"The true work of art is born from the 'artist': a mysterious, enigmatic, and mystical creation. It detaches itself from him, it acquires an autonomous life, becomes a personality, an independent subject, animated with a spiritual breath, the living subject of a real existence of being."
Spanning a perfect seven foot square oil on canvas and situated dead center of the wall was John Singer Sargent's painting The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit. I gazed into the faces of four beautiful young girls, instantly falling in love with Sargent's mysterious yet expressive portrait.
This mysteriousness, I believe, stems mostly from the arrangement of the daughters. The two younger girls in the front are obviously divided from the two standing in the rear. The isolation of the girls was “considered unconventional because the sisters seemed oddly separate within their cavernous Paris apartment” (Fairbrother 43). The painting was provocative in the sense that I would have expected the girls to be playing together and interacting in some way, not staring seriously from different corners of the room. It is strange that the Boit parents would allow Sargent to depict their daughters in this fashion, especially the one farthest into the darkness, whose features are almost completely obscured. “The deliberate lack of relationship between the children, who seem to inhabit private and solitary worlds, each separated from the others by space and shadows” adds to the mysterious mood of the painting (Ormond 66).
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What I noticed first was the clear difference in apparel between the daughters. The infant sitting on the elaborate rug and her elder sister who is standing near her are dressed more elegantly than the girls in the back, who are both in plain-looking clothes. I feel that without reading the title of this painting one might mistakenly assume that the girls in the rear were servants due to their hidden manners, vague characteristics and identical attires. Natasha Wallace, a critique of Sargent's work, responded similarly. Questions such as, “why would he do this? Were the daughters close to the servants? Were they playmates? Why would they even be included in the picture?” are ones that she and many others ask themselves (Wallace).
Later on, after reading the description from The Museum of Fine Arts, I understood that all four girls were sisters and for some reason Sargent decided to depict them isolated from each other. Before reading the description, I remembered John Berger's words, from his essay, Ways of Seeing. He said that “the meaning of an image is changed according to what one sees immediately beside it or what comes immediately after it” (Berger 114). For this reason, I decided to write down my own thoughts and initial interpretations of Sargent's painting before reading the following abstract:
This celebrated picture depicts the four daughters of Edward D. Boit, a Boston-born painter and a friend of Sargent's, in their Paris residence. Sargent, only twenty-six at the time, drew on various old-master painting styles to give credibility to his daringly empty composition, which one critic described as “four corners and a void.” The painting is moody and enigmatic: the isolation of the four sisters, their serious expressions, and the shadowy, cavernous background create a sense of mystery that distinguishes this painting from most fashionable portraits of the day (MFA).
As I researched into the biography surrounded The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, I found some valuable information. Some critics feel that “just as the light shifts from bright foreground to dim interior, the daughters progress from the doll-clutching of childhood to the introspective moodiness of adolescence” (Fairbrother 45). This is an interesting point of view because the baby girl in the front is the focal point of the painting that most likely catches every viewer's eye first. The other three daughters are posing in a more serious way because they know that they are being watched. Yet, the youngest is still innocent without a care in the world, playing happily with her doll. The two elder sisters who are situated in the back of the room are the cause of much curiosity. Leaning against the vase is the oldest sister, Florence, of fourteen years, whose “adolescent moodiness and frustration from the listless, casual way she stands, in contrast to the demure attitude of her more compliant sister, Jane, who is two years younger,” differs from her younger siblings (Gallati 81). Caught in the middle of the painting is Mary Louisa, age eight, who is in that stage in life where she is no longer a baby like Julia, age four, but not quite a teenager. Teenagers today, are known to suffer from identity crisis and therefore tend to be moody, rebellious and cut off from the world. Berger believes that “we still live in a society of comparable social relations and moral values” which helps us understand the artist's intention. Therefore, the only way I can accept this analysis of the painting is if it matches with my experiences and observations of adolescents, which it does.
Always on Time
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My lived experiences and observations led me to make some other assumptions about The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit as well. One look at this painting can convince anyone of its importance: the fact that it is the largest one in the room, the way it is positioned right in the middle of the wall with two very small paintings at either side, how the two vases depicted in the painting are actually displayed in the room at each corner, the inclusion of the painting in the MFA Icons online selected tour as one of the most popular art pieces. All these details draw a person into the image, believing it to be significant in some way or another. I have seen pieces of art, like the Mona Lisa, exhibited in the same yet more extreme way, behind a bulletproof case, in a room by itself with heightened security. Berger talks about how many valued works of art contain pages and pages of information concerning “who commissioned the painting, legal squabbles, who owned it, its likely date, the families of its owner,” etc (Berger 109). However, for Sargent's painting, the background guide contains various interpretations of the painting, the history of the characters and the artist's past as well as his accomplishments. Though this painting is clearly a treasured piece of the Museum of Fine Arts, it is for reasons related to what it actually shows. Though people realize its popularity, they can still interpret the image in his or her own way instead of being influenced to like the painting due to its reputation as a genuine artwork.
One of the features of the painting mentioned above, that increased its sense of significance, was the pair of huge vases at each corner of the scene. These were actually made by Japanese potters during the late nineteenth century from “porcelain with under glaze blue decoration” (MFA). The Boit family owned these vases and carried them with them every time they moved to a different house. Sargent incorporated into his painting as a way to “enhance the sense of mystery and curious proportion in the shadowy room” (MFA). After the death of Edward Boit, the four daughters donated these vases along with Sargent's painting to the Museum of Fine Arts because their father was born in Boston.
As one can clearly see, Sargent's image is quite different from others during its time. It is not the standard, formal type of portrait. It is not the conventional posed painting of famous people. Instead, he tried to bring out the psychological meaning behind the characters based on their actions and the surrounding environment they are in. “Sargent's interest in the effects of light and in the psychology of modern life led him to explore Impressionism more fully, and he would later become one of its important advocates” (Davis). His major inspiration for The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit was the Spanish artist, Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez's famous painting, Las Meninas. This is a portrait of an infant princess surrounded by her many maids and forms of entertainment. “Sargent adapted Velazquez's mysterious spaces, his silvery gray palette, and the way his [figures] directly confront the viewer” in his own painting (Davis). One can see that Sargent tried to copy Velazquez's usage of contrasting colors. He started with the girls' bright white pinafores leading into the shadowy dark abyss and ending with a light at the end of the “tunnel.” This perspective technique brings depth to the painting. Unlike in Las Meninas, Sargent also added an enormous amount of empty space, almost making the room seem too big for the small figures who occupy it. This unnecessary bit of information concerning Velazquez's influence interferes with one's ability to look at the painting and the subjects in it, an example of Berger's idea of mystification; the definition of mystification is “the process of explaining away what might otherwise be evident” (Berger 103). Thus, there is no room to disagree, but just assume that it is “a marvelously made object” (101).
Perhaps the most baffling piece of history I found out had to do with the figures themselves. The four Boit daughters remained unmarried; in fact, the older sisters, Florence and Jane, actually became mentally and emotionally ill, while the two younger sisters, Mary Louisa and Julia, became the closest out of the whole family (Wallace). The detail about what was in store for the Boit daughters' still haunts, yet fascinates, many art critics today. Was the depiction of Florence and Jane Boit intentionally disconnected from the world in the darkness to express their disturbed future? Was it just a coincidence? These are still some of the many unanswered questions concerning the painting, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, by John Singer Sargent.
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Berry, Franceses. "Inside the Psychologised Interior." Oxford Art Journal 25.2 (2002): 156-61.
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Davis, Elliot B. "Museum of Fine Arts, Boston: Collections Search Results." Museum of Fine
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Fairbrother, Trevor. John Singer Sargent. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1994.
Gallati, Barbara Dayer. Great Expectations: John Singer Sargent Painting Children. Brooklyn:
Brooklyn Museum, 2004
Ormond, Richard, and Elaine Kilmurray. John Singer Sargent: The Early Portraits Complete
Paintings. Vol. 1. New Haven: Yale UP, 1998.
Wallace, Natasha. "John Singer Sargent's Daughters of Edward Darley Boit." John Singer
Sargent Virtual Gallery. 12 Oct. 2008. Web. 03 Oct. 2009.