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".