Erica Hirshler’s Biography of a Masterpiece

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Erica Hirshler (26 minutes, 12 meg mp3)

Erica Hirshler and I are standing in many shades of awe in this conversation, in front of Boston’s favorite painting by Boston’s favorite painter. Hirshler’s compact little book, Sargent’s Daughters: The Biography of a Painting is a compendium of ways to look at a picture — at social and family history written in matador stabs of paint.

John Singer Sargent was just 26, an expatriate marvel in Paris, driven to sustain his meteoric trajectory in the Paris Salon of 1883 with this eccentric composition, 8 feet square, titled, “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit.” To the often astringent eye of Henry James at the time, young Sargent presented the “slightly ‘uncanny’ spectacle of a talent which on the very threshold of its career has nothing more to learn.”

The most famous and esteemed of American painters a century ago, Sargent’s reputation fell precipitously (except in Boston) after his death in 1925. In comparisons with Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins and J. M. Whistler and then the moderns, Sargent was fashionably slighted as soulless, superficial, even un-American — much as Henry James, too, was slashed for an “instinct for the capillaries,” for being “one of the nicest old ladies I ever met,” as William Faulkner once put it.

But time and your own naked eye have their way of righting these judgments. I was astonished not long ago to see Sargent and the Boit Daughters on the walls of the Metropolitan museum in New York, standing tall alongside the best of Manet and Velazquez in a 2003 show on “The French Taste for Spanish Painting.” And it’s common now to see both Sargent and James less as masterful scholars of the past, which they were, but more as proto moderns in psychology and technique. The contemporary abstractionist painter Robert Baart joins our conversation to detail Sargent’s bold magic with “juicy paint,” with an expressionistic brush that anticipates Willem de Kooning and Richard Diebenkorn.

The emotional readings of the four Boit sisters get juicier all the time: four girls “homeless in their own home,” Sister Wendy judges. Was Sargent imagining four versions of What Maisie Knew, Henry James’ child’s-eye reflections on a disastrous marriage and “the rites of passage from wonder to knowledge,” or perhaps What Maisie Would Find Out. Sargent presents, I think, four “stages” of girlhood, with the youngest, Julia, in the foreground with her doll, playing at a fifth stage, motherhood. Yet none of these girls married or bore a child. Not the least fascination in this painting is looking for John Singer Sargent’s measure of the Boit Daughters’ inner lives and destinies. Can not the careful reader of these four “portraits” find the one who, among four lonely spinsters, would suffer grave mental illness?

I’ve felt secret swoons and longings for these girls since I was 8 years old. Erica Hirshler in conversation gives us all permission to fall in love for all time with the painting.

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  • nother

    I see the burgeoning independence of femininity in the face of futility…just as I see here:

    I also notice that the vases are much bigger than the girls…I sense those vases taking precedence in this household…these ornaments so priceless are give license to say more than the adolescents in the room, I suspect.

    And the dresses of these prim and proper white girls all match a whiteness that bonds them in blandness. Ironically the head of this household could surely go on for hours about the vibrant colors of their rug, but the style of their offsping will most assuredly stay beneath the rug…emotions in this painting are kept as close to the vest as the motionless hands of the girls.

    Now that I’ve looked at the painting, I will listen to the interview and post later on. Thank you, Christopher Lydon, as always. Lots of Love. We especially need the arts as an antidote of beauty during this oppression of carnage.

  • This is my first experience with the painting (in some ways, it feels like listening to this show was my first experience with paintings). My immediate reaction upon seeing it was a desire to want to listen. It looks so quiet, far too quiet for a room with four girls of that age.

  • My Brother Kento:

    You remind me uncannily of John Updike’s observation on this painting: “The effect is of silence: silent vases… silent carpet… A great hushed world waits around these children to be tasted, explored, grown into… Sargent, catching his subjects where they have alighted like white butterflies, displays deep spaces about them, and permits them all the gravity their young femininity warrants… These young ladies are watching, not just the painter, but us, to see what we will do next, and whether what we do will be worthy of their responding. Like butterflies, they will elude us if we startle them.”

  • A wonderful show. It takes me back to a late 90’s show Chris did on Sargent, the show where I first got interested in his work. As a result of that show, I purchased a print of Sargent’s Lily Lily Rose painting, to hang in my then one-year old daughter’s bedroom. Her first/middle name is Lily Rose.

    Thinking back, it was also Chris who got me interested in Jazz, in the 90’s. And in the Transcendentalists. And so many other topics.


  • Jerry Ackerman

    Chris, it is a pleasure to know that at least a few people understand and wish to honor things Brahmin. “Daughters” is emblematic of a time so rich and now almost faded out. “Homeless in their own home” is a concept hard to accept today, even in an era still overpopulated with nannies, but it certainly was real for far too many scions of Proper Bostonians. In that vein, you may want to read Anne Wyman’s new memoir of her father, “Kipling’s Cat.” As her cousin aptly put it, after her mother died, Jeffries Wyman thought he could raise his kids by mail.

  • Shaman

    I enjoyed listening to this conversation. Sargent is one of my favorites and so little is really known about him.

    Though he had a great talent, much of Sargent’s techniques and methods were learned from his studying of Frans Hals, Velazquez and taking lessons from his spectacular teacher Carolus Duran. Sargent is a great reaffirmation of the traditional approach to painting while his individual virtuousity, freshness and elan are every modern artist’s dream.

  • Kate McShane

    I haven’t listened to this interview, yet.

    This has always been one of my favorite paintings. I’ve had specific and weighty ideas about their silence. It comes from working with many, many girls, and from being one. I doubt if Erica Hirschler considers my reason for their staring and silence, but I’m looking forward to hearing her voice.

  • Potter

    It’s a huge pot! Probably made in sections and luted together- by one strong potter on one strong wheel.

    This is a wonderful interior scene to focus on, especially this time of year, the history, story of the girls and psychological insights.

    The high resolution reproduction here is better than the one in my book but still it’s not like standing before the painting itself- 8 plus feet by 8 plus feet- which is a different experience altogether. My art history professor ( lucky me it was William Rubin so many years ago) speaking of Mark Rothko’s paintings, who awakened me to the phenomenon that 4 feet of yellow is a different experience, size matters. But you do need at least the reproduction to appreciate this conversation and to begin to feel the actual painting itself and to whet the appetite to see it or see it again. We really need to stand before the painting and give the time.

    My first response to the painting, and I get it even in reproduction, is sensual- to the lusciousness of the paint and to the strokes… as always with Sargent. Since we already have experienced what came after Sargent our modern sensibility about painting is therefore more liberated.

    I think I did see that show at the MFA so many years ago. But anyway I am going to detour to see this painting again in a couple of weeks- with new eyes.

    I have to mention that Sargent’s watercolors are masterful….I don’t know if there are any on view at the moment.