Sargents' "Daughters of Edward Darley Boit": Domestic Revelation in Boston
The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit by John Singer Sargent. Courtesy: John Singer Sargent Virtual Gallery
The painting is square and enormous. Of the four daughters, two face the painter, us, and perhaps their parents. One looks away, ignoring us, and one, the youngest, occupies the center foreground, holding her doll and looking past us. The carpet on which she is sitting, which cuts into the picture at a diagonal, gives her a plane to sit on. Behind the figures, space disappears into shade, a mirror reflecting the window that reveals the whole scene. Domestic space has been reduced to this: four children commanding a space larger than them with full confidence.
The painting is John Singer Sargent’s The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, done in 1882. Its size—almost eight feet square—and proportion set it apart, even in the overscaled and strangely cramped setting of the new American wing in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (MFA). What makes it so astonishing is not Sargent’s rendering of these young children, which is acute and full of both hope and foreboding (none of them ever married, and three developed severe mental problems), nor even the subject matter, but the way in which the painter commanded space. The place in which that space develops is first and foremost, a home—to be precise, the foyer of the apartment the Boit family occupied in Paris at that time. That makes the carpet and the mirror, along with a few other hints at the elements of domestic elements, like a fireplace and a screen, seem natural to such a place. And yet, they don't seem to fulfill their customary role. The hearth is dark, the mirror only gives back a glimmer of light and form, and the carpet is just a fragment. The two immense Chinese vases flanking the opening to the room in the background—vases the MFA inherited and proudly displays on either side of the painting—are so out of proportion and purpose as to make the whole myth of a sheltered and family-scaled environment seem just that, a notion the artist has dispelled by the simple acts of composition, placement, and recording.
The fact that the source of light is invisible, though clearly hinted at (a device Sargent borrowed from the Dutch masters he so admired) yet so insistent on bathing the scene in a soft effulgence, emphasizes the disassociation of this scene from all that is outside of these children’s world while suggesting its presence still. The implication of space that has no beginning, which is to say, no entrance and no end, and in which we are but voyeurs, peeking in, makes this world self-sufficient and complete into itself, and yet vulnerable to our gaze and our interpretation.
I have long admired this painting, and most of Sargent’s work, for its ability to stretch space, to occupy it with figures that manage to fill that enlarged stage, and for the sense of both absolute enclosure and uncertain edges. Seeing the painting again, among the cacophony of images that this big museum, like so many others, has become, and that only increased with the hubbub of the wing’s celebratory opening, made me sense the power of the painting. It fixes and focuses such a space oscillating between absolute fixedness and an eerie fragmentation.
There have been many psychological and social interpretations of The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit. What concerns me is it is spatial sensibility. In it a society striving to make a place for itself in the world of modernization is mirrored in a moment: four girls posed, self-consciously and according to the artist’s directions, who in their presence and relation to their painted space, make us aware of the space of home. The character of this space arises from its domestic requirements, which are both comfort and control, infused with taste—while its contours derive from the need to frame that character within an existing building, in relation to the outside, and as a sequence responding to the rituals of private and semi-private life.
The ability of a great painting such as this to contain all these allusions, clues, depictions, and suppositions, or at least to let us find them within its gloriously painted surfaces, is what makes it important and powerful. Good pictures might tell a thousand stories, but great pictures tell those stories and also condense them into a painted space where a particular culture at a particular time and place becomes present and clear.