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.