I’m a big fan of John Singer Sargent’s paintings and on a recent visit to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, I was moved by the room devoted to his portrayals of the Edward Darley Boit family. Of course I knew the big canvas now usually known as “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit.” But hanging near it were Mrs. Boit, cheerful in a pink dress with black coin-sized polka dots, and a much more sober portrait of Papa Boit himself. And flanking the big portrait of their daughters were the very same immense Oriental blue-and-white vases in the canvas. To quote from Sargent’s Daughters, “When they first traveled to the Museum of Fine Arts for display in 1986, they contained — among handfuls of the excelsior with which they had been so carefully packed — a cigar stub, a paper airplane, a pink ribbon, a tennis ball, sheets of geography lessons, a letter about the repeal of Prohibition, an Arrow shirt collar, an old doughnut, an admission card to a dance at the Eastern Yacht Club in Marblehead, Massachusetts, three badminton shuttlecocks, many coins, and a feather.”
The contents of the vases, like the painting itself, were once part of family life, and this is one of the points of Erica Hirshler’s book. Sargent’s Daughters looks at a familiar image — call it a document if you’d rather — from a series of different angles. Hirshler covers Sargent’s biography as well as that of the Boit family before the time of their commission of the portrait, which was painted in around 6 weeks in the fall of 1882. As a formal portrait, or a record of the appearances of four young girls, it was highly unconventional. But Edward Boit was a painter himself and a friend of Sargent’s; it’s assumed that he was pleased with his daughters’ casual poses and the fact that the eldest girl, Florence, seen dimly lit and in profile, is scarcely recognizable.
Hirshler discusses the history of the picture; where it was exhibited and what critics thought of it. She broadens this discussion to take in the rise and fall of Sargent’s reputation, which suffered in the years when American art veered toward abstraction. Sargent’s fluent, European-style virtuosity looked meretricious for a while there, but it has come roaring back into fashion, and Hirshler spends some time with recent feminist and psychosocial interpretations of the painting. But what I found most moving, and saddest, was the history of the daughters themselves.They were frozen in time, weren’t they, in the big dark front hall of that Avenue Friedland apartment, immobilized in their starched pinafores and dark stockings? Of course not. Jane was mentally fragile, not one of them ever married. Their mother Isa, laughing around the corner, died before she reached fifty. Edward Boit remarried and had two sons, whom Sargent didn’t paint. The creation of this canvas, like every family portrait, commemorated a moment. Sargent’s Daughters both precisely defines that personal, individual moment, and demonstrates the wide-ranging impact of the work of art.