Maisie’s Sisters

Ruth Bernard Yeazell

  • Sargent’s Daughters: The Biography of a Painting by Erica Hirshler
    MFA, 262 pp, £23.95, October 2009, ISBN 978 0 87846 742 6

John Singer Sargent has often been accused of lacking a soul. Even Henry James, who helped introduce him to the London scene in the 1880s and continued to promote his work, worried that he suffered from a ‘sort of excess of cleverness’. The fact that Sargent catered to a transatlantic clientele of celebrities and nouveaux riches at the height of the Gilded Age only encouraged the imputations of superficiality. ‘Looking at his portraits’, Osbert Sitwell said, Sargent’s subjects ‘understood at last how rich they really were’. ‘Le chef de rayon de la peinture’ – the department store manager of painting – is how Degas characterised him.

John Singer Sargent, ‘The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit’ (1882)
John Singer Sargent, ‘The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit’ (1882)

It is hard to imagine that anyone looking at The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit would want to accuse its creator of shallowness. The facility for which Sargent would later become famous may have been evident in the speed with which he painted this picture (approximately seven feet square, it seems to have been completed in six weeks), but there is nothing facile or slick about the image itself, which is more likely to unsettle viewers than it is to flatter or dazzle them.

Erica Hirshler is a curator at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and has often watched visitors lingering in front of the painting; on occasion, she reports, they weep. She doesn’t explicitly say so but their interest in the subjects of the painting may have partly inspired her to write this fine ‘biography’ – an enterprise that she takes to include the life stories of those involved in its creation, as well as the history of the work itself. Drawing on a diary kept by the girls’ uncle, as well as letters from James and others, Hirshler seeks to reconstruct not just the origins of the image, but the context, both social and artistic, in which it was produced. What she uncovers depends on the accidents of history: unlike many of Sargent’s later subjects, the girls were not famous, and their subsequent lives weren’t the kind that leave abundant traces. Sargent endows them with an emotional weight the written evidence doesn’t sustain, but there is something haunting about this very discrepancy – as if he’s seen something that eludes us in the historical record.

Edward Darley Boit was a New England gentleman who trained as a lawyer, married an heiress, and decided in his late twenties to devote himself to art. His wife, Mary Louisa Cushing, known as ‘Isa’, had been born into a family whose wealth came from trade with China and whose lavish country estate on the outskirts of Boston would later give its name, Bellmont, to an entire suburb. Like others of their class and time, including their friends Henry James and Edith Wharton, the Boits travelled back and forth across the Atlantic and took up residence in France and Italy at various periods, as well as in Boston and Newport. Sometime in the late 1870s, Ned Boit, as he was always known, met Sargent in Paris, either through other expatriate Americans or because their art teachers were friends. The Boits had four daughters; they had buried one small son in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome and left behind another, their firstborn, in a Massachusetts institution for the feeble-minded. In Sargent’s painting, the eldest girl, Florence, who was 14, leans against an oversized vase with her hands clasped in front of her and her enigmatic profile turned towards the darkness; the figure beside her is Jane, or Jeanie, born two years later. The girl in the red dress to the left is eight-year-old Mary Louisa, named after her mother and also known as ‘Isa’. The child sitting on the floor with the rosy-cheeked doll between her legs is Julia, the youngest at four. In old age she remembered that she had christened the doll ‘Popau’ – the nickname of the right-wing politician and journalist Paul de Cassagnac, famous for his skills as a duellist.

A letter Julia, aged ten, wrote to her 11-year-old cousin in June 1889 provides a glimpse of the life of upper-class children in late 19th-century Paris: trips to the Opéra to see Romeo and Juliet, to the Châtelet for Around the World in 80 Days, and outings to the Hippodrome, the circus and the 1889 World’s Fair, where Julia took particular delight in a performance of ‘Buffalo Bill’s Wild West’. Julia’s illustrated programme for a ‘“Grand Concert” donné par Mlles Boit’ in 1891 suggests that they were also able to entertain themselves. But few such documents have survived. Hirshler has to fill out the picture by using the memoirs of Wharton, who was six years older than Florence and born into a similar milieu. So we learn, for example, that like Wharton’s, the Boits’ ‘little-girl life’ was probably ‘safe, guarded, monotonous’, and the girls ‘probably enjoyed’ going to the park, where their activities are evoked in language borrowed from Wharton’s account of running about the Pincio in Rome. Hirshler’s claim that Wharton felt ‘no remorse or resentment about her insulated life’ is a misreading of her autobiography; but whether the Boits shared Wharton’s imaginative restiveness remains unknowable.

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