John Singer Sargent was 26 when he created the painting The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit in their sumptuous Paris apartment.
Sargent was starting to make a name for himself. Just a few years earlier, the author Henry James wrote he offered “the slightly ‘uncanny’ spectacle of a talent which on the very threshold of its career has nothing more to learn.”
Sargent and Boit were friends who painted together, though Boit remained an amateur all his life. Boit was from Boston, a Harvard graduate, athletic, handsome and rich. He had married Mary Cushing, the only daughter of wealthy China trader John Perkins Cushing. At the time of the painting, she had recently died, leaving her husband to care for their four daughters.
Sargent traveled in the same cosmopolitan haute bourgeois circles as Boit. He was born on Jan. 12, 1856, in Florence, Italy, to Massachusetts expatriates living off savings and a small inheritance. His parents have been described as ‘feckless hypochondriacs’ who drifted quietly around Europe. Their son was quite the opposite: an ambitious workaholic who flattered his way through society to win lucrative portrait commissions.
For the painting of the four sisters – Florence, Jane, Mary Louisa and Julia – Sargent chose not to group them together for a happy family portrait. He created an unusual tableau modeled after Diego Velasquez’ Las Meninas, which Sargent had copied in Spain. Though the four girls are in the same room, they appear isolated from each other.
The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit evokes strong and varying reactions. It isn’t clear what exactly the girls are doing. Some suggested Sargent positioned the two older girls at the edge of a dark passageway to suggest their entry into adulthood.
Sargent may have picked up on a discordant strain in the Boit family. Fourteen years after it was painted, Edward Darley Boit announced he would marry the 20-year-old friend of one of his younger daughters. Their cousin Mary Boit, visited them in Paris just after the announcement. “It is a very strange thing and I am more sorry for the girls than anything,” she wrote. “Uncle Ned quite scares me.” None of the four girls married, and the two older ones suffered emotional disturbances when they got older. In 1919, they donated the painting to the Museum of Fine Arts in 1919, along with the two giant blue-and-white porcelain vases depicted in the work.
John Singer Sargent was criticized for painting psychologically shallow portraits. The Daughters of Edward Boit suggests otherwise.