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 Drawing on numerous unpublished archival documents, scholar Erica E. Hirshler excavates all facets of this iconic canvas, discussing not only its significance as a work of art but also the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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simultaneously but spent the longest time on Las Meninas, perhaps finding it the most intriguing or difficult of the works he studied. The copy he made of it is much smaller than the original but captures its characteristics faithfully, albeit with a freer and looser brush. Sargent seems to have been most interested in Velázquez’s underlying composition and structure, as well as in his placement and lighting of individual forms. The baffling relationships between the figures in Las Meninas, its

of art and nature as the infantas of Velasquez. He went on to place Sargent’s picture in the pantheon of some of the world’s most admired paintings, noting that it surpassed its function as a portrait: “The simplicity and audacity of this composition is a never-failing source of pleasure to the observer. It is so absolutely unconventional, as a portrait group - as much so as Rembrandt’s ‘Night Watch’ which was such a grievous cause of disappointment to the worthy burghers who posed for their

James to Henrietta Reubell, October 10, 1894, Correspondence and Journals of Henry James Jr. (MS Am 1094 [1124]), By permission of the Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. 16 For John Perkins Cushing, see Jacques M. Downs, “American Merchants and the China Opium Trade, 1800-1840,” Business History Review 42 (Winter 1968): 418-42; Alan Emmet, So Fine a Prospect: Historic New England Gardens (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1996), 57-60; and Florence Thompson Howe,

has asked me to send over and that the Brooklyn Museum has gobbled up” (Sargent to Isabella Stewart Gardner, February 24 [1909], Archives, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston). 180 As reported in Barbara Dayer Gallati, “Controlling the Medium: The Marketing of John Singer Sargent’s Watercolors,” in Linda S. Ferber and Barbara Dayer Gallati, Masters of Color and Light: Homer, Sargent, and the American Watercolor Movement (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1998), 140. 181 For the

the curatorial files of the Department of Art of Europe at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. For Madame X, see Ormond and Kilmurray, John Singer Sargent: The Early Portraits, 115. For Sargent’s mural commission, see Carol Troyen, Sargent’s Murals in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1999), 13. 232 W. H. D. [William Howe Downes], “The Fine Arts: Mr. Sargent’s Paintings,” Boston Evening Transcript, May 10, 1916, 12. 233 Marian P. Waitt, “Loan Exhibit of Sargent Art at

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