John Singer Sargent And The Painting That Made His Reputation

Originally published on July 11, 2013 5:44 pm

John Singer Sargent painted “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit” more than 130 years ago, but his depiction of four little girls in white pinafores is still a favorite attraction at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

Erica Hirshler, senior curator at the MFA says the youngest daughter holds a particular pull.

“Mothers always bring their children right up to Julia,” Hirshler told Here & Now. “It’s so much fun, because she’s so accessible and people use that figure that’s painted so close to us to engage their children, because she’s at child height.”

We pay another visit to the iconic work.


Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit


It's HERE AND NOW. I'm Meghna Chakrabarti, in for Robin Young.

American painter John Singer Sargent was a lifelong bachelor with no offspring that we know of. But as museum curator Erica Hirshler writes in the book "Sargent's Daughters," Sargent's paintings were, in a sense, his children. And one of his most famous works is of four little girls.

Florie, Jane, Isa and Julia Boit are the girls in a Sargent painting called "The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit." Painted in 1882, it hangs in Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. And Sargent's work still has a powerful draw. Throughout our conversation with Hirshler, families entered the hushed gallery and walked right up to the luminous image of the littlest Boit girl.

ERICA HIRSHLER: Mothers always bring their children right up to Julia. It's so much fun, because she's so accessible. And people use that figure that's painted so close to us to engage their children, because she's at child height, and she's so beautifully painted and so much in our space.

CHAKRABARTI: There's a detailed video exploration of the painting at our website, Take a look. You'll get a better sense about why, as Erica Hirshler tells us, an unorthodox image of four little girls made John Singer Sargent one of the most powerful artists of his time.

HIRSHLER: It's a big, square painting. It's almost eight feet square. And lost within its shadowy spaces are these four little girls dressed in white, and two enormous vases, blue-and-white porcelain vases.

CHAKRABARTI: And these girls are all sisters. They're sisters in the Boit family. And one of the fascinating things about them to me, as Sargent's arranged them, is that they're not really connected in the space. They're all doing slightly different things.

HIRSHLER: One critic, when the painting was first exhibited, called it four corners and a void, because they found it so bizarre that everything was so disconnected from each other. It's almost like the girls had been playing a game and somebody yelled stop, and they all stopped, wherever they happened to be.

CHAKRABARTI: When you first saw this painting, or got to know it, what is it that drew you into that world?

HIRSHLER: I think I really responded to the mystery of it, because it's not clear what the girls are doing or what their relationship is with one another. They don't really look at each other or tell us a story. And I think I found that ambiguity very appealing.

CHAKRABARTI: Maybe you can tell us a little bit about the Boit family. I mean, who are these four little girls, and how did Sargent know them?

HIRSHLER: Sargent was a friend of the Boit family. The Boits were from Boston. Edward Darley Boit was a Harvard-trained lawyer, who gave up the law for a career in art. He really wanted to be a painter. And his wife, Mary Louisa Cushing, who was the daughter of a very wealthy China trade merchant who had grown up in the lap of luxury in the Boston area. And the two of them married during the Civil War, and soon after that, traveled to Europe, fell in love with it, and decided pretty much to live their lives abroad. And when this painting was made, they were living in Paris.

CHAKRABARTI: So how is it that Sargent decided to make this painting of these four little girls?

HIRSHLER: One of the most intriguing mysteries about this painting is we know absolutely nothing about the circumstances of the commission. Often, we know that parents might have hired Sargent or another painter to make images of their children.

In this case, there's no documentation at all that I've been able to find. There are no letters. There's no bill of sale. There's no correspondence that indicates whether this was, in fact, even a commission or not, or whether Sargent came to the Boits' house one day, saw the girls running around in the apartment and said, ah-ha. That's something that would make a fabulous picture. I rather suspect that the Boits asked Sargent to paint their girls, but then let him to do it any way that he wanted to, because it's so unusual as a portrait, partly because you can't even see the faces of all of the girls.

CHAKRABARTI: Where is Sargent in his career at this time, before he did this painting?

HIRSHLER: The astonishing thing to me - and maybe it becomes more astonishing the older I get - is that Sargent was 26 years old when he painted this. He was really at the very beginning of his career. He'd already painted some great things, including the magnificent "El Jaleo," the Spanish dancer that's now in the collection of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. But this was his next big Salon picture, the next picture he showed at that important annual exhibition.

CHAKRABARTI: How was this painting received when it was presented in the Parisian Salon?

HIRSHLER: Well, some people were very, very perplexed by it and, in fact, couldn't even believe that it was being presented as a portrait, because it was so unusual for a portrait. Other people found it very modern and interesting and enjoyed that unconventionality of it. But, in general, it was one of the paintings that was most talked about, but not necessarily entirely favorably.

CHAKRABARTI: Did it have the effect that Sargent wanted on his career? Did it elevate him into that sort of primary rank of painters at the time?

HIRSHLER: Absolutely. Anytime you got the number of critics to respond to your painting in this Salon exhibition that might include thousands of pictures, if yours was the one that was singled out, that was a good thing.

CHAKRABARTI: There is an air of mystery to this painting, as you said, not only in its composition and its execution and what we see, but also, we don't fully know the circumstances of its commission. Is there an equal air of mystery about its subject matter? What do we know about these four girls?

HIRSHLER: We know quite a lot about the four girls, but not enough to really feel that we have a solid portrait of what their lives were like. I think that they remain somewhat mysterious because they never turned out to be women of great notoriety or accomplishment. They are, like many 19th-century women, lost a little bit in the shadows of history.

CHAKRABARTI: What kind of responses do people have to this painting, whether they've ever heard of it or not?

HIRSHLER: People have very emotional attachments to it. Whether they know anything about Sargent or know anything about the girls doesn't really matter. One scholar who has written quite a lot about the power of art relates a story about a woman coming into the gallery every time she comes to Boston and weeping in front of it, never able to explain exactly what quality it is, whether it's wistfulness or sadness or memories that make her cry in front of it, or whether it's simply the beauty of it that makes her cry.

Often, it's very simple. One person told me about coming in with her sisters and always coming to see this picture, because they wanted to know whether they were as big as Isa yet, or whether they were as big as Jane yet. So it could be very much about one's own relationship with one's own family, or this is a talisman of growing up. Other people respond to it for different reasons. But everybody seems to have a very personal relationship with it, which I find fascinating.

CHAKRABARTI: So, as an art historian, does it bother you how much we don't know about this painting?

HIRSHLER: Of course, I'd love to know. As a scholar and a historian, I'd love to know. But at the same time, I think this painting is so much about ambiguity and secrets, that somehow I like the fact that it still has some secrets.

CHAKRABARTI: Erica Hirshler is a senior curator of American paintings at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts and author of "Sargent's Daughters: The Biography of a Painting." We spoke with her in 2010.


And, Meghna, I've been looking on our website here. We've got a video where she goes through this painting, goes to each individual part of it and tells you exactly what you're looking at. That's at

CHAKRABARTI: It's really beautiful to look at, and about as close as you'll going to get to it, unless you come to Boston.


CHAKRABARTI: This is HERE AND NOW, from NPR and WBUR Boston. I'm Meghna Chakrabarti, in for Robin Young.

HOBSON: And I'm Jeremy Hobson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.