Have you thought about the questions from the Frick Five videos? (See the last post for more info.) Any definitive responses? No hard and fast selections made here, either. But isn’t that part of the enjoyment?
I’m still thinking about my answer to the first question: What is the one work of art you would want to live with every day? I can’t commit to a decision….yet. But thinking about possible choices reminded me of a favourite painting by the artist John Singer Sargent.
This is a stunning oil painting. For starters, it is large: 7 feet by 7 feet square. It assumes a significant physical presence in the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. Wikipedia reminded me that The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit is hung between the original two vases depicted in the painting.
I don’t think of myself as a huge fan of realist painting, but this painting offers far more than a physical representation of a person, or a group. I have had the opportunity to see it in person, with plenty of time to sit in an uncrowded space, and enjoy it. (The typical art museum visitor spends, on average, less than 30 seconds looking at a piece of art, according to a study published in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and Art in 2017.)
Consider the composition. Our attention is immediately captured by the girls. (Psychological studies provide evidence that our eye / attention is instinctively drawn to a human face or figure in visual art.) This is not a typical arrangement of figures for a family portrait, especially considering it was painted in 1882. We don’t even see the (presumably) eldest daughter’s face as she is turned away from the viewer and and is obscured by shadow. Two of the girls hold more traditional poses, but not together. One of them is shadowed, and the other is at the edge of the painting. The youngest is plopped on the floor, like her doll. The child and the doll present as one figure.
John Singer Sargent was a prolific artist , creating thousands of artworks in oil, watercolour and charcoal. He was born in Italy to American parents, and lived most of his life in Europe, with frequent trips to the USA. At the beginning of his career, he accepted many portrait commissions in America.
The Boit family were part of the expatriate American community in Paris. In this commissioned portrait, Singer Sargent allows us, the viewers, room for imaginative speculation about the characters of the sisters. He’s given us just enough situational context to create stories about the individual personalities, and to speculate at possible family dynamics. Note the abundance of dark tones in the painting. I wonder if the parents knew, encouraged or approved of this extremely unconventional depiction of their daughters? The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (originally titled Portraits of Children) was donated to the Museum of Fine Arts Boston in 1919, only four years after Edward Darley Boit died. Perhaps the sisters weren’t all that fond of it?
Structurally, the painting is intriguing. The girls – and an inanimate object, a vase – dominate the left two thirds of the composition, with the carpet almost meeting the doorframe at an angle – the same door edge that strongly frames one of the sisters. Meanwhile, the orange-red triangular shape (a screen?) firmly pins the right side down, whilst partially obscuring the repeated vase shape. What a playground for the eye! We can travel from the human figures to the classical vase shapes to the geometry of the carpet, doorway and screen. My eye is intrigued by the reflection in the upper right third of the painting, and thus another visual trip around the composition begins.
By re-examining one of my favourite paintings, maybe I’m getting closer to a definitive answer to the second Frick Five question. Maybe.
If you could have your portrait made by any artist, who would that be?