Confronting Enigma: Erica E. Hirshler’s Sargent’s Daughters

DSCN1396 - Version 4Hirshler, Erica, E. Sargent’s Daughters: The Biography of a Painting. Boston: MFA Publications, 2009.

The painting The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit by John Singer Sargent now hangs in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. http://www.mfa.org/collections/object/31782 It is a large work and depicts four girls ranging in age from infancy to the early teens. Erica E. Hirshler admits to being “captivated . . . for more than thirty”(vii) years by the painting, and, along with many other acknowledgements, she dedicates her book Sargent’s Daughters about the painting to “all the women whose lives, like those of Florie, Jeanie, Isa, and Julia Boit, have been obscured by the conventions of proper behaviour and the shadows of art and history”(x). I approached the book with interest because the painting is not one I’ve seen face to face, so to speak; nor is it one with which I was in any way really familiar. I appreciated the illustrations, therefore, and the book is well illustrated both with two sections of colour plates, one of which is devoted to detailed reproduction of The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, and with black and white illustrations within the text itself.

DSCN1396 - Version 4Edward (Ned) Boit was a fellow ex-patriot American artist and friend of Sargent’s, and at the time the painting was completed the Boit family was resident in Paris. As the title suggests, Hirshler’s book tells the story of the painting; it is also “a rich tale of painter and patron, friends and families, privacy and public display, fame and obscurity” (3). The first chapters of the book certainly deliver insight into the world of the wealthy ex-patriot society, particularly American, based in Paris in the last decades of the nineteenth century, a world with which we may be familiar through the works of Henry James and Edith Wharton. It is something of a truism to say that this world was blown away in the conflagration of World War I, but the decline of the Boits began before the Great War and ultimately involved death and mental illness as well as financial pressures. None of the girls in the picture married. The youngest, Julia, became a water-colourist and some of her work is reproduced in Hirshler’s book.

DSCN1396 - Version 4One of the aspects of the painting that has intrigued, irritated, and intensely interested the painting’s observers is the fact that although all four of Ned Boit’s daughters are painted, they are not obviously a group. In a way, the picture contains four discrete portraits. The girls are separate from each other, apparently disengaged from each other, even the two, Florence (fourteen) and Jane (twelve), who stand close together. Florence doesn’t even look out of the picture. Four year old Julia sits alone on the floor, her doll in her lap, and eight year old Mary Louisa stands alone at the left of the picture. The girls are dressed in their every-day “play” clothes of short dresses and pinafores. This work is not the late nineteenth century equivalent of the “family photo portrait.” Another element that has intrigued viewers is the girls are painted not, as one might expect, in their school-room or nursery but in an entrance hall. Florence leans against one of a pair of large blue and white vases. In fact, some critics have commented that the picture is actually a portrait of the vases.

DSCN1396 - Version 4I particularly enjoyed Hirshler’s summaries of the various critical responses that the painting has elicited over the century or so of its existence. Over that time, the painting and Sargent’s work in general have experienced both obloquy and extreme popularity. Critics have condemned Sargent’s milieu, his style and technique, and his, depending upon their point of view, ex-patriot or foreigner status. They have revered him as an important contributor to the American cultural heritage. They have deemed his work facile and conventional. They have claimed him as a trendsetter. This particular painting has been defined as simply portraits of four young girls and as psychological investigation. Hirshler comments that “our evident hunger to create content in Sargent’s painting—psychological, narrative, or otherwise—may also reflect how far removed from our own lives any artistic and aesthetic concerns have become” (217). I tend rather to agree with her.

DSCN1396 - Version 4At the end of the book, I found that I was once again considering the whole concept of portraiture, and, with some hesitation, I say that my concerns hold true of both the painted and photographed portrait. Perhaps, after a time, a portrait becomes less and less a record of an individual but rather an icon for something else. Sometimes this transition from subject to object is actually quite short. Consider the situation of an artist’s model. Sometimes, we know who the model is, sometimes not, but the model’s portrait is not defined as a picture of  him or her. Instead, it is a picture of the spring, or of the Virgin Mary or of a laughing soldier, or of a girl selling cherries. The individual’s image has become an object that isn’t acknowledged as a record of that individual. In a way, Hirshler, as she says in her “Acknowledgements,” does attempt to reclaim identity for the four girls in the picture. But she also concludes that while “the daughters of Edward Darley Boit have left us . . . . Sargent’s daughters remain” (219). It is the work of art that lasts.

DSCN1396 - Version 4A portrait’s materials may develop a patina, the canvas or paper decay, but the subject of the picture remains as an image of the sitter as he or she was when painted or photographed. In fact, the portrait becomes an object, an artefact that may or may not, depending upon what the viewer brings to bear upon it, have any personal connection to the sitter him or herself. As time passes and we no longer have the exact context of the sitter, we find ourselves reading into the picture, building our own stories, constructing a defence against a portrait’s silent impenetrability. A portrait freezes a moment in time, and no matter of whom and no matter what its context, it reminds us in its very stasis of mutability and of our own transience.  DSCN1396 - Version 5

A thought-provoking book.

Links you might like:

Erica Hirshler discussing the picture http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-znOSWfAb_8

Sister Wendy on the picture http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/sisterwendy/works/dau.html

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