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Erica Hirshler: Looking at John Singer Sargent
September 30, 2010


The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit; 1882; Oil on canvas; 221.93 x 222.57 cm (87 3/8 x 87 5/8 in.); Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Gift of Mary Louisa Boit, Julia Overing Boit, Jane Hubbard Boit, and Florence D. Boit in memory of their father, Edward Darley Boit; 19.124; © 2010 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Erica Hirshler, senior curator of American paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, kicked off the Clarice Smith Distinguished Lecture Series in American Art with a spirited look at John Singer Sargent. His painting, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit—a seven by seven foot masterpiece that has earned pride of place in the MFA as well as in Hirshler's heart—was the jumping off point for a look at Sargent's portraits that ranged from the seemingly innocent (as in the case of the Boit's) to the scandalous Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau).

In 1882, when Sargent painted the portrait of the Boit daughters, "Four plainly dressed girls in Paris," he was twenty-six years old, and something of a star in the American colony in Paris. The Boits engaged him to paint their four daughters, "Four girls and five vases," Hirshler said, referring to the sitters as well as the two six-foot tall Japanese vases—the taste for Japonaiserie was at a height in good part due to the ex-pat American painter James McNeill Whistler—as well as three more in the dimly lit background. "He looked both to the old masters and to modern art." But what is the narrative here? As Hirshler said, the painting, "suspended between light and dark, [is] a story that wants to be told."

To understand more about the world the Boits inhabited, Hirshler took us on a tour of late-nineteenth century Paris, with a stop at the rue de Friedland, where the Boits apartment was situated, and the setting for the portrait of the four girls. Hirshler then spoke about Sargent the artist, and how "he looked both to the old masters and to modern art. Chief among the old masters was Velazquez, especially his portrait of the Spanish royal family, Las Meninas." According to Hirshler, "Sargent was a sponge, interested in everything. He takes things from Japanese prints, from the Old Masters, and photography. All of these go into his art. It's hard to pull out one thread."

Hirshler looked at each of the girls individually, and also mentioned the one Boit child who was not in the portrait: an elder brother who was institutionalized at the age of six. Does he inhabit the darker parts of the canvas somehow? The girls--Florence (who developed a penchant for the game of golf as a young woman and even helped design and build a golf course on her uncle's estate in Wellesley, Mass.), Jane, Mary Louisa, and Julia who died well into her nineties in 1969, all remained unmarried. And with that fact Hirshler reminded us, "which is not to say they were unhappy."

During the question and answer period that followed the talk, Hirshler was asked, "How did the MFA acquire the Boit painting?" to which she replied, "In the best possible way. The girls gave it to us." They first lent it to the MFA in 1912, but gave it to the museum six years later, leaving Hirshler to close the evening with, "Let that be a shining example to all of you potential museum donors." Indeed.

For those of you who couldn't attend, you can watch the webcast here. The next speaker in the Clarice Smith Distinguished Lecture Series is Mark Feeney, Boston Globe arts and photography critic and winner of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for criticism, speaking on October 27, at 7pm.

Posted by Howard on September 30, 2010 in American Art Elsewhere, American Art Here, Lectures on American Art


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