SARGENT

The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit
1882
Oil on canvas
87 3/8 x 87 5/8 in (221.9 x 221.6 cm)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

“Some scholars have suggested that this was not a commissioned work, but one that Sargent chose to paint, of his friend’s daughters. It is not a conventional portrait. The only child looking at the artist is 4-year-old Julia, with a strangely judgmental air, while 8-year-old Maria Louisa is as far from her sister as she can get, poised to spring away the moment she is released. Jane, who was 12, stands rigidly to attention, with the frozen smile of someone being photographed. The only daughter refusing to cooperate is 14-year-old Florence, lounging back against that magnificent Japanese vase and visibly sulking. This is a family, but they do not look like one; and their setting does not resemble a home. There is a pathos about them, as if they had been abandoned. These impressions have some truth, since the girls are in a rented apartment in Paris, and it is the works of art – seen dimly but splendidly behind them – that made this place attractive to their parents. There was apparently little thought of providing a comfortable environment for the children.

“Sargent was an economical painter, and he conveys unease about the girls through the way in which he treats the various whites. The baby, still in the sunlight, wears gleaming white, Maria Louisa’s pinafore is more subdued, and the whites of the elder girls are shadowed – swallowed up in the cavern of their setting. It is as though, as one grows up, life becomes difficult. For all its appeal, there is something sad about the picture. When I discovered that the girls – all pretty, all wealthy – never married, and that the two in the shadow are said to have had mental difficulties in later life, I began to wonder if Sargent had intuited something of this. It is the way in which Sargent combined the opulence of the apartment, the beauty of the girls, and this floating sense of potential disturbance that makes this painting impressive. Sargent’s brilliance at showing us people from the outside can cause us to forget that he could also convey what people were like within.”

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