Canvas Transfer


See as it hung at the MFA, Boston
May 27, 2002

Mrs. Edward Darley Boit 
(Mary Louisa Cushing)
c. 1887

Vases at the MFA

Daughters of Edward Darley Boit 
John Singer Sargent -- American painter 
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Oil on canvas
221.9 x 222.6 cm (87 3/8 x 87 5/8 in.)
Gift of Mary Louisa Boit, Julia Overing Boit, Jane Hubbard Boit, and Florence D. Boit in memory of their father, Edward Darley Boit 19.124
Jpg: mfa / Jim's Fine Art Collection

(See interactive zoom at the MFA

In 1883 Sargent exhibited at the Salon his portrait which he called Portraits d'Enfants or Daughters of Edward Darley Boit. Its composition was criticized for its "four corners and a void" the children not having any relationship to each other but the painting, overall, was widely praised. (Charteris, P57-58). The painting is large and exactly square, for this reason and it's composition, it baffled and intrigued the critics of the day.

When I first saw this picture I found it rather odd myself. I felt the girls are curiously isolated from each other even before I read Charteris's account. The title of the painting clearly indicates that these are daughters, but it was my first inclination that the front two girls must be the daughters -- but what am I to make of the rear two girls? Why would he paint them in such a fashion? They are both clearly dressed in very similar clothes, almost a uniform -- could they be children of servants? The one in profile is almost unintelligible as if he was intentionally de-emphasizing the two from us. Why would he do this? Were the daughters close to the servants? Were they playmates? Why would they even be included in the picture? 

As always (or nearly so) my first inclination was almost totally wrong. All four children, it turns out, are the daughters of Edward Darley Boit. But instead of answering questions, for me, it only raised more -- why are the rear daughters so obviously beyond the foreground of what one might expect of a portrait painting? Do you feel a sense of melancholy here? I did.


Before I answer these questions (and I will later) allow me to turn your attention to the artist himself to see if I can shed light into the mystery of why this composition. 

Hon Evan Charteris' writes in his biography of Sargent:

I met Sargent for the first time in May, 1884, at a party given by Mrs. Henry White at Loseley. I have found a record of my first impression in a letter written at the time . After giving a list of the party it runs: "Also Sargent, who is interesting round and about his own subject, though he talks slower and with more difficulty in finding words than anyone I ever met. When he can't finish a sentence he waves his fingers before his face as a sort of signal for the conversation to go on without him -- at least, that is the impression I came after staying in the house with him." That impression was modified as time went on, though he always talked slowly. He gave the idea of one grasping at words which danced elusively in his brain; his conversation was never fluent, but, like his painting, it could be immensely descriptive. He wasted no words -- it may even be doubted if he had any to waste -- but those he used were like strokes of his brush, significant and suggestive; indeed he could convey a weight of meaning by a gesture or a truncated phrase. He could transpose sense and experiences into words with more character and tang in his rendering than many more accomplished masters of phrase. When he talked of matters related to art, or when he was with intimates, he found words with comparative ease. Even then there was hesitation, as though he was at his easel determining the next stroke of his brush. But his hesitation was itself often expressive and in any case so characteristic that certainly no friend of his would have had it otherwise. So much lay in the back of it: such authority, such anxious sincerity, and at the same time, so much humor and finesse. No man had more entirely home-made opinions so wholly the unadulterated product of his own reflection or experience. His wit was true and direct, free of paradox, an overflow of his own personality. He resembled Henry James, in that nothing would induce him to make a speech. More than once at a dinner in early days the shouts of the diners got him to his feet, when  he would stand struggling with his nervousness, apparently unable to utter. On one occasion blurting out, "It's a damned shame," he subsided into his seat amid a tempest of applause. (Charteris , P145-146)
Edward Darley Boit (1840-1915) was an fellow expatriate American Painter and his wife Mary Louisa Boit were friends of Sargent. They lived for periods in Boston, in Rome, and in Paris. Most likely they met in Paris although it's not known exactly when. It was in Paris that he painted the picture. Like Sargent, they were prominent members of the American artistic community and therefore shared quite a bit of camaraderie. It was the Boits, interesting enough, that Ralph Curtis mentions in his letter of John visiting the day of "disaster" of his Madame X showing -- 1884 Salon, two years after this. 

The painting of the children is in the Boit's Paris apartment,  32, avenue de Friedland.  You can see a number of influences that Sargent was working with at the time. On his trip to Spain in the late 1870's he studied Velazquez who had a great influence on many French painters. Sargent himself copied  Velazquez's Las Meninas of 1656 (Museo del Prado, Madrid) in 1879 and you can see the idea of depth, dark tones and shading with a source of light at the far distance, and the change in focus from people at various distances.  He also obviously drew from his earlier work in the Venetian studies of c. 1880-2, in which he had been "experimenting with the effects of receding perspectives, shifting focus, oblique light and the atmospheric qualities of dark spaces . . . ." (Ormond, P.56)

Although the towering vases and the large room seem to dwarf the children, but they did in fact exist "The vases in the picture, made by the potter Hirabayashi or his workshop, of Arita, Japan share the family migratory existence, making sixteen transatlantic crossings and suffering repeated damage" (Ormond, P.56)

The four Daughters of Edward Darley Boit are, from left to right: Mary Louisa (1874-1945, about 8 years old at the time), Flourennce (1868-1919, about 14 yrs old), Jane (1870-1955, about 12 yrs old), and Julia (1878-1969, about 4 yrs old). None of the girls ever married, and both Flourennce and Jane, the two rear daughters, became to some extent mentally or emotionally disturbed. Mary Louisa and Julia, the front two girls, remained close as they grew older, and Julia, the youngest, became an accomplished painter in water-colors. (Ormond, P.56)

There was no way John Sargent could have know the psychology or what life held for these children when he painted them in 1882. Could this have been a fluke-- the way they were positioned, the rear daughters detached from us, the one leaning on the vase not even looking at us? Maybe. Was he just lucky? Possibly.  But it is my considered opinion that John Singer Sargent's gift of seeing the world was very special. 

I know, from books, that he sometimes chose the clothes for his sitters. I don't know to what degree he allowed them to find their own place -- there own buoyancy (there is no known study of this painting). What I do know, in the paintings in which he took great care and did many studies, such as Madame X and Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, he sketched his subjects in many different ways following them like a "snapshot photographer to catch the [person(s)] in attitudes helpful to his main purpose" (Sir Edmund Grosse, Charteris , P145-146)

Vernon Lee writes:

I remember once asking whether he was aware of the character of the people he painted; and his denial of all knowledge of interest in their psychology is surely confirmed by the very fact that  . . . this most reserved and delicately unmercenary of artists did make certain portraits of certain sitters, and pocket the price, evidently without a suspicion of what he had told about those who paid it. That quite unverbal, intuitive imagination of his had fastened on a the facial forms, the pose and gesture, sometimes even the accessories, which revealed the man or woman's character and life. To this kind of imagination I would apply Ruskin's adjective penetrative, for Sargent's art does penetrate to the innermost suggestion of everything he painted, [and he] does so by following its merely visible elements.  (J.S.S. In Memriam, By Vernon Lee, P.253-254) 
But unlike Romanticism or Pre-Raphaelelite Art Sargent was most Modern, in the truest sense of the word. He wanted to convey only what he saw and convey it in the way he saw it.
I do not think Sargent, despite the infinite ingenuity he showed in his attempts, was an imaginative painter like Watts or Besnard, imaginative in the sense of building up allegories and narrating events. His symbolism was immanent in the aspects which he painted. (Vernon Lee, P.254) 
If you look at John Sargent's portraits, I think you can see over and over again, the personality of the individuals coming through. 

No one else could have painted Daughters of Edward Darley Boit. The genius of John Singer Sargent is not so much in his conscious mind or what he does per say but in what he doesn't do. It is his unconscious brilliance and sensitivity to his great art flowing out from years of training -- a lifetime of painting (from when he was a little boy) and his special way in which he was so verbally shy. It is as if he was a chameleon -- not in the sense of his own colors changing (for he was so firmly grounded) but in the way, like many great artist (certainly not all) his weakness (or what we might call weakness -- his verbal shyness) was possibly a byproduct of, or a contributing factor towards his great gift -- that ability to feel an energy of a room, of a person, of a space, to feel it and sense it to a degree and to a level above most of us. It is as if he could feel the subconscious energy of others (most importantly not disturb it) and transpose it into paint, onto canvas -- possibly even beyond his own conscious understanding.

In the hands of a lesser artist the composition of Daughters of Edward Darley Boit would have been ruined -- it is just too oddly strange. Like the most delicate flower, this painting's petals would have wilted instantly in the crass temperament of pre-conceived notions. But not here, and not by John Singer Sargent, for this painting is truly Penetrative!


The artist; to Edward Darley Boit, Paris, 1882; to his daughters, the sitters; to MFA, 1919, gift of Mary Louisa Boit, Florence D. Boit, Jane Hubbard Boit, and Julia Overing Boit


John Singer Sargent Retrospective, 1989-1999



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