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.

Some viewers have thought that by relegating the two older girls to the shadows, Sargent was uncannily anticipating their later lives. Both Florence and Jeanie seem to have had trouble making the transition to adulthood, and each eventually suffered a breakdown. In Florence’s case, the difficulty appears to have surfaced around the time she was to make her debut, when her uncle recorded in his journal that she was displaying ‘an affectation of indifference for all that is interesting to most young girls of her age’, and was rude to her mother. Isa Boit appears primarily in the record as a lively and gregarious hostess – ‘always social, always irresponsible, always expansive, always amused and amusing’, James wrote – and it’s tempting to speculate that Florence’s ‘sneering way’ had something to do with her resistance to the impending rituals that would define her future, especially those to do with courtship and marriage. Yet unlike Jeanie, who collapsed with what her uncle described as ‘womb troubles’ at the age of 18 and seems never to have fully recovered, Florence made an independent life for herself: a vigorous sportswoman, who became known as the ‘godmother’ of Boston golf, as well as a member of the Society of Arts and Crafts, she settled into a Boston marriage with a cousin who taught science at a local women’s college. But during the First World War she succumbed to ‘melancholy’ and grew ‘crazy’ enough (the uncle again) to be sent to an institution. (She died two years later.) Meanwhile, Jeanie tried one fashionable cure for hysteria after another, including a stint of water therapy recommended by Charcot. She appears to have been a determined pianist, but the family seems mostly to have regarded her music-making as another symptom of her illness.

None of the sisters ever married, and this has sometimes been associated in the public mind with their ‘craziness’, but there is no evidence that either of the younger ones suffered from mental troubles; as Hirshler is at pains to show, spinsterhood was hardly unusual among women of their time and class. ‘On Boston’s Chestnut Street alone’, she writes, a 1910 social directory recorded ‘more than a dozen homes … occupied by one or more women listed as “Miss”’; the same directory locates the ‘Misses Boit’ in neighbouring Brookline near several similar households. Not much is known of Isa, but Julia was a gifted watercolourist, whose work is reproduced in this book. Presumably she owed whatever informal training she acquired to her father; yet unlike Ned, who insisted that painting was an ‘arduous profession’ and intermittently succeeded in proving himself more than a gentleman and a dilettante, his daughter seems never to have aspired to professional status. For women, as Hirshler notes, ‘it was not expertise that necessarily divided an amateur from a professional, but money’; and Julia inherited enough not to think of art as a way of supporting herself. She did, however, have at least one public show, at a Boston gallery in 1929, with prices given on request (a local paper thought the work ‘well bred and inspiring’); and in 1948, at the age of 70, she supplied the illustrations for a book of fairy tales privately printed by a cousin. As Hirshler writes, one of those illustrations – a picture of a king as a small boy – ‘bears an uncanny resemblance to Julia’s own likeness’ in Sargent’s picture.

The inanimate objects in that picture also have a history. Hirshler says the room in which the girls pose was the ‘grande antichambre’ – the hall – of the Boits’ modern apartment in the eighth arrondissement of Paris; if it was really as unfurnished as it appears in Sargent’s painting, visitors must have found it an odd introduction to a household otherwise overflowing with possessions. According to Ned’s youngest brother, a move from Paris to Pau required 40 trunks and ‘about 30 boxes and bags, two or three birdcages, two carriages, several cases of silver, linen etc’. Among all this stuff, the giant vases appear to have had pride of place: six feet tall and elaborately decorated in blue on white, they testified to the modish taste for Eastern things and accompanied their owners on more than a dozen journeys across the Atlantic. Sargent toned down their surfaces for his painting, but Hirshler makes clear that the originals were not rare Japonaiserie but more garish modern imitations of classic designs made for the Western market. Their rims damaged from their travels, the vases are the only objects from the household to have survived and now flank their painted doubles in Boston. When they arrived at the museum in 1986, Hirshler reports,

they contained – among handfuls of the excelsior with which they had been so carefully packed – a cigar stub, a paper airplane, a pink ribbon, a tennis ball, sheets of geography lessons, a letter about the repeal of Prohibition, an Arrow shirt collar, an old doughnut, an admission card to a dance at the Eastern Yacht Club in Marblehead, Massachusetts, three badminton shuttlecocks, many coins and a feather.

Sargent called the painting Portraits d’enfants when he exhibited it in a Paris gallery in the winter of 1882 and used the title again when he sent it to the Salon as a last-minute substitute for some unfinished paintings later that spring. As Hirshler notes, the use of the plural, ‘portraits’, for a single work is unusual and may testify to a sense that, at the level of representation if not of form, there was something about the work that refused to cohere. By 1889, Sargent was using the more conventional Portrait of the Misses B. – a formula whose polite elision of the subjects’ identities became unnecessary when the women in question gave the painting to the Museum of Fine Arts in 1919. And by most accounts, including that of the still unfinished Sargent catalogue raisonné, the work remains classified as a portrait. What else, after all, should we call it?

Yet from its first appearance Sargent’s painting has disturbed generic expectations; and the power of the image remains hard to distinguish from the difficulty of classifying it. Presumably a patron who commissions a likeness is entitled to view the result as a portrait; but no record of such a commission survives here. It’s not certain that one existed: we know it was Sargent rather than his model Virginie Gautreau who initiated the painting of the succès de scandale Madame X, and it’s possible that, instead of ordering his daughters’ portraits, Ned Boit permitted them to serve as models. The previous year Sargent had completed a portrait of two children, one of whom left a vivid account of the pains she endured as a sitter; but no testimony either from the girls themselves or from another witness helps to clarify the origins of the Boit picture. Any preparatory sketches have disappeared, if they ever existed. Since the Boits ended up in possession of the painting, Hirshler assumes that they purchased it; but this too is undocumented.

In fact, as Hirshler notes, the painting ‘barely functions as a portrait’. Between the handling of light and shade and the disproportionate relation of figures to setting, only Julia is rendered with the clarity expected in such an image. Hirshler believes the painting ‘falls midway between portrait and genre scene’; and it is true that in the years leading up to its creation, the young artist seems to have experimented with both modes, sending an example of each to the Salon the previous spring. Yet The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit fits no more comfortably under the rubric of genre painting than it does under the other rubric. Genre paintings tend to depict people engaged in some form of activity – as with the dramatic painting of a Spanish dancer and her accompanists that Sargent had submitted to the Salon earlier that spring under the title El Jaleo. Even far quieter images – of a woman peeling apples, say, or a group playing cards – usually offer some implicit explanation of why the figures assume the positions they do. The girls in the Boit picture, by contrast, ‘do nothing’, as one early critic remarked; and with the partial exception of Julia, who could be argued to be playing with, rather than merely holding, her doll, nothing in the represented scene serves to account either for the girls’ individual postures or for their relations to one another.

Philippe Burty was a champion of Whistler and a sophisticated writer on contemporary art, but he could only respond to Sargent’s painting by conjuring with its destruction:

The portraits … have something about them that is false and insolent in the American style, cold and cruel. They disturb me. Four young girls in white aprons are scattered in a vague space where one can make out a very tall blue and white vase. Is it a hallway? The nursery? Each girl plays on her own. That’s admissible. But what is not acceptable is that the diffused light of this interior does not relate at all to the crude dry colours that define the clothes or flesh. The wall is yellowish in tone, and there, where it ends, there is an abrupt black hole … the one charming part is the young girl sitting on a rug, darling and radiant. One would like to cut out this morsel, and cut out the others too, who, each alone, are bold and striking; the big vase would sell for a lot to an enthusiast of blue and white.

For Burty, as for other viewers, it is not so much the individual figures that are disturbing as their arrangement in space. No one has identified the critic who dismissed the painting as ‘four corners and a void’, yet even sympathetic commentators continue to be haunted by the phrase.

As Hirshler observes, Sargent offers a remarkably unsentimental image of 19th-century childhood. Perhaps for that reason, some of his contemporaries managed to see another picture: one reviewer imagined that the artist had ‘surprised them at their games, at the foot of the big Japanese vases around which they frolic’, while another anonymous reviewer saw a ‘happy Eldorado of childhood’, with the small blue vases in the background ‘probably filled with jams’. Even Henry James briefly succumbed to a similar illusion, when he conjured up ‘the happy play-world of a family of charming children’ in an influential article on Sargent published five years after the painting was first exhibited. James also remarked that ‘two of the sisters stand hand in hand at the back’, though a close look at the admittedly equivocal brushwork suggests that here, too, James was sentimentalising. By the time of the Sargent piece James had known the Boits for more than 15 years, but if he was projecting his own memory of their daughters’ happiness onto the picture, little evidence survives in his letters, where ‘those white little maidens’ primarily figure a lack of vitality, both physical and mental. They are ‘not sufficiently exuberant’ to overcome a struggle with illness and too shy to comfort their father after their mother’s death; they are Boit’s ‘dumb daughters’, even his ‘crazy children’. The Penguin editors who chose the isolated figure of Mary Louisa for the cover of What Maisie Knew seem closer to the spirit of the painting.

Rather than sentimentalise Sargent’s image, 20th-century viewers were inclined to remark on its air of tension and unease – what Vernon Lee aptly termed the ‘crispation de nerfs’ in the painter’s work. In 1985, one art historian, David Lubin, turned the picture into an occasion for some psychosexual fantasising. Lubin also tried to answer the riddle Sargent had posed by deviating from a main source for the picture: Velázquez’s Las Meninas, one of ten works by Velázquez he copied on a visit to Madrid in 1879. Las Meninas’s spatial arrangement and its handling of individual figures influenced Sargent, as did the striking way several of those figures appear to engage with a presence outside the canvas. Velázquez implicitly identifies that presence with the royal couple, whose image is dimly reflected in the mirror at the back, but Sargent leaves the object of the girls’ gaze unspecified. He, too, includes a mirror, but apart from a vague reflection of a window or windows, its surface is blank. For Lubin, the absence signalled the modern father’s estrangement from the family that he nonetheless continued to dominate.

Hirshler quietly dismisses the idea that we should view these girls as exclusively the property of their father:

the explanation for Isa’s absence from the current title (given only in 1912, when the picture was lent to the museum) seems rather simple – when Ned remarried in 1897, another woman became Mrs Edward Boit. Even though she too had died by the time the portrait was first exhibited with the title The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, it was the second Mrs Boit, the most recent one and the mother of surviving sons, who would have been called to mind by the name ‘Mrs Edward Boit’. By leaving the painting’s title to bear only their father’s name, Ned’s daughters seem to have kept their mother very much in mind.

Hirshler prefers to think of them as Sargent’s daughters, because what survives of them is the artist’s creation. But attending exclusively to the painting’s human figures may be a more benign version of the impulse to cut them out of the picture; both moves threaten to cancel out its most haunting effects. Before the Boit daughters gave it to the Boston museum, Sargent’s painting was sometimes known by a title that seems to have been acquired partly by accident, when the person who wrote the caption for the illustration in James’s essay mistook his The Hall with the Four Children for The Hall of the Four Children – a label picked up by several writers who helped establish the artist’s reputation in the decades that followed. Neither title is Sargent’s; but both have the advantage of keeping our attention on the whole, and the latter calls particular attention to the mystery of the relationship between the painting’s human and inhuman subjects.

James wrote that Sargent had ‘done nothing more felicitous and interesting than this view of a rich, dim, rather generalised French interior (the perspective of a hall with a shining floor, where screens and tall Japanese vases shimmer and loom)’; and despite his allusion to a ‘happy play-world’, he was eloquent on the painter’s skill with the inanimate parts of the picture: ‘When was the pinafore ever painted with that power and made so poetic?’ he inquired, before observing that the sisters at the back appear ‘in the delightful, the almost equal, company of a pair of immensely tall emblazoned jars, which overtop them and seem also to partake of the life of the picture’. Rather than a portrait or genre scene we might do better to think of Sargent’s painting as a still life, if the formula were not taken to mean that some, if not all the once living objects of the artist’s attention must have been stilled into death before being painted.

The four girls in Sargent’s painting are still, but change is implicit in the picture. At some time in the future, the small child on the floor will be as tall as the young woman leaning against the vase. The form of that vase echoes the pinafores and the female shape generally, yet its height is unattainable by any of the picture’s living subjects, even as adults. Vases may not last for ever, but the long survival of these particular objects makes for an ironically apt comment on Sargent’s mysterious image. There’s a hint of the funeral urn in that blue and white porcelain.