John Singer Sargent
|The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit by John Singer Sargent, Oil on canvas 1882, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston|
The painting depicts four young girls in the family's Paris apartment. The painting is now prominently displayed in the Boston museum in-between the two tall blue-and-white Japanese vases depicted in the work. The vases, as well as the painting itself, were donated by the Boit family. The painting is a big draw, there always seems to be a small crowd gathered about (except in the image below).
The painting's unusual composition was noted at its earliest viewings, but the subject was taken simply as that of girls at play. Henry James, who should have known better, described the painting as representing a "happy play-world....of charming children." Only much later did viewers began to recognize the psychologically unnerving nature of the painting. I find it so odd that each generation wears cultural blinders for its own era.
The girls (Florence, Jane, Mary Louisa and Julia) appear to be at successive phases of childhood, retreating as they grow older into alienation and loss of innocence. Notice the placement of the two older girls, at the edge of a darkened entryway, perhaps symbolic of maturation into a disturbing isolated future. All of the girls seem uncomfortably stiff and doll like, even the youngest. In retrospect, Sargent was prophetic; none of the girls were to marry, and the two oldest later suffered emotional problems.
Sargent captures the beauty of this lovely privileged woman. Her direct gaze and informal pose make an impact on the viewer. Andrew Noel Agnew, a barrister who had inherited the baronetcy and estates of Lochnaw in Galloway, commissioned this painting of his young wife, Gertrude Vernon (1865-1932), in 1892. The painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1898 and made Sargent's reputation as a portrait painter. Portrait commissions poured in and Sargent enjoyed a big following in Edwardian society. The sculptor Rodin described him as 'the Van Dyck of our times'. It also launched Lady Agnew as a society beauty.By the time of his death Sargent was dismissed by the critics as an anachronism, a relic of the Gilded Age and long out of step with the artistic sentiments of post-World War I Europe. Any mention of Sargent somehow commits a writer, no matter how reluctant, to comment on the famous portrait of Madame X. Sargent probably hoped that the critics in Paris would be awed by his interpretation, but instead they seized the chance to mock the woman, her type, and the artist. The English art critic Roger Fry even denounced the painting as pornography. Lewis Mumford wrote, "Sargent remained to the end an illustrator, the most adroit appearance of workmanship, the most dashing eye for effect, cannot conceal the essential emptiness of Sargent's mind, or the contemptuous and cynical superficiality of a certain part of his execution."
responded by fleeing to London.
Part of Sargent's devaluation can be attributed to his expatriate life, which made him seem less American at a time when socially-conscious American art, as exemplified by the Ashcan School, was popular. Some suggest that the decline of Sargent's reputation was due, in part, to the rise of anti-Semitism, and an intolerance of celebrations of Jewish prosperity. Despite a long period of critical disfavor, Sargent's popularity has increased since the 1950s. In the 1960s, a revival of Victorian art and new scholarship directed at Sargent strengthened his reputation. In 1986, Andy Warhol commented that Sargent "made everybody look glamorous. Taller. Thinner. But they all have mood, every one of them has a different mood." Around that same time, critic Robert Hughes praised Sargent as "the unrivaled recorder of male power and female beauty in a day that, like ours, paid excessive court to both."
The work is set in an English garden at Farnham House in the Cotswolds, where Sargent spent the summer of 1885 after moving to England from Paris to escape the silliness caused by Potrait of Madame X. Sargent took inspiration from the lanterns that he saw hanging among trees and lilies while boating on the Thames. Sargent describes it in a letter: "I am trying to paint a charming thing I saw the other evening. Two little girls in a garden at twilight lighting paper lanterns among the flowers from rose-tree to rose-tree. I shall be a long time about it if I don't give up in despair". Sargent wanted to capture the exact level of light at dusk so he painted the picture en plein air - out of doors, in the Impressionist manner. Every day from September to November 1885, he painted in the very few minutes when the light was perfect, giving the picture an overall purple tint of evening. Sargent worked just after sunset for about 20 minutes to record the effect of the light as his little models held their Chinese lanterns. With the warm glow of the lanterns against the dusky purple of the summer twilight, he told Robert Louis Stevenson that he was seeking to capture "a most paradisiac sight [that] makes one rave with pleasure". The flowers in the garden died as summer turned to autumn turned, and were replaced with artificial flowers.Sargent was prepared for the second season of painting, this time at Broadway a village on the River Avon, just south of Stratford. In April, he had sent fifty Aurelian lily bulbs to his hosts in Broadway--twenty to be put in pots for him to use for his painting, and the rest for the garden. When he returned in the summer of 1886, he once again worked to capture the few minutes of light with the little models. Sargent's daily routine never varied--he painted landscapes creating a complete sketch, which the next day he would paint over. Art critic Edmund Gosse, also summering at Broadway, wrote "I often could have wept to see these brilliantly fresh and sparkling sketches ruthlessly sacrificed." Sargent finally finished at the end of October 1886. Then he cut down the rectangular canvas, removing approximately 2 feet from the left side, to leave an approximately square shape. Despite the fact that it took two summers to complete, the painting does not seem labored over-rather it appears as fresh as the girls and the flowers.
The work was entered in the Royal Academy summer exhibition in 1887, with some criticizing of the "Frenchified" style. However, there was also much praise and the President of the Royal Academy encouraged the Tate Gallery to buy the painting later that year. It was the first of Sargent's works to be acquired by a public museum. The painting remains part of the collection of the Tate Gallery.
The painting below is a delight for the eye, if not much more. It was p
The painting below is a delight for the eye, if not much more. It was painted in a villa near Florence. The villa is now a hotel.
Review of Palazzo Strozzi show: "American in Florence: Sargent and the American Impressionists"
Review of a Sargent show at the NY Met by the NY Times .