Muses of Inspiration Hail the Spirit the Harbinger of Light

The soft delicate murals by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes adorn the Library’s second floor loggia as well as the landings and walls of the marble Grand Staircase.  The soft pastel shades of pink, orange, blue, and green depict a celestial, romantic and enlightened world of muses and Gods.  Historical figures (such as Virgil) and spirits represent the liberal arts and sciences.  These are such peaceful and calming murals; it’s a shame many visitors pass by all to0 quickly.

Puvis de Chavannes, "History, attended by a Spirit bearing a torch calls up the Past" from the Boston Public Library

Puvis de Chavannes, “Muses Welcoming the Genius of Enlightenment” at the Boston Public Library (Photo: Gruenemann, John W. Schulze)

Chavannes panels along the Grand Staircase, Boston Public Library

Chavannes panels along the Grand Staircase, Boston Public Library (Photo: Sheryl Lanzel & BPL)

Free art and architecture tours of the Copley Library are given daily; check the schedule for times.


For the rest of the January ArtSmart Roundtable, see:

And don’t forget to check out our group on Facebook for art & travel news!

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. jonathanochart #

    This looks so European – I love how the US also possesses romantic architecture and art! Thanks so much for sharing, I’d like to visit it whenever I’m around Boston.

    – Jonathan I


    January 7, 2013
  2. Great post, Christina! Sargent is a favorite of mine but all of the murals are absolutely stunning. The Copley Library sounds a definite must-see in Boston.


    January 7, 2013
    • Thanks! As busy as he must have been with commissions, I love that he still did these murals. 🙂


      January 9, 2013
    • Thanks Jeff! Sargent toured around Europe most of his life sketching and painting. You should check out his watercolors of Venice, they always take me back to life along the canal. 🙂


      January 9, 2013
  3. Jeff Titelius #

    What a fascinating intro to this library and yes, it is quite hard to believe that all of this is housed in a library! I am not familiar with Sargent’s work but thanks to you, I have some more research to do! Thanks!


    January 7, 2013
  4. Christina,

    This is truly spectacular! Thank you. Now I have to go to Boston just to see these murals. It is so fascinating to see how murals can help to define an architectural space. I can’t waiti to go back to Boston to see this space.



    January 25, 2013
    • Thanks Sedef!
      These are such under-rated sight and I think visitors should make a point to see them. You’re right about the art defining the space; each mural series is so unique and feels so different to stand inside. Hope you make it to Boston soon!


      January 25, 2013
  5. This is such a wonderful post about a real art treasure right under our noses. The story behind these murals is one of dedication and controversy, but the fact that we can walk amongst these works of genius for free is the best story of all….


    August 3, 2015
    • Thanks! It really amazes me that these murals are still a hidden gem! They are simply beautiful and free to visit. This should be a stop on everyone’s Boston itinerary!


      August 3, 2015

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