||Sargent, John Singer
This portrait depicts the four young daughters of Edward Darley Boit, in their family’s Paris apartment. Completed in 1882, the painting is now housed in the new Art of the Americas Wing of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, placed between the two tall blue-and-white Japanese vases depicted in the work, having been donated by the heirs of the Boit family.
Edward Boit, an “American cosmopolite” and a minor painter, was the son-in-law of John Perkins Cushing and a personal friend of the artist. His wife and the mother of his five children was Mary Louisa Cushing, known as “Isa”. Dressed in white pinafores, the children are arranged so that the youngest, 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. It is not certain whether the portrait was commissioned by Boit or painted at Sargent’s suggestion. Set in what is thought to be the foyer of Boit’s Paris apartment, its dark interior space is reminiscent of scenes Sargent had recently painted in Venice. The composition was unusual for a group portrait, both for the varying degrees of prominence given to the figures, since conventional group portraiture called for an arrangement in which the subjects were portrayed as equally important, and for the square shape of the canvas.
Art historians have identified similarities between the painting and Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas, which Sargent had previously copied. Both works share comparable geometric formats, with broad, deep spaces in their compositions. When first exhibited in Paris in 1882 and 1883, critics were struck by the oddness of the composition and the “wooden forms” of the figures. In 1887, Henry James described the painting as representing a “happy play-world ... of charming children”; his uncomplicated reading went largely unquestioned for nearly a century. Modern criticism has acknowledged the painting’s unsettling qualities, that it is a picture both beautifully painted and psychologically unnerving, in which the girls appear to be seen at successive phases of childhood, retreating into alienation and a loss of innocence as they grow older. The sense of independence among the girls has often given viewers the impression that they have interrupted the children in their play, as they glance up in response.
Gift of Mary Louisa Boit, Julia Overing Boit, Jane Hubbard Boit, and Florence D. Boit in memory of their father, Edward Darley Boit
Ruth and Carl J. Shapiro Gallery (Gallery 232)