The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit. John Singer Sargent, 1882.
Oil on canvas (87.6 in x 87.6 in). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
The Prado Museum in Madrid has taken what strikes me as a unique and original initiative that I have been able to enjoy on several recent visits: “a guest painting”. The invited painting in question is one many of you may be familiar with, John Singer Sargent’s The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, shown above (as with all photos on this blog, you can click to enlarge).
Sargent’s group portrait of the four Boit sisters is normally on display at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where it is flanked on either side by the original Japanese porcelain vases depicted in the painting. The heirs donated the vases to the museum some years after the painting, and having these silent sentinels on either side of the Sargent masterpiece serves to further draw the viewer into the curious atmosphere created in the work.
The painting rarely, if ever, leaves the museum in Boston and the reason it has done so now is that the Prado has “invited” the daughters for a stay in the company of another young lady, the Infanta Margarita, and her entourage, as depicted in what is regarded as the preeminent work in the fabulous Prado Museum and arguably one of the most important paintings in art history: Diego Velazquez’s 1656 masterpiece Las Meninas (The Maids of Honor). There are better places than this blog to learn about Las Meninas. One place to start is at the smarthistory page for a discussion.
Las Meninas. Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez, 1656.
Oil on canvas (125.2 in × 108.7 in). Museo del Prado, Madrid.
Perhaps on another post, I will have more to say on that seminal masterwork, but today I will concentrate on Sargent’s beautiful and gently unsettling Daughters. Unsettling? Yes, or at least it was perceived that way when first done in 1882. Although praised from the very first as a beautiful work, compositionally it did break a number of rules and caused quite a stir. For one, apart from being very large for a portrait, the canvas is a perfect square, a more unusual format than one might suspect. More importantly, the use of space also sets it apart from most portraiture. One critic called it “four corners and a void”. There is something mysterious and disquieting about the sisters' isolation from each other, with the spatial separation being heightened by the lack of any interaction between them.
Only the youngest of the Boit girls actively engages the painter/viewer. Some commentators have suggested it is a visual essay on the passage through and out of childhood. Instead of a standard group portrait of the four sisters, Sargent’s rendering seems to give us a psychological study, with the girls representing successive phases of alienation, of drawing inward. From Julia (4) sitting on the floor, to Mary Louisa (8) standing on the left, and Jane (12) and Florence (14) behind them, the older they get, the less illuminated and progressively more withdrawn they become.
|Henry James. John Singer Sargent, 1913.|
Oil on canvas (85.1 x 67.3 in.)
National Portrait Gallery, London.
In the Boit family so given over to wanderlust, and painted by an artist whom a close friend once described as an "accentless mongrel" for his rootlessness, perhaps the most stable elements depicted in the Boit home were the vases. Curiously, the 6-foot vases travelled with the family, back and forth between continents, making a total of 16 transatlantic crossings. I think the spatial arrangement of the composition certainly would not have worked without the weight and grounding they bring to the atmosphere. As in the painting, perhaps in real life, too, the vases became a symbol of home for the Boit sisters. I love the way the one on the left bellies out side by side with Florence, suggesting more than accentuating the coming curves of womanhood.
And in case you are wondering, they were not empty when received by the Museum of Fine Arts. Erica Hirshler is senior curator of paintings, art of the Americas, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. She has written a book about this painting, titled Sargent's Daughters: The Biography of a Painting (Boston: MFA Publications, 2009). In the book, Hirshler reports that the contents of the vases were "a document of mischief and the passage of time", and included, stuffed in amongst the packing material, "a cigar stub, a paper airplane, a pink ribbon, a tennis ball, sheets of geography lessons, a letter about the repeal of Prohibition, an Arrow shirt collar, an old doughnut, an admission card to a dance at the Eastern Yacht Club in Marblehead, Mass., three badminton shuttlecocks, many coins and a feather". Geography lessons, indeed.
So why this rendezvous of four Bostonian sisters and a Spanish royal? The simple reason is that Sargent's Daughters was inspired by Las Meninas. Few of Velázquez's works are located outside Spain. Most, in fact, are in the Prado. So to see the master's inspired portraits and court scenes, Sargent, like so many other painters, made the pilgrimage to Madrid to see the paintings of the great Spanish court painter of the 17th century. He was well familiar with Velázquez's work prior to that visit, however, because his teacher, the French painter Carolus-Duran, was devoted to the Seville artist's work and had made several copies of his paintings. One of the treats of the Daughters current stay at the Prado is that displayed alongside the two paintings is the handwritten log of artists allowed to copy works in the museum. The book is turned open to a page with several entries for visits by Sargent. The one for the Las Meninas is dated 14 November 1879, although for some unexplained reason he was "logged in" as Gustavo S. Sargent.
Maids of Honor and Daughters on view at Prado. Photo: Andres Valentin, Prado.
Before I close with the video embedded below, in which you can hear Erica Hirshler discuss some aspects of The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, I wonder what similarities do you see between Sargent's Daughters and the Meninas that inspired him? The chromatic range? Treatment of light and space? The sense of capturing a fleeting moment in time, more than of making a timeless portrait? Though quite common now, this certainly was not the case when Velázquez made his painting in the 17th century, long before the advent of photography.
I suggest you set the video to 720p high definition and full screen: