Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 17, 2011
Erica E. Hirshler Sargent's Daughters: The Biography of a Painting Boston: MFA Publications, 2009. 262 pp.; 25 color ills.; 40 b/w ills. Cloth $29.95 (9780878467426)
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Sargent’s Daughters: The Biography of a Painting is a thoroughly researched biography of John Singer Sargent’s The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (1882), now in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and featured in the recently opened Art of the Americas wing. This canonical American painting portrays the four daughters of Sargent’s friends Edward (Ned) and Mary Louisa (Isa) Boit in the front hall of the family’s apartment in Paris. This book, presented as a biography, traces the life of the painting, from conception and production to exhibition and reception, and provides a detailed account of its location from its genesis in Paris to its present-day home in Boston. Like Sargent’s painting, which straddles the categories of portraiture and genre scene, Sargent’s Daughters challenges conventional classifications, weaving together art-historical investigation with biography while critiquing recent psychological interpretations. In fact, the title is a bit misleading, because the text also includes a detailed analysis of the painting, a biography of the artist and the Boit family, and descriptions of the art world and upper-class expatriate life during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The author, Erica E. Hirshler, the museum’s Croll Senior Curator of Paintings, Art of the Americas, has had a long and unique personal and professional relationship with Sargent’s painting. She previously wrote about it in two exhibition catalogues: Barbara Dayer Gallati, Great Expectations: John Singer Sargent Painting Children (New York: Brooklyn Museum in association with Bulfinch Press, 2004) and Kathleen Adler, Erica E. Hirshler, and H. Barbara Weinberg, Americans in Paris: 1860–1900 (London: National Gallery Company Limited, 2006). As “an eager young employee” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, she “even dressed in a white pinafore and stood with one of the large vases that appear in the painting” for a publicity photograph (vii). The book is driven primarily by her desire to explore the painting itself, to explain the antithetical responses to its subject, and to overturn the myths surrounding its sitters and patrons by “partially reconstruct(ing)” their lives (5). She tackles the artistic, biographical, and psychological questions that have puzzled scholars, critics, and museum visitors since the painting’s first exhibition in 1882; she does so in clear and succinct prose, and consequently, she successfully broadens the book’s readership. The inclusion of well-documented information about Sargent’s artistic development and the American expatriate community in Paris makes the book accessible to a general audience; however, previously unpublished material, such as a historiography of the painting’s critical reception, a revised chronology of Sargent and Henry James’s friendship, and a detailed account of Ned Boit’s artistic career, makes this study of interest to art historians and specialists in American art and culture.

Sargent’s Daughters is divided into thirteen chapters that develop chronologically like a typical biography. After the introduction, the next three chapters chart the lives of, respectively, Sargent, Ned and Isa Boit, and the Boit children, prior to the development of the close relationship that led to the creation of the painting. Hirshler discusses Sargent as “a young painter on the rise” and Ned as a cultivated, upper-class gentleman and talented landscape painter, who exhibited at home and abroad, but never achieved “first rank, owing either to casualties of circumstance or perhaps a lack of sufficient professional ambition or ingenuity” (20). After concentrating on the early lives of painter and patrons, Hirshler turns to the Boit family and describes their daily life in Paris around the time Sargent made the painting of Florence (Florie, age 14), Jane (Jeanie, age 12), Mary Louisa (Isa, age 8), and Julia (Ya-Ya, age 4). Given the dearth of documentation (no diaries belonging to the sisters are extant), Hirshler reconstructs their Parisian days through Edith Wharton’s accounts of her childhood and a letter from Julia to her cousin Mary in Boston, arguing that they seem to have been content with their lives as wealthy American children living abroad and implying that the biographical evidence contradicts interpretations of the sisters’ despondent demeanor in the painting.

The following three chapters focus on The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, its genesis, its setting, and its artistic sources. Much of Hirshler’s analysis is speculative by necessity. In contrast to other works by Sargent, she laments, “nothing chronicles a formal agreement between painter and patron” (49): no sketches or preliminary oil studies survive; no posthumous accounts from the sitters exist; and even the apartment building that served as the setting has been razed. To explain the painting’s rapid conception and completion during six weeks from October to December 1882, Hirshler claims that Sargent’s prior work had given him the confidence to proceed quickly. Both Sargent’s Venetian interiors (1880–1882) and his 1882 portrait of Louise Escudier, the wife of a well-known Parisian lawyer, all completed just prior to the painting of the Boit sisters, helped Sargent compose figures in domestic spaces with dramatic light and shadow effects. Moreover, he already had experience with painting children. Hirshler then contends that the painting captures Sargent’s vision rather than an accurate portrayal of the Boit sisters and their experience abroad. Most notably, the austerity and emptiness of the painting belies the Boit’s extravagant lifestyle “packed with friends and belongings,” as described in Boit family letters (66). The argument about the painting’s interpretive character is furthered by strong visual evidence, such as a comparison of photographs of the actual Japanese vase and the painted version. The oversized vase signifies the Boit’s “adventurous” aesthetic taste, supporting the notion that they would not have objected to Sargent’s experimental approach to portraiture (74). For Hirshler, Sargent’s innovation lies in his synthesis of opposites, including his “unusual amalgam of art history and modernity,” exemplified by his borrowings from Velásquez’s Las Meninas (1656) and “the new painting” in France (96). Both of these sources of inspiration previously have been identified, but Hirshler introduces the idea that each girl’s “self-possession” and individuality stems from “Velázquez’s assured, stoic infanta” (89). Art rather than life informs Sargent’s portrayal, a theme that reoccurs later in her argument for an aesthetic rather than a psychological understanding of the painting.

The remainder of the book shifts from an analysis of the painting itself to its reception and “afterlife.” Hirshler presents a detailed account of its first public exhibition, its subsequent, unexpected presentation at the Salon of 1883, and the mixed reviews it received in the British, European, and American press. She also addresses the lives of Sargent, the Boits, and the painting itself after its initial exhibition. Highlights include Sargent’s shift in style after his move to England, his ongoing friendship and artistic relationship with the Boits, including his participation with Ned Boit in two watercolor exhibitions, and the biographies of each Boit daughter, none of whom married. Hirshler seeks to dispel the myth that the daughters led unhappy lives, though Jeanie seems to have suffered from mental illness. Instead, she convincingly contends that many wealthy women, especially from Boston, never married and instead lived together with their siblings.

The last chapter of the book documents the rise, fall, and repair of Sargent’s reputation during the twentieth century by surveying the critical interpretation of The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit. Hirshler expresses concern that psychological investigations by art historians, including David Lubin, Trevor Fairbrother, and Susan Sidlauskas, have dominated scholarship on the painting since the 1980s. She suggests that these arguments are anachronistic and fabricate content in an attempt to rescue Sargent from the critique that he was merely a painter of surfaces (217). Her book leaves the reader wondering why can’t we find significance and aesthetic value solely in surfaces? Hirshler’s investigation of the Boit painting reveals her preference for an artistic and aesthetic analysis, yet she has written a book full of biographical details that seek to answer questions generated by viewers’ emotional responses to the sitters. The apparent contradiction between her desire to focus on aesthetic concerns and her emphasis on biography risks compromising and complicating her argument. Not wanting to commit to one interpretive framework or genre but allowing several to coincide seems to be a hallmark of current scholarship and warrants reflection. Like Sargent’s painting, Sargent’s Daughters eschews categorization and resists a definitive conclusion, claiming that the understanding of all masterpieces changes over time (219).

Sargent’s Daughters also contributes to a tendency in recent art-historical publication: the monograph on a single artwork. The J. Paul Getty Museum has published books focused on individual works in their collection since the 1990s, and the University of California Press has initiated a series on canonical American photographers and images. Such monographic studies seem in demand; perhaps they are reactions against “the gloss” and the brief exhibition catalogue entry, offering a more considered, in-depth analysis with information that frequently gets edited out of shorter studies. This type of text works well as a teaching tool. In fact, along these lines, Sargent’s Daughters serves as an ideal case study for a discussion of art-historical methodology. The book may have been aimed at a general audience, but it generates important art-historical questions about the role of biography and psychology in the interpretation of art.

Isabel L. Taube
Lecturer, Department of Art History, Rutgers University

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