Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
John Singer Sargent, American (1856-1925)
Oil on canvas
87 3/8 x 87 5/8 in. (221.9 x 222.6 cm)
Gift of Mary Louisa Boit, Julia Overing Boit, Jane Hubbard Boit, and Florence D. Boit in memory of their father, Edward Darley Boit
Acquired in 1919
Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Reproduced with permission. © 2000 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. All Rights Reserved.
John Singer Sargent was an expatriate who didn't set foot in his homeland until he was in his early 20s. Born in Florence to American parents who had fled a native country they considered coarse, Sargent was raised in Europe. He launched his career with a successful exhibition at the Paris Salon in 1883. One of the paintings he showed, which attracted praise, curiosity, and criticism, was this one, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit.
Paris didn't know what to make of the big, square painting of the four little girls. At eight feet square, it broke form with the standard portrait of the day, as did the positioning of its subjects. Instead of being posed together in a formal arrangement, the sisters are scattered around the room; one of the two girls in the back is almost entirely obscured by shadows. The possessions in the painting, the large vases, are as prominent as the people, as is the cavernous room itself.
Negatively described by one critic as "four corners and a void," The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit has in recent years been seen as anything but. The novelist Henry James, Sargent's contemporary and fellow expatriate, praised the portrait for its unconventionality, and more recent scholarship has called it a painting of great psychological depth. Some see the dislocation of the expatriate as well as the loneliness and isolation of the girls as the key themes of this painting.
The issues may well be related. He was often paid to paint moneyed Americans in Paris, rather than the French themselves, and the Boit family was typical of Sargent's subjects. They were habitual travelers: Edward, himself an artist, relocated the family to Paris again and again. (Even their possessions made the journey; the large vases featured in the painting crossed the Atlantic 16 times with the family.) Whether this disconnectedness was something Sargent knew of his subjects firsthand or whether it was something he intuited, he imbues his mysterious portrait with understanding and sympathy for the girls. As Sister Wendy notes, the daughters of Edward Darley Boit would never marry, and they would live their lives essentially alone. Though the two younger girls pictured in the foreground remained close, the older two suffered from debilitating mental illnesses as adults, becoming increasingly isolated from the world and one another.
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