The following article on the Sargent Murals which have lately been the center of much controversy, was written by G. H. Edgell, Professor of Fine Arts and Dean of the Faculty of Architecture, for the Alumni Bulletin, and is reprinted from the issue of that magazine of November 9, 1922.
The unveiling of Mr. Sargent's paintings in the Widener Library was an event of great importance in the artistic history of the University. The two paintings fill the sunken panels at the right and left of the main doorway into the room of memorial photographs and the Widener collection. They are intended as a memorial to the students of Harvard University who lost their lives in the Great War.
The subjects represented are the symbols of Death and Victory in the left panel and the coming of the Americans to Europe on the right. Happily, Mr. Sargent made no attempt at historical rendering and treated his scheme broadly from the decorative point of view. In the panel of the Coming of the Americans he has filled the space with a mighty column of American youths in uniform, slashing the composition boldly from right to left in the lower right hand side are three figures symbolic of France. Belgium, and England France in the foreground, wearing the Phrygian cap, carries an infant on her left arm and stretches out her right to receive the support of the American soldiers. Behind her, Belgium, a broken sword in her hand, has swooned, and is upheld by other soldiers, while she protects herself partially with the robe of Brittania, a helmeted figure behind her. In the upper left-hand corner is a magnificent representation of the American eagle sillrouetter, against the flag. Behind the soldiers can be made out a conventionalized representation of the sea. Although the faces are individualized and represent the finest types of American youth, the columnar arrangement of the figures gives the composition the broad, rhythmic effect of a Byzantine mozaic.
In the left-hand panel the motif is that of a mortally wounded soldier clasping in his left arm the shrouded figure of Death and in his right the Winged Victory. Beneath his feet lies a fallen private, and above him are angels blowing trumpets. The face of Death is hidden and the figure wears a crown, but the effect is sombre and terrifying. The Victory, on the other hand, is of a light golden color, affording a radiant contrast to the genius of Death.
The colors in both paintings are of low intensity. The prevailing tones are gold and brown, although the background of blue sky and sea and the splash of color in the flag and the Phrygian cap of the painting of the Coming of the Americans give the dash and variety needed to enliven the color scheme. The general effect, therefore, is not unlike that of a fresco and is, for this reason particularly happy from the decorative point of view. The adoption of a palette of browns and golds, high in value, but low in intensity, harmonizes perfectly with the brownish yellow tone of the marble background. The paintings, therefore, keep their place and beautify the wall without seeming to leap from it. There is now needed, to complete the scheme, some, enrichment for the rectangular panel above the doorway, but this, it is expected, will be supplied by an inscription.
Mr. Sargent is to be congratulated for solving so happily an extremely difficult problem. The khaki costume of the modern soldier lends itself to an orderly and interesting arrangement, and the necessity of filling two panels of rather difficult shapes with symbolic compositions, when no definite subjects were suggested to the artists, required the highest order of imaginative creation. Though individuals may criticize details of the composition and symbolism, none can deny that the artist has been extremely successful in his main purpose, which was to produce a great decorative composition aptly conceived and executed from the point of view of architectural setting.