The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, by John Singer Sargent

October 30, 2019 at 5:59 pm (Art)

The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, 1882 (Click to enlarge)

His presentation of the girls seems calculated not to invite empathetic engagement, but rather to frustrate and deflect it. The children pose before us, the three youngest more respectfully than the eldest, awaiting judgment or dismissal. Ambiguity, mystery, and an undefined yet pervasive unease disrupt ready sentimental responses. One French critic wrote of the painting: “The portraits…have something about about them that is…cold and cruel. They disturb me.”


Currents of feeling, dislocated from the children, suffuse the scene. They rise, in part, from the jarring unexpectedness of Sargent’s compositional choices: the small size of the girls in relation to the lowering space; their scattered, asymmetrical placement; the strange dark void at the center disgorging shadows that lurk behind the screen and eddy about the two older girls; and the sharp-angled thrust of rug and screen and pinafores that instead of directing attention to the girls as often as not point away from them and even out of the frame. These forms provoke feelings of instability, disquiet, and unease. While nothing in the girls’ facial expressions or postures suggests that  they share these feelings, the emotions reside within them, heightening impressions of their vulnerability.

From Moved To Tears: Rethinking the Art of the Sentimental in the United States,
by Rebecca Bedell
Both this painting and the Japanese vases depicted in it were donated to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 1919 by the Boit daughters, in honor of their father.


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