Exploring a Masterpiece

In 1882, John Singer Sargent painted a large picture of four plainly dressed, American girls in the foyer of their parents’ Paris apartment. Labeled everything from “a haunting masterpiece” to “four figures and a void,” it has long been one of the favorite works on exhibit at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. What is it about “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit” that continues to fascinate viewers 130 years after it was painted?

It’s just one of the questions that inspired Dr. Erica Hirshler to write her most recent book, Sargent’s Daughters: The Biography of a Painting, which she discussed on April 5 as this year’s second Hub Lecturer. A graduate of Wellesley College with a Ph.D. from Boston University, Dr. Hirshler is the Croll Senior Curator of Paintings, Art of the Americas, at the MFA, Boston. She has written and lectured widely on American paintings of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, particularly on American Impressionism and the Boston School.

Calling the work “an odd painting,” Dr. Hirshler pointed out several of the features that set “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit” apart from other paintings of its time. A study of light and shadow, it is not a straightforward portrait in which the subjects are clearly depicted, but it is also not a typical genre scene of everyday life. The picture seems to tell a story – and many conjectures have been made about what that story is – yet it does not have a clear narrative. Combining the masterful influence of Velasquez (particularly “Las Meninas”) with the modern composition style of Degas, Sargent’s image was innovative and captivating, provoking criticism and earning praise at the 1883 Salon, then considered most prestigious art event held in Paris.

Equally interesting, Dr. Hirshler found, was the story of the Boit family. The girls’ parents, Ned and Isa Boit, were wealthy American ex-patriots and good friends of Sargent. This connection, and Ned’s decision to give up a law career to become a painter, have led many to wonder if this extraordinary work was not a portrait commission but a collaboration in which a fellow artist allowed Sargent the freedom to create a dramatic picture for the Salon.

It is also often noted that the Boits’ four daughters never married, a fact on which Dr. Hirshler wryly commented, “This does not mean that they were not happy!” Rich and well-connected, they could choose to be independent, she said, which was not unusual among their social class.

In 1919, the Boit daughters officially gave their portrait to the MFA, where – flanked by the actual Japanese vases that appear in the painting – it draws more admirers today than critics. After inviting the Middlesex community to visit the museum to explore this and other works in the Art of the Americas gallery, Dr. Hirshler remained for another hour to answer the many questions of interested students.

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