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One of the most celebrated painters of his day, John Singer Sargent defines for many the style, optimism and opulence of turn-of-the-century America. Among his renowned portraits, "The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit" stands alongside "Madame X" and "Lady Agnew of Lochnaw" as one of Sargent's immortal images. This painting depicts four young sisters in the spacious foyer o One of the most celebrated painters of his day, John Singer Sargent defines for many the style, optimism and opulence of turn-of-the-century America. Among his renowned portraits, "The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit" stands alongside "Madame X" and "Lady Agnew of Lochnaw" as one of Sargent's immortal images. This painting depicts four young sisters in the spacious foyer of the family's Paris apartment, strangely dispersed across the murky tones and depths of the square canvas, as though unrelated to one another, unsettled and unsettling to the eye. "The Daughters" both affirms and defies convention, flouting the boundaries between portrait and genre scene, formal composition and quick sketch or snapshot. Unveiled at the Paris Salon of 1883, it predated by just two years the scandal of "Madame X" and was itself characterized by one critic as "four corners and a void"; but Henry James came closer to the mark when he described the painter as a "knock-down insolence of talent," for few of Sargent's works embody the epithet as well as "The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit." Drawing on numerous unpublished archival documents, scholar Erica E. Hirshler excavates all facets of this iconic canvas, discussing not only its significance as a work of art but also the figures and events involved in its making, its importance for Sargent's career, its place in the tradition of artistic patronage and the myriad factors that have contributed to its lasting popularity and relevance. The result is an aesthetic, philosophical and personal tour de force that will change the way you look at Sargent's work, and that both illuminates an iconic painting and reaffirms its pungent magnetism.


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One of the most celebrated painters of his day, John Singer Sargent defines for many the style, optimism and opulence of turn-of-the-century America. Among his renowned portraits, "The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit" stands alongside "Madame X" and "Lady Agnew of Lochnaw" as one of Sargent's immortal images. This painting depicts four young sisters in the spacious foyer o One of the most celebrated painters of his day, John Singer Sargent defines for many the style, optimism and opulence of turn-of-the-century America. Among his renowned portraits, "The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit" stands alongside "Madame X" and "Lady Agnew of Lochnaw" as one of Sargent's immortal images. This painting depicts four young sisters in the spacious foyer of the family's Paris apartment, strangely dispersed across the murky tones and depths of the square canvas, as though unrelated to one another, unsettled and unsettling to the eye. "The Daughters" both affirms and defies convention, flouting the boundaries between portrait and genre scene, formal composition and quick sketch or snapshot. Unveiled at the Paris Salon of 1883, it predated by just two years the scandal of "Madame X" and was itself characterized by one critic as "four corners and a void"; but Henry James came closer to the mark when he described the painter as a "knock-down insolence of talent," for few of Sargent's works embody the epithet as well as "The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit." Drawing on numerous unpublished archival documents, scholar Erica E. Hirshler excavates all facets of this iconic canvas, discussing not only its significance as a work of art but also the figures and events involved in its making, its importance for Sargent's career, its place in the tradition of artistic patronage and the myriad factors that have contributed to its lasting popularity and relevance. The result is an aesthetic, philosophical and personal tour de force that will change the way you look at Sargent's work, and that both illuminates an iconic painting and reaffirms its pungent magnetism.

30 review for Sargent's Daughters: The Biography of a Painting

  1. 4 out of 5

    Kalliope

    I am a great enthusiast of biographies of paintings. They have a centrifugal force, spiralling out onto many fields from a centre of origin. The one canvas will take you to the artist’s world, to the lives of the sitters, to the world depicted. And the painting will remain with you. And The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit , painted in 1882 by John Singer Sargent (1856- 1924) at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, is one painting to keep in one’s mind. What prompted my reading of this biography i I am a great enthusiast of biographies of paintings. They have a centrifugal force, spiralling out onto many fields from a centre of origin. The one canvas will take you to the artist’s world, to the lives of the sitters, to the world depicted. And the painting will remain with you. And The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit , painted in 1882 by John Singer Sargent (1856- 1924) at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, is one painting to keep in one’s mind. What prompted my reading of this biography is the Lecture offered recently by Erica Hirshler in the Thyssen-Bornemisza MuseumAmerican Impressionism. I had been lucky to visit a similar exhibition at the NY Metropolitan Museum in 2007 on Americans In Paris 1860 - 1900. Hirshler is also a co-author of that catalogue Americans in Paris 1860-1900, which thanks to a fortunate impulse is now sitting in my shelves. Since Hirshler provides us with a lengthy quote from Henry James’ description of the painting, I can only stand by and let James talk: The artist has done nothing more felicitous and interesting than this view of a rich, dim, rather generalized French interior (the perspective of a hall with a shining floor, where screens and tall Japanese vases shimmer and loom)... The treatment is eminently unconventional, and there is none of the usual symmetrical balancing of the figures in the foreground. The place is regarded as a whole; it is a scene, a comprehensive impression; yet none the less do the little figures in their white pinafores (when was the pinafore ever painted with that power and made so poetic?) detach themselves, and live with a personal life.. a pair of immensely tall emblazoned jar .. seem also to partake of the life of the picture; the splendid porcelain and the aprons of the children shine together, and a mirror in the brown depth behind them catches the light... The naturalness of the composition, the loveliness of the complete effect, the light, free security of the execution, the sense it gives us as of assimilated secrets and instinct and knowledge playing together. To spin out of this particular Sargent cannot have been an easy task for Hirshler, since very little is actually known about it in comparison with other of Sargent’s paintings, On the Boits there is no documentation left to us – no contract, no letters, no diaries, no photos, no descriptions or recollections from the owners and sitters, no sketches, no drawings. So, nothing can give us an indication of the most intriguing aspect, its genesis: who had the idea of going ahead with it? was it a commission and paid for, or an offering? And in particular who thought of the extraordinary composition? Other paintings, such as such as El Jaleo, or En route pour la pacha, have left us more indication of their births. But we do know that it was painted very fast, in about one and a half months, which shows in the almost complete absence of pentimentos and in the thinner paint in parts of the background. We also know that it stayed with the family until later on when the daughters donated it to the Boston Fine Arts Museum in memory of their father. With that scarcity of specific documentation what Hirshler does is embark on an excruciating and painstaking research on anything that has to do with the painting. She tracks the Boits-- the parents and individually the four girls--, their ancestors, their finances, their frequent travels, and their circles on both sides of the Atlantic at a time when it was cheaper to live in Paris than in Boston. Of course this is the world of the peripatetic Henry James and Edith Wharton, to mention just two of the considerable crowd of Americans living in Europe. James and Wharton actually met at a dinner at the Boits. We learn that Boit was also a painter and friends with Sargent so that they even organized a joint exhibition in 1912 in Boston, when both still stood on a not too different art podium. Sometimes I felt there was too much detail in Hirshler’s account, as in for example her tracing of the manufacturing site of the large Japanese vases, which surprisingly, have not been lost. But she is very good in connecting the rich visual sources for Sargent’s conception with the most famous and often cited of Las Meninas, which Sargent copied during a visit to El Prado. Even the literal translation of Velázquez’s work as 'Maids in Waiting' acquires an additional figurative meaning with the Boit girls. Apart from an art historical genealogy, Hirshler also places this painting as the culmination Sargent’s series of Venetian interiors, about eight of them, executed during the early 1880s and in which Sargent seemed to be digesting not only Venetian settings but also some of Degas way of framing the composition. This read provided me with yet another visit to the art and cultural scene in Paris end of the 19C, area that does not seem to ever satiate me. This time it offered a closer look at the world of the art dealers and art schools --with Carolus-Duran and George Petit-- and without omitting the awkward relationship of Sargent to the French Impressionists. Degas acknowledged Sargent’s facility with the brush but thought that he was no artist; while Monet allowed him to paint next to him, and to portray him painting, in Giverny. In the actual analysis of the painting, by tracing the history of its criticism, Hirshler shows how evaluations sometimes tell us more about the subject than the object described. What stands out though, in the way this painting has been received through time, is its perplexing ambiguity. Could it really be categorized as a portrait when the faces of the two eldest daughters can barely be seen? Or should we look at it as a ‘genre’ painting. Towards the end her book, Hirshler provides us with a few chapters she has titled Afterlives: of the Boit couple, tracing their later somewhat less happy life; of the daughters, none of whom married and a couple of whom had health problems; but most interesting for me was the account of Sargent’s fame as it grew and demised in subsequent decades until revived in the later part of the 20C. Hirshler then has achieved that at least for me, this painting will have a special place in my appreciation of Sargent’s work. It already captivated me during the Met exhibit. Now that I know its story, it has become so much more personal and memorable. ----------- This edition does not provide illustrations of the many paintings mentioned, apart from the one in the title. I tried to keep track of them in my updates.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Lori

    I have long loved this painting. When I lived in Boston I would often walk to the MFA and spend time with it, and had a print of it over the mantle at home. This book is exactly what is promised, a biography of the painting. It encompasses the lives of the Boit family members; tells the story of what happened to each of the girls and their parents;, gives us context of where Sargent was developmentally and socially before and when he painted it; his relationship with the family; and provides rev I have long loved this painting. When I lived in Boston I would often walk to the MFA and spend time with it, and had a print of it over the mantle at home. This book is exactly what is promised, a biography of the painting. It encompasses the lives of the Boit family members; tells the story of what happened to each of the girls and their parents;, gives us context of where Sargent was developmentally and socially before and when he painted it; his relationship with the family; and provides reviews of, and evolving thoughts about, the painting. Hirshler's book is fascinating. It is as detailed as details are available. And it's also the tale of wealthy Americans involved with inner circles of the expat crowd in the late 1800s, including Henry James, as they lived in Paris and Tuscany, Boston, Brookline and Newport. It is a biography of the painting that is worthy of the painting, and I am very pleased with it.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Lorna

    Sargent's Daughters: The Biography of a Painting by Erica Hirshler was a beautiful book about one of the most acclaimed and recognized paintings by Frank Singer Sargent, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, now on permanent display at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts. It should be noted that the author, Erica Hirshler, is the Senior Curator of Paintings from the Americas at the Museum of Fine Arts. This renowned museum, as well as the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, ar Sargent's Daughters: The Biography of a Painting by Erica Hirshler was a beautiful book about one of the most acclaimed and recognized paintings by Frank Singer Sargent, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, now on permanent display at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts. It should be noted that the author, Erica Hirshler, is the Senior Curator of Paintings from the Americas at the Museum of Fine Arts. This renowned museum, as well as the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, are on my bucket list when I am able to travel to Boston. This book explored the life of John Singer Sargent and his time spent in Paris and Italy, as well as his friendships with other expatriates living abroad at the turn of the century, particularly Henry James as well as Mr. and Mrs. Edward Darley Boit. This is also a biography of the many paintings of Frank Singer Sargent, particularly the stunning portrait of the four daughters of the Boits that has captivated all of us for over a hundred years. Clearly, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit stands along with his immortal works, Madame X and Lady Agnew of Lochnaw. The beautiful color plates of the paintings explored are an integral part of this lovely little book. Sargent used the very authenticity of the large porcelain pots to create a sense of fantasy. He knew better than to depict every detail of these elaborately decorated vessels. Instead, he subdued their color, using a grayer blue than the rich dark cobalt of the originals, and abbreviated their motifs, only hinting at the birds and flowers that ornament every inch of their surfaces. Sargent was aware that if he rendered all of their decoration, the vases would take too prominent a role in his composition. By toning them back, he made them recede and allow the girls to come forward. Nevertheless, certain details--one bird in flight, the stylized rocks--can be identified in both ceramic and paint, proving that Sargent used the actual vases as models, not his imagination." "Relics are by definition old, carefully preserved, vested with power. All these things are true of Sargent's painting. But the mystical potency of this canvas is not restricted to followers of one set of beliefs or another. The portrait has survived the analysis of art historians who believe in formalism as well as those who believe in Marxist theory, social context, psychoanalysis, and deconstruction. Viewers find the painting memorable and remarkable whether or not they have a background in art, in history, or in psychology; it speaks to them directly, even if they do not have sisters or daughters." "Sargent's daughters resonate across the borders of time and nationality; they ignore the boundaries between youth and old age; they take us both outside and inside our own selves. . . . the girls in this magical, memorable picture still haunt our imagination."

  4. 4 out of 5

    Louise

    The painting was new and different when first shown at the Paris Salon of 1883 under the name “Portraits of Children”. It defied the norm in that the girls were not formally dressed or sweetly posed as was the period’s norm for childhood portraits. Reviews were mixed. Most critics responded based on their acceptance (or rejection) of impressionism as a new style of painting and/or of Americans who seemed too visible in the established Parisian world of art. Today, Sargent is considered the leadi The painting was new and different when first shown at the Paris Salon of 1883 under the name “Portraits of Children”. It defied the norm in that the girls were not formally dressed or sweetly posed as was the period’s norm for childhood portraits. Reviews were mixed. Most critics responded based on their acceptance (or rejection) of impressionism as a new style of painting and/or of Americans who seemed too visible in the established Parisian world of art. Today, Sargent is considered the leading portrait painter of his generation and this painting to be one of his masterpieces. Author, Erica Hirshler, had little to work with since not much is known about the conception of the painting or the lives of the girls pictured. She begins with the character of the Bois family, their wealth, their itinerant lifestyle and the birth and loss of their children. She describes Sargent and the art world that he and Edward Bois faced on two continents. There is discussion of the setting which is clearly their home and the Japanese vases that have crossed the Atlantic several times with the family. You learn about the painting and its reception. The end, which tells of the later lives of the girls and modern interpretations of the painting, was the highlight for me. Sargent, known for bringing out the essence of his subjects, was on to something. That “something”, whatever it is, is the allure of the painting. The girls stand apart and alone. There is the suggestion that they have been interrupted while playing, but only one has a toy. The atmosphere is stark, but its opulence is suggested by the size of this hallway or foyer, the seemingly valuable vases and the immaculate “play” clothing of the girls, two of which are getting too old for pinafores. The painting’s title does not acknowledge their mother (deceased at the time of its final naming). It is hard to define the expressions of these girls, but the three who acknowledge the viewer seem to be either uncertain about him/her. Hirshler shows various schools of thought on these girls, their expressions and their later lives. Quotes embedded in the text and in their own indented paragraphs account for, perhaps, ¼ of the book. There are quotes are from Edward Boit, himelf; Boit’s brother, Bob; Sargent’s friend Henry James; a host of critics and writers of the day such as Edith Wharton. They describe the luxurious life of Americans abroad, the Boit family and the opinions of the art world. There are lots of visuals. Black and white photos of art work, people appear with the related text. There are two sections of color plates. One section of color plates is devoted to this painting with several plates showing detail. This book would have worked well in a larger size (coffee table) volume. The index worked for everything I checked. The Notes confirm the reliance on primary sources. It is hard to tell if the narrative is dry due to the lives of the subjects or the author's distance from them. There was admittedly little to work with, and what she found was patchy, but Erica Hirshler has provided some insight into this landmark painting.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Jill Meyer

    Erica Hirshler has written a masterful biography of a painting, its painter, and its subjects. The painter was John Singer Sargent, the painting was "The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit", and the subjects were the four daughters of amateur artist and American ex-pat, Edward "Ned" Boit and his wife, Isa. The Boits were from a long line of Boston Brahmans of independent means. They left the United States for the culture of Europe, shortly after their marriage and birth of their first child, a son. Erica Hirshler has written a masterful biography of a painting, its painter, and its subjects. The painter was John Singer Sargent, the painting was "The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit", and the subjects were the four daughters of amateur artist and American ex-pat, Edward "Ned" Boit and his wife, Isa. The Boits were from a long line of Boston Brahmans of independent means. They left the United States for the culture of Europe, shortly after their marriage and birth of their first child, a son. The son was later placed in a sanitarium after losing his mind in the US. One other son, who died early, and four daughters followed. The four girls all reached adulthood, but never married. (Boit had two more sons when he remarried a second time following his first wife's death). Ned Boit and his family drifted from Paris to Rome and other towns in France, England, Switzerland, and Italy in the thirty or so years they lived abroad. During that time, Ned Boit studied painting and displayed his work, landscapes, in various exhibitions and he achieved some recognition as a fine artist. He was also a patron of other artists, the best known was John Singer Sargent. Sargent, also an American by birth, met up with the Boit family in Paris and was asked to paint a portrait of the four daughters, who ranged in age from about 15 to seven. Because of his friendship with the girls' parents, Sargent felt free not to paint a conventional portrait of the girls. What he did paint was a large portrait of the four girls, one seen only from one side, two also shown in somewhat shaded style, and the fourth, shown full on. The painting, done in 1882, created a sensation when it was displayed in a Paris exhibition and has certainly generated attention ever since. It has been in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts for the past 100 or so years, along with the two huge Chinese vases, depicted with the girls. John Singer Sargent is one of my favorite painters. His portraits are often compared to those painted by Velasquez, particularly Valesquez's paintings of the Spanish royal family in the mid-1600's. Whether Sargent, who painted 250 years after Velasquez, copied his style of subject placement, or merely was influenced by it, we'll never know. Sargent went on to paint more society portraits in France, England, and the US. He painted individual portraits of Ned Boit and Isa Boit. His paintings have gone in and out of style since his death in 1925. Currently, they're back in style and Hirshler's book helps explain why. If the reader is interested in learning more about John Singer Sargent, Deborah Davis wrote an excellent book, "Strapless, John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X", which was published in 2003. A fictional account of "Madame X", by Gioia Diliberto, was published in 2004. But if the reader learns about what happened to the painting and the painter, little is known about the Boit family after Ned Boit died in 1915. None of the four girls married - Hirshler wonders if perhaps bouncing back and forth between the US and Europe may have diminished their matrimonial prospects - and all lived fairly long lives in the US. Two were very good artists, themselves, but all four passed into history without leaving much of a record other than their portrayal in a very famous work of art. Erica Hirshler is a good writer. Scholarly, yet lively. I recommend her book as a "picture beyond the portrait".

  6. 5 out of 5

    Gerald

    [Cross posted from my review on LASplash.com "Sargent's Daughters: The One Percent of Yesteryear"] Nonfiction books on art history by scholars tend to be dry, written to impress a rarified peer group and too often arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Not so, this one. While Sargent’s Daughters: The Biography of a Painting is hardly a Victorian bodice-ripper, it has its intrigues and its fascinations. Author Erica E. Hirshler is Croll Senior Curator of Paintings, Art of th [Cross posted from my review on LASplash.com "Sargent's Daughters: The One Percent of Yesteryear"] Nonfiction books on art history by scholars tend to be dry, written to impress a rarified peer group and too often arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Not so, this one. While Sargent’s Daughters: The Biography of a Painting is hardly a Victorian bodice-ripper, it has its intrigues and its fascinations. Author Erica E. Hirshler is Croll Senior Curator of Paintings, Art of the Americas, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Not coincidentally, this painting by John Singer Sargent is one of MFA’s most popular exhibits. So one might say it’s Hirshler’s job to be the foremost authority in the world about it, and with this book she’s taken the task seriously. At first glance, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit is remarkable in a number of ways. It shows four girls in an elegant drawing room – three of them standing and a toddler seated, cradling her doll. To today’s museum visitor, the poses might seem ordinary. Their expressions and body language are candid, as if they were caught by surprise in a snapshot. Except, in 1882 when this was painted, the snapshot hardly existed as a photographic technique, and certainly not for formal family portraits. Fine painters of Sargent’s era prided themselves on being able to render imagery photographers could only covet – including vibrant colors, accurate reproduction of sumptuous fabrics, and even meticulous draftsmanship such that the species of flowers in a vase could not be questioned. Highly paid portraitists – and Sargent was one of the most renowned – were skilled at not only finding the most attractive couture and poses for their wealthy subjects but also making them look prettier than they were. As well, Sargent’s composition of the scene is odd, especially for the aesthetics of his time. The girls’ demeanor looks all the more natural because their placement in the room seems offhand and happenstance. In fact, there is more empty space than subject matter, prompting one critic of the time to describe the painting as “four corners and a void.” So the viewer finds innocence surrounded by emptiness. Hmmmm. As a personality, Sargent himself was somewhat opaque. Although viewers and patrons claimed to see subtleties of character and emotion in his paintings, he professed to no special insight. He regarded himself as a master craftsman and famously said he had no ability to see into the human soul. That is, he could only paint what he saw. In fact, art critic John Charles Van Dyke insisted Sargent was fanatical about realism. When the artist needed a marble column for a painting, he had a carpenter build one in his studio. Later, his jealous peers mocked him, teasing that he’d make an incredibly accurate picture of a wooden post painted white. The most personal details Hirshler gives us about Sargent have to do with some of his experiences dealing with children as subjects. After sessions, he laughed, joked, and played games with some of them – exhibiting the childlike side of a man who no doubt presented a straight-laced persona to the adult world. But at least one of his young sitters complained of long hours enduring the tedium of his painstaking work, leaving her frustrated and angry – although she apparently continued to admire him. You won’t come away from this book feeling you know Sargent much better. Apparently his contemporaries felt the same way. Never known as a carouser or a drinker, as were many of his colleagues, Sargent was a perfectionist workaholic. The fascination in Hirshler’s historical account is the culture, milieu, and personal drama of the Boit family. Wealthy Bostonians whose inheritance came from the shipping industry, the Boits were friends of the artist, who by this time was comfortable among aristocrats on both sides of the Atlantic. As Sargent did, the Boits moved their entire household from time to time from one cultured city to another, between New England and glamorous addresses in Europe. Although Mrs. Boit’s health was a factor, it seems decisions to move had less to do with necessity than a desire for change of scenery. The father was an accomplished watercolorist with serious professional intentions. Although he exhibited and was discussed among the cognoscenti, he never won much of a reputation. It’s not clear that he tried all that seriously. Edward probably regarded himself as an exceptionally skilled hobbyist rather than a mediocre professional. I first saw The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit not long ago on a business trip to Boston. I toured the MFA with some friends, who are artists in their own right. They were eager to show me the painting. They also made sure we stopped in the bookstore to grab a copy of Sargent’s Daughters. The museum has the painting on a wall by itself, flanked by the actual Oriental vases from the scene. Notably, Sargent did not render the bird pattern of the ceramics in full detail. Somehow he understood – restraining his realist inclinations – that too much artifice would detract from his subjects. Similarly, rather than take painstaking care with the fabrics of the girls’ dresses, he sketched them in hasty brushstrokes. This masterful but only suggestive technique was typical of Impressionist painting but was frowned upon by Sargent’s traditionalist peers. So, considering its departure from classical technique as well as its innovative composition, this painting is more forward-looking, more revolutionary, than perhaps any other work Sargent produced. It’s almost as if, this time, he decided to paint one just for himself. Hirshler traces the fates not only of the parents but also of each daughter, through the years. We get the same ominous sensation that lingers from the descriptions of aristocratic life in novels of Henry James and Edith Wharton. With immense wealth came sobering responsibility and privilege – but not necessarily any happiness. These days, we fret about unfairness, about the overweening influence of the One Percent. But, as these stories from yesteryear remind us, you can’t take it with you. J. P. Morgan founded a bank that these days doesn’t even bother to use his name in its branding. Gerald Everett Jones is the author of the recent historical novel Bonfire of the Vanderbilts and host of GetPublished! Radio.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Emma

    I never thought a book about a painting would be so engaging, but this book is awesome! I should have figured since it is about my second favorite painting (and has a little section about my favorite one). I loved learning all about John Singer Sargent and about the girls in the painting. It is definitely worth reading for those who love this painting.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Dana M

    Alright, MFA lovers: do you ever walk past John Singer Sargent’s painting of the four sisters in their Parisian apartment and feel like you just 👏 can’t 👏 stop 👏 staring👏? The painting is called “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit” and I’ve loved this painting since I was old enough to wander the MFA on my own. My favorite pieces of this book give a detailed history of these sisters’ lives over the next 40-60 years (after the painting was commissioned). None of them got married (which was relat Alright, MFA lovers: do you ever walk past John Singer Sargent’s painting of the four sisters in their Parisian apartment and feel like you just 👏 can’t 👏 stop 👏 staring👏? The painting is called “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit” and I’ve loved this painting since I was old enough to wander the MFA on my own. My favorite pieces of this book give a detailed history of these sisters’ lives over the next 40-60 years (after the painting was commissioned). None of them got married (which was relatively rare for American women in the 1880s), and they split their time between Boston and Paris doing all sorts of cool projects / athletics/ crafts / arts/ etc. This was so good. Parts are dense with art analysis etc, which I tended to skim (I read this primarily for historical context and to better understand Boston’s Boit family). I wish I could have met all four of these cool women!

  9. 4 out of 5

    Kate

    What a delicious read for any johnsingersargentophile-- and indeed for any artlover. I don't think I've ever read another such "biography of a painting," which tells about the people and circumstances surrounding its creation, its subsequent travels through exhibits and galleries-- and then the "what happened next" in the lives of its subjects. Like nearly everyone who's fallen in love with the enigmatic daughters of Edward Darley Boit, I always had a sense that I understood them in an especiall What a delicious read for any johnsingersargentophile-- and indeed for any artlover. I don't think I've ever read another such "biography of a painting," which tells about the people and circumstances surrounding its creation, its subsequent travels through exhibits and galleries-- and then the "what happened next" in the lives of its subjects. Like nearly everyone who's fallen in love with the enigmatic daughters of Edward Darley Boit, I always had a sense that I understood them in an especially intuitive way. This book pointed me toward some of the artistic challenges that Sargent took on with this painting, and to a wide variety of other intuitive responses quite different from mine (but equally firmly believed.) The Boit family's artistic expatriate life and the daughters' adult lives fed my biographical cravings.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Rachel

    I have always loved Sargent's paintings, especially the Daughters of Edward Boit, so I was a bit fearful that the book would take away from the work itself. Instead I was pleasantly surprised by the backstory of the family and the artist, the many social connections among artists of the day, and the glimpse back in time at Paris, Boston, and Newport. In fact, I found myself questioning how I ever ended up in Asian art when the American impressionists were so much closer to home. Ah... maybe in m I have always loved Sargent's paintings, especially the Daughters of Edward Boit, so I was a bit fearful that the book would take away from the work itself. Instead I was pleasantly surprised by the backstory of the family and the artist, the many social connections among artists of the day, and the glimpse back in time at Paris, Boston, and Newport. In fact, I found myself questioning how I ever ended up in Asian art when the American impressionists were so much closer to home. Ah... maybe in my next life...

  11. 5 out of 5

    Marcia

    I was disappointed in this book, thinking it was a biography of the Boit family. The first half, rather dull, discussed John Singer Sargeant, his paintings and those of his contemporaries. The first half read like a text book; the second half finally discussed the Boit family and as much information as is known about the four girls in the portrait as well as the history of the location of the portrait (of which there were many).

  12. 4 out of 5

    Karen

    The subject of this book is one of my favorite paintings, and having just re-visited it at the Museum of Fine Arts, I thought it would be a good time to learn more about it. I liked the way the book is structured and the evenhanded way the author presents the varying interpretations of, and reactions to, this work of art. The chapter on the grown-up lives of the Boit daughters was particularly interesting.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Jesse Richards

    Interesting, and a lot of great stuff in here, but there's a middle part that trudges through too much detailed history of the Boit family. When this book is a "Biography of a painting", as it claims, it's good; when it's a biography of the Boits, not as much. Note: perhaps my favorite thing I learned was that Julia (the youngest daughter) grew up to be a talented painter herself. Interesting, and a lot of great stuff in here, but there's a middle part that trudges through too much detailed history of the Boit family. When this book is a "Biography of a painting", as it claims, it's good; when it's a biography of the Boits, not as much. Note: perhaps my favorite thing I learned was that Julia (the youngest daughter) grew up to be a talented painter herself.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Alarie

    If only the book had followed the title and focused primarily on painter John Singer Sargent. The author tells us about the painting of Sargent’s important canvas owned by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (shown on the book jacket). Like Sargent, Boit was an expat painter living in Paris in the 1880s, where he became friends with Sargent and with the famed novelist Henry James. We are then swept into the full-life stories of all the Boits, a glimpse into the li If only the book had followed the title and focused primarily on painter John Singer Sargent. The author tells us about the painting of Sargent’s important canvas owned by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (shown on the book jacket). Like Sargent, Boit was an expat painter living in Paris in the 1880s, where he became friends with Sargent and with the famed novelist Henry James. We are then swept into the full-life stories of all the Boits, a glimpse into the lifestyle of the wealthy. Unfortunately, the parts about Sargent and his art are by far the most interesting parts of the book. It turns out that Boit, a fairly lackluster watercolorist in my eyes, got much better in his later years. When I Googled his art, I found paintings I liked a great deal, but those weren’t the ones Hirshler included. However, there are a good many interesting reproductions and photos in this edition. I particularly liked a side-by-side comparison between a photo of one of the six-foot oriental vases used in the painting and a detail from the painting. We see how Sargent caught the vase’s essence in a realistic style yet left out much of the detail so the vase wouldn’t be the focal point.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Mark Abramson

    Learned a lot from this well written about Sargent, the Boit family, and the painting of the 4 daughters. The authors did a nice job of teasing out details from limited available sources. One quibble was that many of Sargent’s other art pieces and the works of other artists are mentioned in the book, but the only painting provided in an appendix is the subject painting of the Boit daughters. I found myself reading with my iPad and googling artworks as they came up - doing the work the writer sho Learned a lot from this well written about Sargent, the Boit family, and the painting of the 4 daughters. The authors did a nice job of teasing out details from limited available sources. One quibble was that many of Sargent’s other art pieces and the works of other artists are mentioned in the book, but the only painting provided in an appendix is the subject painting of the Boit daughters. I found myself reading with my iPad and googling artworks as they came up - doing the work the writer should have done for us.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Sue

    Always admired this painting at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Read this for an Art book club. Was interesting to learn about the famous ex-pat painter John singer Sargent and the young Boit sisters he'd painted in that iconic portrait. However, lost steam after my initial thrill and trudged through the remainder. Always admired this painting at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Read this for an Art book club. Was interesting to learn about the famous ex-pat painter John singer Sargent and the young Boit sisters he'd painted in that iconic portrait. However, lost steam after my initial thrill and trudged through the remainder.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Susan Raines

    3.5 stars, actually. An interesting read, even though (as the author acknowledges) a lack of documentation about the Boit family and the daughters in particular means there's a good bit of surmising at times based on other, unrelated sources. 3.5 stars, actually. An interesting read, even though (as the author acknowledges) a lack of documentation about the Boit family and the daughters in particular means there's a good bit of surmising at times based on other, unrelated sources.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Madame Jane

    The Daughters of Edward Boit is a mysterious painting. The history is fascinating. Perhaps the most interesting part of the book is about the daughters themselves: Florie, Mary, Isa and Julia. They are forever immortalized in one of the greatest paintings ever created.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Zosi

    This book is a little bit of everything-part biography, part art history. I love learning the stories behind paintings and the people depicted, and I thought this book really offered interesting ideas and made the canvas accessible. A quick and enjoyable read, but a thought provoking one as well.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Colleen

    Too much speculation about the family, a lot about Sargeant's travels, then more speculation about the artist. Too much speculation about the family, a lot about Sargeant's travels, then more speculation about the artist.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Irene

    After reading about this book in The Boston Globe, I was thrilled to be able to pick up a copy while visiting the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (MFA). It's not exactly a page-turner, but it certainly shed light on the painting, the artist, and the subjects. As titled, the book is a biography of the painting, not the artist, and so we learn only as much about Sargent himself as is necessary to describe the context of the painting. The book includes many quotes from contemporary art critics, both pos After reading about this book in The Boston Globe, I was thrilled to be able to pick up a copy while visiting the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (MFA). It's not exactly a page-turner, but it certainly shed light on the painting, the artist, and the subjects. As titled, the book is a biography of the painting, not the artist, and so we learn only as much about Sargent himself as is necessary to describe the context of the painting. The book includes many quotes from contemporary art critics, both positive and negative in response to this specific painting, and I was left wondering what Sargent might have thought of the mixed reactions. I did learn quite a bit about the Paris Salon, the differences among French versus English versus American tastes in art, and the evolution of art appreciation. The book provides a thorough biography of the Boit family (whose daughters are portrayed in the painting), and I found it quaint that much of the personal information was gleaned from diary entries written by Bob Boit, the four girls' uncle. While the artistic analysis of the painting was educational, I most enjoyed the "Afterlife" chapters, which told the stories of what became of Ned and Isa Boit (the girls' parents), each of the girls, and the painting itself, whose provenance is thoroughly traced. I was, however, sorely disappointed that the full provenance of the two large vases (that appear in the painting and which are displayed alongside the painting at the MFA) was not provided. The book describes their home in Edward Boit's Brookline (MA) house in 1903, and states that the vases stayed there until they were moved to the MFA in 1986. But if Edward Boit put his house on the market in 1911, and returned to Europe, then who owned the vases for the greater part of the century? And who decided to donate them to the MFA? My only other complaint is that I wish all paintings that were referenced in the book were reprinted for reference, but I suppose there are copyright issues, and I guess it's not too much effort to look up paintings on the internet. The final conclusion was beautifully written. The author suggests that "as with all masterpieces, the facts behind it can add to its allure" - and it's true. After reading Sargent's Daughters, I can't wait to visit the MFA again and view the painting in light of what I've read in this book.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Keith

    What an interesting idea, to pair a biography of the subjects of a famous painting with the story of the artist and his creation of the painting. This may be a common idea in art history but it was a novelty for me. That the painting is one of my great favorites, John Singer Sargent's "The Daughters of Henry Darley Boit," was the inevitable hook. Anyone who has examined this painting in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston may have the same fascination that it exerts for me. It's a portrait but not What an interesting idea, to pair a biography of the subjects of a famous painting with the story of the artist and his creation of the painting. This may be a common idea in art history but it was a novelty for me. That the painting is one of my great favorites, John Singer Sargent's "The Daughters of Henry Darley Boit," was the inevitable hook. Anyone who has examined this painting in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston may have the same fascination that it exerts for me. It's a portrait but not in the typical realist style of such a genre. More impressionist than other Sargent portraits. The subjects, four young children, peer out of their time and the imagination of Sargent. Erica Hirschler, a curator at the MFA, tells the story of the painting with verve and imagination. The imagination is required because there are gaps in our knowledge of the Boit family but Hirschler fills in the gaps admirably. This is not to say that the public record is scanty, merely that some gaps occur. A reproduction of the painting can be found here: http://www.jssgallery.org/paintings/D...

  23. 4 out of 5

    Becky

    When I first saw The Daughters of Edward D. Boit as a young adolescent, I was convinced that in a former life I had been Louisa Boit, the child seated in the foreground, looking the viewer squarely in the eye. But apparently, I am only one of legions of people who have responded very emotionally to this stunning work of art. MFA Curator Erica Hirshler was inspired by museum visitors' intense reactions and has written what she dubs, "the biography of a painting," giving her reader a rich context When I first saw The Daughters of Edward D. Boit as a young adolescent, I was convinced that in a former life I had been Louisa Boit, the child seated in the foreground, looking the viewer squarely in the eye. But apparently, I am only one of legions of people who have responded very emotionally to this stunning work of art. MFA Curator Erica Hirshler was inspired by museum visitors' intense reactions and has written what she dubs, "the biography of a painting," giving her reader a rich context for understanding the painting, its painter, and his subjects. I'm generally a reader of fiction, and will surely finish many novels before I finish this rather scholarly work. But I never tire of Sargent, especially this particular piece, and I expect that Hirshler has given me the lasting gift of a book which will engage my heart and my intellect over the course of many months.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Mary Ahern

    Written as a biography of the famous painting by John Singer Sargent, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, this book uses a source material personal letters, public writings as well as historic records. The material surrounds the little girls who were the models, the family and many of their family friends who were famous in their own time. Since the Boit family moved frequently throughout Europe and parts of America, the story is fleshed out with descriptions of the peripatetic lifestyle enjoye Written as a biography of the famous painting by John Singer Sargent, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, this book uses a source material personal letters, public writings as well as historic records. The material surrounds the little girls who were the models, the family and many of their family friends who were famous in their own time. Since the Boit family moved frequently throughout Europe and parts of America, the story is fleshed out with descriptions of the peripatetic lifestyle enjoyed by the aristocracy. I found this small book to be weak since, though the painting is portraits of four girls, not much was known about the actual making of the painting nor of the little girls. Much was imagined and interpreted. Stronger were the historical records of Sargent and the rise and fall and rise again of his reputation.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Rob

    Interesting for those interested in art and art history. The period is of interest to me, as my artist grandmother studied in Paris. Also, the 8th grade art trip connects with the focus on one painting that "tells a story." The idea is to take this one enigmatic painting and learn as much as possible about it - about Sargent, about the culture of the times, the girls themselves and their ex-pat., forever unsettled family. A limitation is that not much is known about the lives of the girls themse Interesting for those interested in art and art history. The period is of interest to me, as my artist grandmother studied in Paris. Also, the 8th grade art trip connects with the focus on one painting that "tells a story." The idea is to take this one enigmatic painting and learn as much as possible about it - about Sargent, about the culture of the times, the girls themselves and their ex-pat., forever unsettled family. A limitation is that not much is known about the lives of the girls themselves. Of some interest - none of the girls ever married.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Catherine Hurst

    Since "Daughters" is one of my favorite paintings, I liked this book--because I learned so much about the painting and the subjects. That said, however, I think the author tried to make the book both academic and popular, and it's a little too "academic" for popular taste, in my opinion. The chapters on the art reviews were a little tedious, there were too many footnotes, and the ending was anticlimactic. Nowhere near as good a read as "Strapless", which also tells the story of a Sargent ainting Since "Daughters" is one of my favorite paintings, I liked this book--because I learned so much about the painting and the subjects. That said, however, I think the author tried to make the book both academic and popular, and it's a little too "academic" for popular taste, in my opinion. The chapters on the art reviews were a little tedious, there were too many footnotes, and the ending was anticlimactic. Nowhere near as good a read as "Strapless", which also tells the story of a Sargent ainting.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Bobby

    This painting has been of great interest to me since I first saw it in an art text as a sophomore Ina college, almost 25 years ago. Hirshler's text allows access to the painting, to the complicated lives of the Boit family, and to the successes of John Singer Sargent. I love knowing the details of this painting, it's current location, and it's incredible travels across the Atlantic several times in the late 19th c. Personally, Julia the youngest Boit daughter has a striking resemblance to my wif This painting has been of great interest to me since I first saw it in an art text as a sophomore Ina college, almost 25 years ago. Hirshler's text allows access to the painting, to the complicated lives of the Boit family, and to the successes of John Singer Sargent. I love knowing the details of this painting, it's current location, and it's incredible travels across the Atlantic several times in the late 19th c. Personally, Julia the youngest Boit daughter has a striking resemblance to my wife, Gabrielle. I cannot wait to see this painting in person in Boston.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Sally

    An exhaustive study of one of Sargent's best-known paintings by a senior curator at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The book also examines Sargent's career; the career of another ex-patriate American painter, Edward Darley Boit, whose daughters were the models for the portrait; the history of the Boit family; and the Parisian social and artistic milieu that served as the setting for the portrait. While the book was fascinating, I felt that it provided a bit too much detail for the general reader An exhaustive study of one of Sargent's best-known paintings by a senior curator at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The book also examines Sargent's career; the career of another ex-patriate American painter, Edward Darley Boit, whose daughters were the models for the portrait; the history of the Boit family; and the Parisian social and artistic milieu that served as the setting for the portrait. While the book was fascinating, I felt that it provided a bit too much detail for the general reader, particularly when it came to the work of Boit, who was not a primary subject here.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Erika

    This book ended up not being what I was expecting and I think all the more interesting for that. I expected this book to be more about John Singer Sargent himself and his work on the titled painting but instead it focused far more on the Boit family, the culture the artist was working in and how it influenced his work and vice versa and the impact and life the painting had beyond it's creation. It's easy to forget today how radical and controversial the art created by the Impressionists was in it This book ended up not being what I was expecting and I think all the more interesting for that. I expected this book to be more about John Singer Sargent himself and his work on the titled painting but instead it focused far more on the Boit family, the culture the artist was working in and how it influenced his work and vice versa and the impact and life the painting had beyond it's creation. It's easy to forget today how radical and controversial the art created by the Impressionists was in it's day and it was fascinating to look at this from such a different perspective.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Ingrid

    This book is the biography of Sargent's famous painting at the Museum of Fine Arts. The author gives information on Sargent, the Boit sisters and their family as well as how the painting came into the possession of the MFA. Parts of this book were quite interesting, but parts of the book were very detailed and I found myself skimming those sections. I think that I would only recommend this book to people who were art history majors in college or are really into art. This book is the biography of Sargent's famous painting at the Museum of Fine Arts. The author gives information on Sargent, the Boit sisters and their family as well as how the painting came into the possession of the MFA. Parts of this book were quite interesting, but parts of the book were very detailed and I found myself skimming those sections. I think that I would only recommend this book to people who were art history majors in college or are really into art.

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