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Sargent’s Daughters

July 16, 2012

Earlier this year I traveled to Boston and insisted on a stop at the Museum of Fine Arts. After stumbling on my first in-person view of a John Singer Sargent painting (Portrait of Dorothy at the Dallas Art Museum) a few years previously, I was determined to see my favorite Sargent, the one that started my love of his work. You see, my sister had made her own visit to the MFA, way back in the 1980s, and sent me a poster that reminded her of me and our other sisters. You’ve probably guessed that it’s The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit.

I’ve had the poster from JaneE (now framed) hanging in my home or office for 30 years, and the sight of it never fails to remind me of the bond I have with my sisters. So seeing the original, in person, I warned my companions in Boston, would probably make me cry. And it did. The painting is what made me a lifelong Sargent fan, although I didn’t know a whole lot about him, and it’s an excellent example of why his work endures.

On our way out of the museum, we stopped at the store, and I found a small book about the painting, which I had to purchase. That book—Sargent’s Daughters: The Biography of a Painting by Erica E. Hirshler—is the subject of this commentary.

True to its subtitle, the book provides much information about the life of the painting, plus digressions about the Boits themselves and a little biographical info about Sargent (I wanted more on him, but I’ll have to consult a good biography of him and not his painting, I guess). Expecting that I’d devour the book, I found it a bit plodding instead, taking close to two full weeks to read just 220 pages. Hirshler explores the Boits’ family history and lineage to illustrate their late 19th-century wealth and lifestyle; the privileged lives that the Boit girls had as children, traveling often between Newport, Rhode Island, and Paris; and the lives they completed as unmarried women. Because so few diaries or journals from the family exist today, Hirshler often imagines their lives and activities through other people of that time and class. These digressions, although necessary to lend credence to the author’s assertions, often struck me as just too much detail (e.g., the kind and make of the doll the youngest daughter holds in the painting). The writing style is somewhat stiff and academic, yet I found myself caught up in the Boit family and their griefs and triumphs.

Some of the most interesting reading about the painting comes when Hirshler describes its reception when Sargent first showed it, in later exhibitions during his lifetime, and its treatment by art historians since then. I was unaware of its cultural influence (on the modest side), and I appreciated Hirshler’s confident analysis of Sargent’s influences and aim for the work. (Frankly, there’s too much going on in the painting for me to provide here, since I’m reviewing her book and not the painting. Check out what Wikipedia has to say if you’re interested; it’s pretty much along the lines that Hirshler provided, although much shorter.)

For my own part, I’ve entertained many ideas about my sisters in parallel with the girls in the painting. The eldest is obscured, unseen, and my oldest sister has lived most of her adult life far away from the rest of us. A younger girl stands in the back, dark corner in a kind of solidarity with the eldest, yet she looks directly at the viewer with an open and candid face (that’s me, forever bound to JaneE, come hell or high water, but eager to please and engage the rest of the family). The blond stands apart from the others, with no props or expression to understand her unknown thoughts, much as I think of our (blond) sister Judy, who died at the age of 18 in what at least one of us thinks was suicide. And then there’s the youngest, still a baby and forever remembered that way, which is how we have so often (and unkindly) treated our younger sister. That personal view isn’t the only one I’ve entertained, as I sometimes see myself as the blond standing apart, or even as the obscured girl leaning against the vase. These projections of the girls’ portrait onto my own family aren’t unusual, apparently. Hirshler says the fascination with the girls is a huge part of the appeal of Sargent’s work.

We left the MFA shop with a Daughters of Edward Darley Boit magnet, two postcards, and this book. But I didn’t find a replacement for the poster from JaneE. It’s a bit faded and those long-ago thumbtack holes (before I could afford a frame) are still visible, yet I proudly display it in my new office (at home) and will probably keep it nearby the rest of my life.

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2 Comments
  1. How I love you, my Joanne. And I am so so happy to be very soon not the far away, obscure one but instead more seen more often. (And hasn’t that been a long journey?) xoxo

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