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 Drawing on numerous unpublished archival documents, scholar Erica E. Hirshler excavates all facets of this iconic canvas, discussing not only its significance as a work of art but also the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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CHAPTER V The Boits, Sargent, and Children BY THE TIME Sargent’s work on their daughters’ portrait began, Ned and Isa Boit must have known the artist quite well. Unless Sargent had been thinking about it for some time (and no evidence suggests that he did), the painting sprang into being very quickly. It is equally a portrait and an interior, an homage to modern painting and to the art of the past, and one of Sargent’s greatest works. The exact circumstances surrounding its genesis are

that it should be agreeable.” He was referring to Chase, but his comment would have applied to Sargent’s likeness as well. But Brownell saw Sargent’s painting as more than a portrait, and he respected it for its artistic qualities rather than for its usefulness as a precise record of the girls’ appearances. He applauded Sargent’s “indisputable originality,” calling attention to his technical skills and to his marked trajectory from a patently capable painter to one displaying clear intelligence

the painter not neglect the complete “realization” of his subject, challenging him to reach the superlative balance of the actual and the ideal that had been achieved by Velázquez.126 The comparison to the Spanish master - and the very concept that (with some further attention to detail) Sargent could achieve something similar - was indeed a high honor. The Salon exhibition closed on June 20, 1883, and Sargent’s large canvas disappeared from sight. During the previous winter, the painter had

did not reproduce, the portrait of the Boit daughters.242 Sweet’s exhibition and Mount’s book (and his subsequent articles) did mark the beginning of a revival of public interest in Sargent’s work. They caused Perry Rathbone, director of the Museum of Fine Arts, to declare that the painter’s “star appears to be rising again.” But he quickly added, “Critical opinion is not yet willing to restore Sargent to the lofty place he once occupied when he easily evoked comparison with Frans Hals and

curatorial files, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. 86 Official Catalogue of the Japanese Section and Descriptive Notes on the Industry and Agriculture of Japan (Philadelphia: Japanese Commission, 1876), 15. Hirabayashi’s name does not appear in the Philadelphia catalogue. 87 Henry James to Mrs. Mahlon Sands, n.d. [1893-94], in Edel, Henry James Letters, 3:456. 88 Ormond and Kilmurray, John Singer Sargent: Figures and Landscapes, 197-99. 89 Ibid., 198, 214-15. 90 Gallati, Great Expectations,

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