Perspective | John Singer Sargent’s enigmatic masterpiece, explained


The greatest painting ever produced by an American was made in 1882 by a 26-year-old living in Paris. His name was John Singer Sargent. He was a young artist, preternaturally gifted, and already making his mark in the French capital.

The subjects of his canvas were the four daughters of his American friends, Ned and Isa Boit. The Boits were very well off. They lived in an apartment in Paris. The apartment — airy and dark, and laced with thresholds, mirror reflections and a mysterious sense of expansion beyond the picture frame (and therefore infinite possibilities for escape once the adults could be made to forget about you) — was the painting’s other subject.

What makes “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit” so mysterious, so charismatic? That it is both a family portrait and a depiction of empty space. It’s not a painting of four girls in space or four girls taking up space, but a painting of four girls and space. The negative is given as much weight as the positive. The painting is enormous (about 53 square feet) and a quarter-of-an-inch shy of being a perfect square. Author Henry James (who was friendly with Sargent), deftly dubbed it “the hall with four children.” Another contemporary critic called it “four corners and a void.”

Edward (Ned) Boit was a talented watercolorist. His father had married into a sugar fortune. He, too, married into wealth, in 1864. After an extended period of travel, the couple settled in Paris, where Ned could focus on his art while Isa inserted herself into expatriate bohemian circles. James described her as “brilliantly friendly,” “eternally juvenile” and as having “as much business with daughters as she has with elephants.”

That last remark was ungenerous (Isa is not known to have fraternized with elephants) but it speaks to something unsettled and almost cast adrift about the four girls in Sargent’s painting. Young Isa (named for her mother) is the one standing in the light at left. She was 8 years old. Ya-Ya, 4, is seated on the rug, kept company by a large doll. Florie, 14, leans against a vase in the background. And Jeanie, 12, stands beside her.

The light comes from the left. The two adolescents are shielded from it by the recessed enclave in which they have found their uneasy refuge. The girls wear white pinafores, allowing Sargent to show off his precocious mastery of a full range of tones created by the fabric’s folds and creases.

Three of the girls look directly out at the viewer. This is expected: They’re posing (however unconventionally) for a portrait. But Florie, inexplicably, is shown in profile, gazing into a dark void. She seems oblivious to the breathing, proximate presence of her sister beside her. Her spine rhymes with the contour of the enormous Japanese vase against which she leans. She doesn’t make sense.

But trying to imagine the picture without her is like imagining a word without a vowel.

What does this enigmatic word mean? People have developed all kinds of theories. I once asked MFA curator Erica Hirshler, whose book, “Sargent’s Daughters: The Biography of a Painting,” is a must, what she thought was going on in the picture. Some modern viewers, she replied, “feel that the girls must have been interrupted in the midst of some trick they were about to play. I think it might be Sargent who was playing a game — setting himself a puzzle to solve about how to paint white in different kinds of light.”

That’s entirely plausible. We know that Sargent was in love with the tonalism of Diego Velázquez, and that this painting was his response to the Spanish master’s “Las Meninas,” the greatest “puzzle-picture” of all time. At the same time, “The Daughters” is clearly more than a technical exercise.

It may not be a riddle to be solved, but it does trigger powerful feelings. Feelings to do with childhood, certainly. But also to do with empty space, with solitude, and with things not being in quite the expected relationships with one another. Which is always at least a little disturbing.

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