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Episode 11: John Singer Sargent’s “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit” (1882)

Fame in an art museum is kind of a funny thing.  Like celebrities, there are some paintings that are the Kardashian paintings, if you will, the ones that are famous for being famous.  People tend to have bucket lists for these, and often times, once you see them up close, it can be, not surprisingly, kind of a letdown.  They’re smaller and less remarkable than you expected.  Or the gallery is too crowded, and it’s like that first stadium show where you have to share what was once the intimacy of your headphones with tens of thousands of screaming fans.  Or maybe you’re just disappointed that you’re not feeling more, that standing in its presence didn’t create that immediate connection you’d hoped it would.  And what gives?  You were promised aura and transcendence.  So, in lieu of those, the painting then becomes more about the cool story of having seen it, rather than the experience of seeing it.  Check that one off the list and onto the next.

You can’t come to the MFA and talk about celebrity paintings without touching on John Singer Sargent’s “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit” from 1882, which is perhaps the most famous painting the museum owns, and, when it was acquired in 1919, one of the reasons the MFA became a world-class museum in the first place.  It’s their darling, their crown jewel, their moneymaker.  If you’re at the museum right now, it’s on the cover of the gallery map you’re holding in your hand.  But what strikes me as the key difference between this painting and its fellow rock stars, is that people don’t come to the gallery to see it once.  They come to see it again and again.

And I get that.  I mean, there are plenty of Kardashians out there whom I’d like to meet just to say I met them.  But then there are the celebrities who I’d actually like to get a beer with, the ones I admire and kind of feel like I know and I think would really like me if they knew me.  Their aura feels more authentic somehow.  The same is true with these girls.  A native Bostonian friend once told me that she felt like she grew up with them, that she would come to the museum with her parents and experience the stages of girlhood alongside them.  Now she brings her own daughter to, in her words, do it all again.

 Sargent, Mrs. Edward Darley Boit (Mary Louisa Cushing) (1887)

Sargent, Mrs. Edward Darley Boit (Mary Louisa Cushing) (1887)

Just what is so compelling about these daughters?  Why do people come back again and again not just to see them rendered in luscious, painterly brushwork, or to marvel at the weird, off-centered space they inhabit, but just to, you know, visit them?  To check up on them, hang out with them in their Parisian apartment.  To bask in 4-year-old Julia’s adorable, apple-cheeked sunshine, or see if teenage Florrie is in a better mood.  What accounts for the complete authenticity of each of these four girls—all captured, with pitch-perfect acuity, by the 26-year-old Sargent, a family friend and, lucky for them, the foremost portrait artist of the modernist period.

Of course, to be the foremost anything means that you’ve either done something that is already established the best that it can be done, or that you’ve done something new.  Sargent, as it happens, did both.  He was celebrated in his own day both for his traditional portraits and for the new definition of portraiture that he created by looking to past and present precedent.  And his reputation preceded him: Ned and Isa, the Boit parents, actually hired him to paint a traditional portrait of their girls, but, being friends and, like him, American ex-pats living in Paris, gave him permission to go nuts, to experiment with the subjects and the space and create something really innovative and exciting.

Of course, the general art-viewing, non-ex-pat public wasn’t quite as generous, and when Sargent entered this painting into the 1883 juried Salon, it certainly had its share of detractors.  They just didn’t think it was a portrait so much as an impish rule-breaker, dancing the line between portraiture and an interior domestic scene and not adequately fulfilling either.  How can it be a portrait if one girl’s face is entirely obscured by shadows?  How can it be an interior scene – usually a well-lit, well-organized space with clear, defined narrative meaning – if it’s a totally indeterminate space, some darkened mix of public foyer and private salon, and laid out in this chunky and awkward composition?  A critic at the time described the painting as “four corners and a void” – hardly a description that invites the intimacy a viewer usually associates with a portrait, especially a portrait of children.  So we’ve got not-quite-a-portrait and not-quite-an-interior scene, and the fact that the line between them is blurred is exactly what makes this painting so powerful.  So let’s take them one at a time.

As a portrait that’s not-quite-a-portrait, it’s in good company.  The last time we looked at modern portraiture was in the context of Degas and his dour Aunt Fanny, who sat stock still in her old fashioned ways as her daughters flitted dynamically into the next century beside her.  She was posing for a traditional portrait; they were caught in one.  The juxtaposition of the two styles of painting in one frame exemplified Degas’ ability to see the world as it was changing around him— for example, folding technology into high art by cutting figures off at the sides, like a camera snapshot.  He believed that getting to the heart of a portrait’s sitter meant catching them off-guard, interrupting them, and subsequently turning the viewer into a participant, someone that the sitter reacts to.

And Sargent, having come to Paris to study at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in the mid-1870s – Degas’ heyday –was deeply moved by and indebted to Degas’ brand of empathic portraiture.  We don’t just come upon these Boit girls, we interrupt them, and their snapshot slice of modern life.  And they engage with us, but individually, each at their own age level.  Little Julia sits fully in the light, wide open, an alert, trusting little four-year-old, while her sisters grow more shy and skeptical of our presence as the painting recedes back.

 Degas, Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer (1878-81)

Degas, Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer (1878-81)

8-year-old Mary Louisa stands to Julia’s left, watchful but polite, hands behind her back, one foot tentatively forward—a subtle nod to Degas’ awkward adolescent dancer sculptures— while the teens hang back in the shadows, throwing literal shade.  12-year-old Jane confronts us directly, while 14 year-old Florrie leans against the huge Chinese vase, completely turned away from us.  There’s no parroting mothers’ manners here, like her little sister.  Like with any self-respecting adolescent, if we want to know who she is, we’ll have to work for it.

And the neat thing about that vase, and its twin cut off on the other side of the canvas, is that they really existed, they’re both owned by the MFA, and they’re displayed alongside the painting, having all been donated to the museum by the daughters in late nineteen-teens.  When the vases were received, curators found inside them a motley collection of ticket stubs, candy wrappers, and the various other bits of domestic trash that you would totally expect to get casually tossed into huge vases that came from a house full of little girls.  I would expect nothing less if my nieces lived there.  The fact that we catch Florrie leaning against it, treating priceless art as simply as part of the landscape of the foyer, what dad brought back from a trip that time, lends itself to the mundane humanity of this scene: kids being kids, not props on display, not pretending to be more perfect than they are.

This is also an important point: as we’ve discussed before, a portrait is usually meant to show the sitter off.  You sit in your best clothes, in your most flattering pose, and you’re captured for the ages as the most idealized you.  Here, these girls are in their play clothes.  It’s like they didn’t even know that today was portrait day.  Many viewers look at the older sisters in the back and think they’re the maids.  Nothing typifies ‘not showing off’ like being seen in your pinafore, which is particularly ironic if you consider that these pinafores were actually Sargent’s opportunity to show off.  He apparently asked the girls to wear them so that he could showboat his tremendous facility with painting white in different gradations of light and volume.  From the tulle of the doll’s dress to the reflection over the mantle in the background to the lustrous gleam of the vases, and all the bright and shadowy pinafores in between, this painting is a masterful showcase of Sargent’s gifts as a painter, and his ability to render fabrics, surfaces, and personalities with confidence, compassion, and not a single wasted brushstroke.

But more to the point, our expectation that when we see a sitter in a portrait, we see them at their finest, hammers home how artificial a conventional portrait really is.  We never really think about who we are in relation to a traditional portrait.  There’s this implied contract of mutual inaccessibility.  We each exist in our own space.  We’re just admiring an object, a beautifully-rendered picture of someone we may or may not know, but it’s not like this portrait is going to help us get to know them better.  Sometimes the sitter is painted to make eye contact, sometimes he or she looking off to the side, but by and large, they exist in the ages, in the frame, a world apart.  But not these girls.  We can practically walk right into their frame.  Their reactions to us viewers feels so authentic that they remove this artificial barrier of traditional portraiture.  We’re so acknowledged that we can even be ignored.

 Diego Velázquez, "Las Meninas" (1656)

Diego Velázquez, "Las Meninas" (1656)

And creating a space that makes you feel like you walk right in is what brings us back to this not-quite –a-domestic interior scene.  Just as there’s art historical precedent for the interrupted portrait, there’s precedent for expansive, high-contrast, moody interiors that mess with your head.  Sargent, like most late-nineteenth-century painters, and especially those only a few years out of art school, looked back at the Old Masters, and was particularly taken with the 17th c. Spanish painter, Diego Velazquez.  In 1879, Sargent traveled to the Prado Museum in Madrid to make copies of Velazquez’s paintings, including his masterwork, “Las Maninas” from 1656.  And the influence, if you hold up this painting side-by-side with the Boit Daughters, is pretty clear. 

Though the story that Velazquez depicts is significantly more regal – the poised little Spanish infanta surrounded by her entourage –we feel the same sense of walking into a scene that’s already going on, with or without our presence, but that our presence influences.  The infanta shows off her dress to us with sweetly tentative confidence.  There’s a sense that the maids don’t have time to bother with us as they primp her.  There’s an oblique reference to the girl’s parents in the background, who, like the Boit vases, act as reminder that the little girl simply exists in the world they provide for her.  And “Las Meninas,” too, has a streak of impish, ahead-of-its-time rule-breaking by overtly acknowledging the presence of the artist.  Velazquez boldly takes up almost a quarter of the canvas with, well, the canvas, painting the painting that we’re seeing.  It acts almost like we are a mirror, reflecting the scene back to him.  He’s looking right at us, focused and direct, his paintbrush poised over the palette.  It’s a bit of a brain-twister, trying to figure out who we actually are in relation to the scene, even as we feel so present in it.

And Sargent echoes this psychologically unstable space in the Boit portrait, largely by making the space itself feel so inert.  This is where we come back that criticism of the four corners and a void.  The focus is on the daughters, but again, we have to earn them, as the square canvas doesn’t do us any favors as our eye tries to sweep from one to the next.  Some have suggested that the red screen on the right is an attempt to help us out, to have something going on to attract our eye to that side of the canvas.  Others are comfortable to just let the composition remain a mystery, just another well-drawn, complex personality in the picture.

As is the nature of celebrity, there are any number of little tabloid interpretations that have been applied to this painting to fan its flame, layered on like coats of varnish after the fact, and obfuscating the original image.  How none of these sisters ever married; how Florrie subsequently suffered from mental health issues—and didn’t Sargent call it?; and how the threshold of the foyer acts as a metaphorical threshold of womanhood, a coded allusion to when, art historically speaking, we’re allowed to take these little girls and sexualize them.  But quite frankly, I think there’s enough going on here that draws us in without the benefit of knowing what happened to any of them.  Sometimes it’s enough to just know them, really know them, at this stage, captured in this exquisitely authentic moment.  And sometimes it’s enough to know that they’ll be waiting for you the next time.