Book Review: Sargent's Daughters - The One Percent of Yesteryear

Nonfiction books on art history by scholars tend to be dry, written to impress a rarified peer group and too often arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Not so, this one. While Sargent’s Daughters: The Biography of a Painting is hardly a Victorian bodice-ripper, it has its intrigues and its fascinations. Author Erica E. Hirshler is Croll Senior Curator of Paintings, Art of the Americas, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Not coincidentally, this painting by John Singer Sargent is one of MFA’s most popular exhibits. So one might say it’s Hirshler’s job to be the foremost authority in the world about it, and with this book she’s taken the task seriously.

The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, 1882 by John Singer Sargent (American, 1856–1925). Oil on canvas (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift of Mary Louisa Boit, Julia Overing Boit, Jane Hubbard Boit, and Florence D. Boit in memory of their father, Edward Darley Boit. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

At first glance, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit is remarkable in a number of ways. It shows four girls in an elegant drawing room – three of them standing and a toddler seated, cradling her doll. To today’s museum visitor, the poses might seem ordinary. Their expressions and body language are candid, as if they were caught by surprise in a snapshot. Except, in 1882 when this was painted, the snapshot hardly existed as a photographic technique, and certainly not for formal family portraits. Fine painters of Sargent’s era prided themselves on being able to render imagery photographers could only covet – including vibrant colors, accurate reproduction of sumptuous fabrics, and even meticulous draftsmanship such that the species of flowers in a vase could not be questioned. Highly paid portraitists – and Sargent was one of the most renowned – were skilled at not only finding the most attractive couture and poses for their wealthy subjects but also making them look prettier than they were.

Erica Hirshler, Croll Senior Curator of American Paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

As well, Sargent’s composition of the scene is odd, especially for the aesthetics of his time. The girls’ demeanor looks all the more natural because their placement in the room seems offhand and happenstance. In fact, there is more empty space than subject matter, prompting one critic of the time to describe the painting as “four corners and a void.”

So the viewer finds innocence surrounded by emptiness. Hmmmm.

Sargent's Daughters: The Biography of a Painting by Erica E. Hirshler (MFA Boston)

As a personality, Sargent himself was somewhat opaque. Although viewers and patrons claimed to see subtleties of character and emotion in his paintings, he professed to no special insight. He regarded himself as a master craftsman and famously said he had no ability to see into the human soul. That is, he could only paint what he saw. In fact, art critic John Charles Van Dyke insisted Sargent was fanatical about realism. When the artist needed a marble column for a painting, he had a carpenter build one in his studio. Later, his jealous peers mocked him, teasing that he’d make an incredibly accurate picture of a wooden post painted white.

The most personal details Hirshler gives us about Sargent have to do with some of his experiences dealing with children as subjects. After sessions, he laughed, joked, and played games with some of them – exhibiting the childlike side of a man who no doubt presented a straight-laced persona to the adult world. But at least one of his young sitters complained of long hours enduring the tedium of his painstaking work, leaving her frustrated and angry – although she apparently continued to admire him.

John Singer Sargent (by Sidney Robert Carter, about 1910: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The John Singer Sargent Archive—Gift of Jan and Warren Adelson, Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

You won’t come away from this book feeling you know Sargent much better. Apparently his contemporaries felt the same way. Never known as a carouser or a drinker, as were many of his colleagues, Sargent was a perfectionist workaholic.

The fascination in Hirshler’s historical account is the culture, milieu, and personal drama of the Boit family. Wealthy Bostonians whose inheritance came from the shipping industry, the Boits were friends of the artist, who by this time was comfortable among aristocrats on both sides of the Atlantic. As Sargent did, the Boits moved their entire household from time to time from one cultured city to another, between New England and glamorous addresses in Europe. Although Mrs. Boit’s health was a factor, it seems decisions to move had less to do with necessity than a desire for change of scenery. The father was an accomplished watercolorist with serious professional intentions. Although he exhibited and was discussed among the cognoscenti, he never won much of a reputation. It’s not clear that he tried all that seriously. Edward probably regarded himself as an exceptionally skilled hobbyist rather than a mediocre professional.

Visitors in the Ruth and Carl J. Shapiro Gallery, 2011 (Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

I first saw The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit not long ago on a business trip to Boston. I toured the MFA with some friends, who are artists in their own right. They were eager to show me the painting. They also made sure we stopped in the bookstore to grab a copy of Sargent’s Daughters. The museum has the painting on a wall by itself, flanked by the actual Oriental vases from the scene. Notably, Sargent did not render the bird pattern of the ceramics in full detail. Somehow he understood – restraining his realist inclinations – that too much artifice would detract from his subjects. Similarly, rather than take painstaking care with the fabrics of the girls’ dresses, he sketched them in hasty brushstrokes. This masterful but only suggestive technique was typical of Impressionist painting but was frowned upon by Sargent’s traditionalist peers. So, considering its departure from classical technique as well as its innovative composition, this painting is more forward-looking, more revolutionary, than perhaps any other work Sargent produced. It’s almost as if, this time, he decided to paint one just for himself.

Hirshler traces the fates not only of the parents but also of each daughter, through the years. We get the same ominous sensation that lingers from the descriptions of aristocratic life in novels of Henry James and Edith Wharton. With immense wealth came sobering responsibility and privilege – but not necessarily any happiness.

These days, we fret about unfairness, about the overweening influence of the One Percent. But, as these stories from yesteryear remind us, you can’t take it with you. J. P. Morgan founded a bank that these days doesn’t even bother to use his name in its branding.

Gerald Everett Jones is the author of the recent historical novel Bonfire of the Vanderbilts and host of GetPublished! Radio.

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