I start fresh. I look at this picture as if the first time in seeing. Although difficult to do so, the Daughters of Edward Darley Boit has been pondered and subjected to voracious scrutiny and detailed psychoanalysis. Not infrequently this picture has been proclaimed the greatest produced by an American and, upon examination, hardly presents many reasons why one would think otherwise.
The awkwardness of the construction becomes for me one of the first things I notice. Maybe awkwardness is not the right word, perhaps “difficult” might apply. The walls and the rug are not parallel to the bottom of the picture, rising slightly from left to right. The corresponding shape at the right-hand side of the picture formed by the edges of the rug and the corner presents a complicated geometric shape. The picture contains a tremendous amount of negative space. Nonetheless, the girls are not dwarfed. Rather, they appear more isolated and distant to one another.
When I say that this picture is awkward or difficult, I mean that the mind of an artist to arrange the lines and forms in a construction in such a complicated yet balanced way defines the very definition of fine art. Give this some thought. A lesser artist would diminish this picture by not seeing the subtle needs of the figures in relation to space and lines. Just the angle of the rug! What thought process placed this form at exactly the right, though odd, angle?
The whole picture is this way. Move a figure, move a wall or move one of the subjects of this painting ever so slightly and the whole picture falls apart. The essence of sophistication, determining the difference between one work or another, falls into the understanding of the theoretical notions of what the artist means to say and the practical aspect of producing a pictorial representation.
As for the figures, the four sisters in this composition, one can not help but mention the isolation of the figures by space, between bright light and the obscure, between foreground and background. As is stated over and over by art historians, the inimitable layout, the juxtaposition of light and shadow produces a sense of something not quite right. However, I wonder how much of this ominous feeling is a product of today and not of the time of Sargent. In Sargent’s technological era, interior light was of a different quality. Lights contained none of the blues of fluorescents, the yellows of incandescents and certainly not the purity of LED lighting. Here we have no artificial light, just sunlight. With natural light, one gets natural shadows and reflected light. The emotional response to shadows in such a room of someone during this period must certainly differ to someone in contemporary times who would not find comfort in a room lighted entirely by one natural light source and with attendant deep shadows. I mean not to entirely diminish the effect of unease in this picture caused by the division of this picture between light and shadow, but to place the scene in proper context. The unusual structure of the picture in terms of a group portrait and its presentation as more of a historical place in time rather than an attempt to fastidiously capture the likenesses of each subject produces the sense of something not quite right more so than just the lighting. Admittedly, the tenebrism, the stark difference in light contributes to the effects in this picture; yet may appear more contributive to a modern feeling of unease to a modern viewer.
In most examinations of this work, one reads of the sisters’ names and background and futures. Some art historians go further with all sorts of Freudian analysis based upon the history of the family. One almost assumes that Sargent is some sort of genius who can presage the outcomes of the influences of his sitters. Sargent could not foretell the future. He did have a keen sense of the nature of his subjects and an incredible facility in expressing his perceptions pictorially. Unlike many of the Modernists, who many times require a lengthy spiel about their work in order to make it comprehensible, we can read Daughters of Edward Darley Boit without such knowledge.
What we do know rather quickly is that the little girl on the carpet catches the eye first. Even though she is not in the center of the picture, she sits in the forefront and anchors a point of a triangle formed by the sisters. Further emphasis comes from the framing effect of the rug whose bluish color repeats in the large vases and continues into the shadow by the vases on the mantle of the fireplace. (More on this later.) The little girl also seems to be the only figure with a sense of movement in the way she is holding the doll and the way she points her toes toward each other. This would lead one to conclude that this little girl’s treatment might be different than to those of the sisters. Perhaps she is doted on because of her younger age.
Next, our view bounces between the girl standing in the middle of the picture, behind the little girl and the sister to the left brightly lit by sunlight. This competition occurs due to the direct, nearly confrontational stare of the girl in the middle and the starkly lit sister whose slightly averted eyes deflect our attention. The girl in the middle, framed by two large blue vases and clearly emerging out of the shadows, gives this figure important emphasis. The sister leaning against the vase benefits in significance as the result of her closeness to the central figure. Also, all the sisters except one, the girl on the left, wear white and black. This tells me that the sisters in the foreground are different than those in the shadows, but the girl in the middle does not accept exclusion from activities and decisions, while the girl leaning against the vase seems resigned to the nature of things. At any rate, none of the girls seem particularly ebullient and portray a sense of something seriously lacking in their young lives. A conventional explanation of the positions of the girls tells of a metaphor about maturation from childhood to young adult, from the unquestioning innocence of youth to the murky, foreboding of the future.
One of the most engaging parts of Daughters of Edward Darley Boit derives from the use of color. As mentioned before, the rug, the vases and the vases on the mantle of the fireplace carry color from the foreground into the shadows of the background. This simple method of giving depth and “air” to a canvas strengthens the composition in contrast with the warmth of the predominant colors. The reds and browns surround the blues promoting distance and balance. Strike the color from this picture and the composition becomes much more flat, without atmospherical space.
Daughters of Edward Darley Boit in Grey Scale.
The two vases fascinate people. They are placed so perfectly and rendered so beautifully. Even so, they compete dramatically with the figures. Possibly Sargent was trying to portray the nature of the Boit family. Insistently peripatetic, the Boits were never in one place very long, and because of the wealth of the family, valued places and things a bit more than family life. Henry James wrote to a friend, “Poor Mrs. Boit she has as much business with daughters as she has with elephants…her elephants grow bigger and bigger all the while and she doesn’t; but only grows older and sadder and further away from her happy laughing irresponsible years.”
I much admire Daughters of Edward Darley Boit. One cannot overestimate the inventiveness and newness of this group portrait, nor can the expertise in rendering the composition be overstated. I know of only a couple of group portraits that rise to the level of this picture; that is, Madame Georges Charpentier and Her Children by Pierre-Auguste Renoir and The Bellelli Family by Edgar Degas. During our time, the unique double portraits by Hockney always come to mind. Even so, the exquisite detail which many art critics and historians resort to when it comes to Daughters of Edward Darley Boit reveals more about the state of fine art and scholarship in the later part of the twentieth and twenty-first century than any new information on the work itself.
Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, Oil on Canvas, David Hockney,1968.
Madame Georges Charpentier and Her Children, Oil on Canvas, Auguste Renoir, 1878.
The Bellelli Family, Oil on Canvas, Edgar Degas, 1858-67.