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Museums, Art Galleries and Historical Sites

“The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit” by John Singer Sargent

"The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit" by John Singer Sargent

“The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit” by John Singer Sargent

“The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit” by John Singer Sargent depicts four young girls, the daughters of Edward Darley Boit, in their family’s Paris apartment. Dressed in white pinafores, the most youthful, four-year-old Julia, sits on the floor, eight-year-old Mary Louisa stands at left, and the two oldest, Jane, aged twelve, and Florence, fourteen, stand in the background, partially obscured by shadow.

The painting’s composition was unusual at the time for a group portrait, both for the varying degrees of prominence given to the figures and for the square shape of the canvas. A psychologically compelling painting, it is viewed as reflecting the ambiguities of adolescence. The older the girls are more hidden by the dark interior space than the younger girls. The youngest has her face fully exposed to the light, and the eldest is shown in a dimly lit profile.  The older girls appear to be retreating from full view with increasing age.

The most extraordinary aspect of this portrait is its composition. Sargent presents each of the girls quite separately and has situated the girls so that they either confront or avoid the light from a sizeable unseen window. It has been suggested that the large oriental blue-and-white vases are symbolic of the Boit parents. Sargent seems to have given the girls distinct personalities and relationships, making this painting a psychologically compelling portrait on the ambiguities of adolescence.

John Singer Sargent

John Singer Sargent (1856 – 1925) is considered one of the leading portrait painters and is known for his evocations of the luxury of his era. He created over 900 oil paintings and more than 2,000 watercolors, as well as many sketches and drawings. He also traveled extensively across Europe, the Middle East, and the United States. Many of John Singer Sargent portraits, which can be found in museums across the world, depict society’s leading lights and the opulence of their time.

Sargent was born in Florence to American parents and trained in Paris before moving to London, living most of his life in Europe. His “Portrait of Madame X” created a scandal, which led to Sargent’s departure for England, where he continued a successful career as a portrait artist. His commissioned works were consistent with the grand manner of portraiture, while his informal studies and landscape paintings displayed a familiarity with Impressionism.

In later life, Sargent expressed ambivalence about the restrictions of formal portrait work, and devoted much of his energy to mural painting and working en Plein air. Art historians generally ignored “society” artists such as Sargent until the late 20th century.

Two Girls with Parasols

  • Title:               The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit
  • Originally:       Portraits d’enfants
  • Artist:              John Singer Sargent
  • Year:               1882
  • Medium:         Oil on canvas
  • Dimensions:    221.9 × 222.5 cm (87.3 × 87.6 in)
  • Museum:        Museum of Fine Arts Boston

John Singer Sargent

Reflections

  • Is this picture both beautiful and psychologically unsettling?
  • The older girls are retreating from full view with increasing age.
  • Which is your favorite John Singer Sargent portrait?

Explore the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

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“You can’t do sketches enough. Sketch everything and keep your curiosity fresh.”
– John Singer Sargent

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Photo Credit: John Singer Sargent [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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