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Erica E Hirshler

Sargent's Daughters

The Biography of a Painting

Anyone dreading the end of the book as we know it ought to take heart from Erica Hirshler's extremely engaging monograph on The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, which John Singer Sargent painted in a few short weeks toward the end of 1882. Anyone anticipating the reinvention of the book (or the monograph) ought to be even more encouraged.

At the outset, I don't think that I can imagine, much less discuss, the interest that this book might have for anyone who has not spent some time looking at the large, nearly square painting that has graced, for most of its existence, the halls of Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. I can easily imagine the book's kindling a passion for the painting, but I can just as easily imagine its prompting a querulous shrug. Will Ms Hirshler convince anyone that Daughters is an important work of art? That's not a useful question, but I raise it to point to an aspect of book culture that seems to be fading. There seems to have been a general idea that a book ought to argue a thesis in such a way as to establish the importance of its subject. And a book ought to break at least a patch of new ground. A book without novelty, and without an important subject, it was felt, could not itself be important, from which it followed that the reader of such a book must be wasting his or her time. (It's possible that much early hostility toward novels, right up until the middle of the Nineteenth Century, might be rooted in fiction's flouting of these assumptions.) That this complex of justifications has reached a crisis is suggested by the recent prevalence of subtitles promising a discussion of this or that genius, invention, or catastrophe that "changed the world."

Ms Hirshler, in any case, does not appear to be concerned with carrying a banner for Sargent's painting, even though she clearly loves it very much and is no doubt (and justifiably) proud to be its curator. She lets it speak for itself, and she assumes that it does speak to her reader. She writes as if on the understanding that, while it is possible to love a picture without knowing anything about its intentions when it was painted, why, and what it represents the substitution of knowledge for ignorance has a way of intensifying the attraction.

Who, looking at Daughters, has not felt a pang of sadness upon learning that none of the four Boit girls ever married? This fact, which can be gleaned from almost any catalogue entry, has nothing to do with the painting; unless you want to argue that being painted in a masterpiece with your three sisters will doom you to spinsterhood, then the lack of romance in the girls' futures is irrelevant to your estimation of the picture. But Sargent, however unwittingly, makes it relevant. In my view, our curiosity springs from an itch to connect the girls themselves, to make sense of their odd disposition on the surface of the canvas. Some viewers of the painting talk of girls captured "at play," but such talk seems forgetful of what play is really like. What game could little Julia, engaged with her doll on the edge of the carpet, play with her eldest sister, Florie, especially as Florie has turned away from the spectator and is leaning thoughtfully? sulkily? on a gigantic vase? It's much easier to imagine that Florie and Jane (Jeannie) have clustered together in order to exclude Isa, who stands off to one side. It's easy to imagine almost anything except play. Once we begin to ask what these girls are doing, once we wonder why they are posing thus for their portraits, we have been drawn through the plane of the picture and into their world, sufficiently at least to feel that pang. The essence of Sargent's genius here is that the picture's beauty always exceeds its mystery, thus perpetuating it. The more you know about The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, the more compelling it becomes.

Ms Hirshler has taken the standard catalogue entry and scaled it upward, to book length. Who was Edward Darley Boit? The answer is very interesting, if only because he was a well-connected Bostonian. Why does the painting's name exclude mention of the girls' mother? Probably because the picture was given its present name long after she died, and was replaced by a second Mrs Edward Darley Boit. Where was it painted? Paris. Where in Paris? Ah we don't know. Nor do we know whose idea it was to paint the girls. We don't know what Boit paid Sargent for the picture, if anything; we know only that he came into uncontested possession. Boit and Sargent were fellow artists who participated in a joint watercolor exhibit more than twenty-five years later. No record of their discussion of the paiting survives. We can assume that the poses were Sargent's idea, but we can't know for certain. Why are the daughters of a wealthy man wearing everyday pinafores and dark stockings instead of frilled satin dresses? Why would a painter as stylish as Sargent want to paint such playclothes? We have no idea.

In the old world of books, the world of thesis and establishment, such lacunae in the author's knowledge would weigh heavily against the importance and validity of a book. But Sargent's Daughters represents a new development in scholarship. Rest assured that it is scholarship: Ms Hirshler can afford to avoid elaborate conjecture because she has unearthed enough supported information to constitute a plinth on which to rest Sargent's painting. The questions that can be answered are answered more or less systematically, in a succession of chapters that begins with the backgrounds of the painter and his colleague, examines the setting, the making, and the reception of the painting, and concludes with extensive material on the "afterlives" of the picture and the people connected to it. Everything that can be established is set forth. Because of the interest of the topic, and thanks to the author's skill at transcribing lucid thought into fluent prose, it might be easy to overlook the fact that the book is in fact a treatise, containing almost everything that there is to know about the picture and pointing, with dutiful footnotes, toward the rest. Beneath the surface, Sargent's Daughters participates in the seamless conversation about Western painting that only now and then materializes in book form. The essence of Ms Hirshler's genius lies in the parallel that she forges between her books presence on a scholarly continuum with the broader human continuum on which we all stand a continuum, that is, of actual individuals, related to each other in varying degrees, almost any of whose stories can be made interesting by the right teller.

It is an open-ended tale, with some of the telling left to the reader. Ms Hirshler has no reason, clearly enough, to mention the connection between the painting and Miranda Seymour's Thrumpton Hall, but there you are: through the Sturgises (one of whom was both an ancestress of Ms Seymour and a cousin of Mr Boit), a painting in Boston and a house in Northamptonshire can be linked by people who may not have known of either. That is how the world works.

Here's hoping that Sargent's Daughters sets a vogue for such books. At a recent performance of Messiah, I found myself wishing for just such a companion to Handel's oratorio. (December 2009)

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