Monday, May 31

Maids of honor welcome guest of honor

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.

Edward Darley Boit was a lawyer by training who, thanks to his wealthy wife's inheritance, was able to indulge his passion for painting watercolors. He developed a fairly close friendship with Sargent. Certainly, one of the things the two men had in common, in addition to painting, was a bit of a nomadic lifestyle. Boit was born in Boston but spent long periods of his life in Europe. Sargent was born in Florence of American parents and lived most of his life in Europe, mainly in France and England. A good friend of the two men was another ex-pat, the novelist Henry James, who described Sargent as having a "knock-down insolence of talent". Indeed, James played a pivotal role in introducing the then unknown Sargent to the American public on the eve of his very first visit to America in 1877 (at the age of 21). For more on Sargent, I recommend the fine John Singer Sargent Virtual Gallery. He has also been written about on a blog I enjoy following, Art Blog by Bob.

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.

And one last curious note: For the occasion, Las Meninas has been moved from its usual privileged location in the Prado —the large octagonal hall 12 (now under alterations), where it is very well situated for both closeup and far-off contemplation— to a much less advantageous viewing spot on the side-wall of a long corridor. In what strikes my overly fanciful mind as a token of the kind of hospitality that makes Madrid such a warm and inviting city, Sargent's Daughters have been given the best viewing position in the temporary new layout. To me there was something touching in this gesture, as remarkable as if the Spanish King himself were to go to the airport to greet a visiting dignitary. I’d like to think that John Singer Sargent would be touched and humbled.

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:


  1. I've had the pleasure of seeing both in person. I didn't know the story behind the "Daughters" and it is fascinating to hear the little details about the beautiful porcelain jars and the travel and the inspiration of the Velazquez. If memory serves (and I haven't looked this up to check so you'll know I'm trying to remember)is it not Velazquez in his own composition looking towards the artist as does Margarita.

    The best part of the "Daughters" story is the family donating the intact porcelain jars to the museum. It is an incredible presentation with the painting.

    Too bad the Prado did not hang them side by side.

  2. Little kids not out playing in the sunshine.

  3. I know and love this painting, have seen it about 6 or 7 times over the past 12 or so years that my brother's been living in Boston, so it feels like an old friend at this stage, It's known me since my very random student days right up to now. I always, always want to turn over the pots and see whats lost in the bottom of em though!

  4. California Girl: Yes, that is a self-portrait of Velázquez. Also, the figures in the mirror are presumably the king and queen posing for the painting that Velázquez is seen painting. The only problem is that there are no know portraits he did using a canvas as large as the one depicted here, which is actually around the very same size as Las Meninas itself. This is one of the small enigmas associated with the painting.

  5. ArtSparker: Yes, the kids should be out playing in the sunshine, but the truth is that both Velázques and Sargent do such a magnificent job of bringing light and air into the scenes they are depicting.

    There is a famous anecdote told by Salvador Dali about a visit to the Prado museum with the French writer Malroux. On exiting the museum, they were besieged by reporters who asked them a question that apparently was often put to celebrity visitors to the museum: If a fire broke out in the Prado museum, what work would you save?

    Malraux answered first, and a bit surrealistically, saying that he would save the fire. Then Dalí said he would save the air, specifically the air enclosed in Las Meninas, as the most transparent air of all.

    Like everything said by and/or attributed to Dali, it should probably be taken with more than a pinch, or a fistful of salt, but there is certainly something about that air and light.

  6. Niamh: I thought the bit about the contents of the vases was quite funny. Of the 16 transatlantic crossings made by the two jugs, how many do you reckon included the geography homework?

  7. we love our Sargent painting of the lovely sisters. The MFA invited families With children to visit the painting to say good bye before it was packed up& shipped away. I took my grandchildren. So glad you are enjoying it.

  8. I'm not very familiar with the Sargent, but at first glance my initial rection was how similar it is in tone and composition to Las Meninas, so was pleased to be able to make an actual comparison as I read on/scrolled down. I love that it's flanked by the huge vases in its home. Thank you for such a good lesson, and it reminds me how badly I want to visit Spain. I've spent two years of my life in Europe and been to three of its corners and most countries, but regret that Spain is the one corner I haven't been to ... yet!

  9. Sally: What a great initiative by the MFA to give the painting a warm sendoff by families with children. I am sure they disliked the idea of parting with Daughters, even though only temporarily, but when Velázquez and Las Meninas call, it's hard to say no. I wouldn't be surprised if they are already planning a welcome home party.

  10. Andrea: Definitely let us know if you do come out to Spain. We can show you around a bit in Madrid, where I am sure you would love the museums, plazas, strolling and dining.

  11. Bingo, Niamh. You win your choice of the letter about the repeal of Prohibition or the old doughnut (currently on loan to the Dublin Museum of New World Paleontology).

  12. Well, so I am one of those little girls coming to this, all so new. I badly need this education, and I so appreciate the time and beauty you infuse in what you share.

    Thank you for suggesting to watch the video at full resolution. It is beautifully done, and rich at that size.

    When I saw the painting at the start of your post, I was struck with the size of the vases, and that combined with the looks on the girls' faces gave me a sense that in this home, perhaps the value of things loomed over the humans - maybe not over their value, but there was a hint of that.

    Is that a pencil or paintbrush in Julia's hair (I think it's Julia, the one on the right in back)?

    I'm touched by your post, the elements and approach, as always. The gesture of the museum to open the wall for the visiting painting, is heart warming. That, you, and reading about the Prado, are giving me more reason to want to visit Madrid.

  13. Hi, Ruth. Thanks to your comment I realize I mad a mistake in my post and identified two girls as Julia. The girl in the back to the right is Jane, not Julia. I will correct now. I can't make out what is in her hair. One more reason to buy the Hirshler book I guess, which apparently has loads and loads of details on everything. Including the entire history of the doll Julia (sitting on the floor) is holding.

    As for coming to Madrid, I heartily recommend a visit. It would be wonderful to get together. I enjoyed your brief summary in today's post on a trip to Europe you took long ago.

  14. What a lovely article--I've been missing my trips to your blog the past few weeks. I could see how Sergent's work was considered unsettling, in a way that Velásquez's composition with its similar use of shadow avoids. Both are lovely though--and how nice that they are together.

  15. I suppose I'll have to go for the doughnut, save them the cost of shipping and all

  16. This is a fine posting, Lorenzo -- well written and very enlightening. As a painter, I have studied Sargent's work, especially his watercolors. He was a master among masters.

    I will be away for a few weeks on a coast-to-coast trek across England. I look forward to reading your latest postings when I return.

  17. Great post -Read a piece about this pairing in the papers here - the author pointed out how "modern" the composition of Sargent's was for its time, how unlike the Velasquez, the viewer is not ever really clear where s/he is - there's that void, a carpe, a red screen, but you do not feel that you know where you are, and as you pointed out, the girls are isolated in space as well.

  18. Suzanne: Yes, we now know from researchers that the scene was the foyer of the Boit family's Paris apartment, but there is little if anything that identifies it as such in the painting. Just the opposite, with the Velázquez, as you point out; we know exactly where the figures are and, indeed, each individual that appears in the scene has been identified by name.

    All the same, the Velázquez was considered unusual at the time it was made. In terms of depth perspective, the characters and items in the room are depicted in as many as seven different planes. And, as I mention in the post, the idea of a painting capturing a fleeting moment of not particular significance was quite novel at the time.

  19. Art: André Breton said that "beauty will be convulsive or not at all", so I guess both paintings are somewhat unsettling in their own way. In both, the effect is heightened and deepened by the sheer size of the works, something that is, of course, not captured on the printed or screen page.

  20. Lorenzo,

    What an informative, interesting post. I have always loved Sargent's work. The disquieting aspect you speak of in The Daughter's is not apparent at a cursory first glance. But as I take in the surroundings (and now especially in comparison to Las Meninas) I absorb how barren their environs are - no other companions, no animals, no activities in the environment, no paintings on the walls, little interaction.

    It seems to me that the vases stand in as substitute parents - one 'parent' being trapped in place as the child leans on 'it' - the other removed and only half present.

    The disquiet increases as you realize these are privileged yet seemingly lonely children ...

    Les Meninas although probably the inspiration for The Daughters - has so much more stimulation and companionship available for the children - much less of a lonely, empty feel.

    Loved this post Lorenzo ... I can only agree with your artistic assessment of these painting - and the kind space made by The Prado for the visit of The Daughters.

    You are a captivating teacher!

  21. Hi, Bonnie. Thanks for the kind words. Megan Marshall wrote an interesting review of the Hirshler book in the NY Times (click here) that addresses some of those issues of loneliness that you mention.

  22. Hello Lorenzo,
    I arrive here via Ruth expecting to read about Rumi, but when I saw Sargent and Velasquez together in one post, I just had to stop here first. What a treat it must be to view these two paintings within view of each other. I'm so glad you included the last photo so that I could imagine the experience. I appreciate your observation that the hospitable curators gave the premium location to the visiting art. I also like that they tied the two works together by displaying them against the same color paint.

    As you point out, it is quite unusual to see a large portrait on a perfectly square canvas. I often crop my photos down to a perfect square. I'm glad to know that an artist as formidable as Sargent favored it for this impressive portrait.

    Thank you for a beautiful, heartfelt post.

  23. Lorenzo, what a beautiful post! Thank you so much for the link to this on my blog--I've always been amazed at both of those paintings, and the Sargent has intrigued me for as long as I can remember. So much good information here. I'd love to have seen both of those paintings side by side--stunning!