Sargent's Daughters: The Biography of a Painting

Sargent's Daughters: The Biography of a Painting

Erica E. Hirshler

Language: English

Pages: 262

ISBN: 0878467424

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub

One of the most celebrated painters of his day, John Singer Sargent defines for many the style, optimism and opulence of turn-of-the-century America. Among his renowned portraits, "The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit" stands alongside "Madame X" and "Lady Agnew of Lochnaw" as one of Sargent's immortal images. This painting depicts four young sisters in the spacious foyer of the family's Paris apartment, strangely dispersed across the murky tones and depths of the square canvas, as though unrelated to one another, unsettled and unsettling to the eye. "The Daughters" both affirms and defies convention, flouting the boundaries between portrait and genre scene, formal composition and quick sketch or snapshot. Unveiled at the Paris Salon of 1883, it predated by just two years the scandal of "Madame X" and was itself characterized by one critic as "four corners and a void"; but Henry James came closer to the mark when he described the painter as a "knock-down insolence of talent," for few of Sargent's works embody the epithet as well as "The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit." Drawing on numerous unpublished archival documents, scholar Erica E. Hirshler excavates all facets of this iconic canvas, discussing not only its significance as a work of art but also the figures and events involved in its making, its importance for Sargent's career, its place in the tradition of artistic patronage and the myriad factors that have contributed to its lasting popularity and relevance. The result is an aesthetic, philosophical and personal tour de force that will change the way you look at Sargent's work, and that both illuminates an iconic painting and reaffirms its pungent magnetism.

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fashionable French interiors with female figures painted by Sargent’s friend Alfred Stevens, a Belgian artist active in Paris, Sargent did not aspire to Stevens’s polish or to his fascination with the details of decoration and the luster of fabric. His canvas is roughly worked, with some areas barely sketched in and others thickly brushed. The painting relates equally well to his own Venetian interiors, particularly his studies of single figures, some small and some large, which seem to be the

substituting a concrete plot in place of the artist’s ambiguity. Many attributes of Sargent’s portrait of the Pailleron children reappeared when he painted the Boits. Here, too, viewers past and present have taken the initiative to construct a narrative in the scene, choosing their dramas based perhaps more upon their own experiences than on the minimal ingredients the artist provided. Sargent does not present any specific scenario. Save for Julia’s doll, the girls have no props to characterize

painter has seen Madrid and Venice. That double voyage clearly showed him things he had suspected with a sort of vague intuition. He does not know how to group his figures, he composes by chance, but he has a gift for fine coloration and he has learned much in the museums.105 Sargent, according to Mantz, was a bold innovator with deep roots in the past. Mantz had found fault with Sargent’s challenging composition but appreciated his daring. Similarly, critic Arthur Bagnères enthusiastically

painted her in the drawing room of 65 Mount Vernon Street, dressed, according to one source, in the gown she had worn for Florie’s debut.152 In Sargent’s portrait, Isa is poised to laugh; her lips are parted, her head tilts, and she delivers a sidelong glance with a flash of her eye. Her pink and black outfit, with its bold polka-dotted skirt and pert feathered headpiece, speaks to her jovial personality. Bob Boit wrote about the painting in detail, noting that it was “a grand picture, and a

critical acclaim, something her father had found very difficult himself. If Ned Boit - trained as an artist in Rome and Paris and a contributor to the Paris Salon and other important exhibitions - was often frequently dismissed as a gentleman amateur, his daughter probably expected even less. Facility with watercolor painting, however, was a skill encouraged in young ladies, and Julia Boit’s work is much in keeping with that tradition. Small-scale watercolor sketches enlivened letters and

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