Three female nudes spring boldly from their white plaster, strung together by veils and twisting in dance. A shocking image? Yes: it’s a three-dimensional Sargent.

Last Friday, Oct. 26, the Yale University Art Gallery opened an exhibition entitled “John Singer Sargent: Painter as a Sculptor”. Running until April 21, the exhibit brings to the public for the first time the reliefs and drawings that comprise Sargent’s studies for his decoration of the dome of the Boston Museum of Fine Art.

While John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) was a prolific painter of both oil and watercolor portraits and landscapes, these bas-reliefs are his only known three-dimensional work.

“It’s a side of the artist most people haven’t seen,” said the exhibit’s curator, Helen A. Cooper.

In 1915, when Sargent won the commission to decorate the interior of the dome of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, he was nearing the end of an enormously successful career in portraiture. This project required different artistic skills; before sculpting the dome itself, Sargent experimented with the decorative scheme by fashioning a series of 34 small plaster cast reliefs and seven sketches representing various sections of the larger dome. Four years after his death, Sargent’s sisters donated these studies to Yale. Oct. 26 marked their first presentation to the public.

The emphasis of this exhibit certainly falls on Sargent’s process rather than his product. Sargent chose “The Celebration of the Arts” as an ornamental theme for the dome, then divided it further into sectional plates depicting specific myths or traditions. Most panels have three of four maquettes (plaster cast bas-reliefs) representing various stages in Sargent’s creative process.

In the “Classic and Romantic Art” studies, the first relief is merely a plaster etching, the second a more dimensional plasticine modeling of the figures, and the third a waxed, painted, lacquered maquette mounted on cloth. In certain cases the reliefs differ not only in stages of completion, but in their content as well; it’s clear that Sargent uses the models to work out the precise details of how he will represent each theme.

The collection of 34 maquettes as a whole also sheds light on Sargent’s struggle to properly unify mural and relief. Originally, he planned to decorate the entire dome in sculptural relief. He eventually found the effect of this too heavy and decided to combine various depths of relief with flat mural painting.

Sargent’s maquettes exhibit a consistent use of Prussian blue and yellow pigmentation that appears to be an early decision of the artist. The Greco-Roman classical nature of the decoration remains constant throughout his experimentations as well. This is expected, considering its placement in the rotunda of a classical building.

Surprisingly, despite the similarities in color and style, each panel of the ceiling remains quite distinctive. The composition and treatment of the figures in each maquette varies between Hellenistic and Renaissance artistic conventions. Sargent’s “Celebration of the Arts” invokes Greek myths, gods, muses and festivals; however, Sargent does not conform to just one style of classicism. While his “Dancing Girls” twist and writhe in their drapery in a typically Hellenistic fashion, “Classic and Romantic Art” approaches the classical with a more baroque technique.

This experimentation with different approaches at classicism might almost be expected of Sargent.

“Though Sargent was an American painter, he was born in Florence and educated in art history in Paris. There is no doubt he would have been quite familiar with all the different approaches to classicism and the conventions used,” said Cooper. “Sargent spent 10 years on this commission at the tail end of a very successful career, and one can only assume that he saw it as a challenge to himself. In Greco-Roman decoration he had a free reign of imagination. There’s no doubt this was gravely stimulating.”

The influences of masters such as Bernini and Michelangelo abound; one can only wonder if Sargent felt himself to be adorning his own Sistine Chapel in his work for the rotunda. In his uses of various styles of classicism, the Greco-Roman tradition seems to stretch rather than limit his creativity.

“Of course we have no way to know, but I feel sure that had he lived longer, Sargent would have made the full transition from painting to free-standing sculpture. His reliefs here would have just been a start”, said Cooper.

Sargent’s meticulous devotion and enthusiasm for that project can hardly be denied in Yale’s “John Singer Sargent: Painter as a Sculptor” exhibit.