Friday, July 20, 2012

Book Review: Sargent's Daughters - The Biography of a Painting

In 2009, I published an article on my Remember Jamaica Plain blog about the Boit family. The hook for the post was John Singer Sargent's painting The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, a favorite of mine. I've just learned that the same year, Erica E. Hirshler published a book on the painting, so I've taken a look at it. While Edward D. Boit did live in Jamaica Plain as a child, he spent much of his married life in Europe, and while in the United States stayed either on Beacon Hill or in Newport. Which means that the book itself says nothing about Jamaica Plain. It does, however, speak of Boston, so I thought I'd put this follow-up to the earlier blog post here.

The book does a good job giving a sense of the American expat life during the late 19th century. The book is the story of both the Boits and of Sargent, and shows how their lives were intertwined for many years. We get Sargent's development as an artist, observations by their mutual friend Henry James, and much information from the diary of Edward Boit's brother Robert. And of course, we get the daughters. Much has been made of the later lives of the girls, and Ms. Hirshler shines a good deal of light on what has long been a mystery.

Very little of the book features Boston, but the oldest daughter did have her 'coming out' while the family was on one of their rare return visits. And the painting was in and out of the Museum of Fine Arts - first as a loan, and then as a gift. Still, you do get a sense of Boston Brahmin life, even if most of it is in exile. One particular criticism grows out of the simple fact that very little is known about the genesis of the painting. Occasionally, the author falls into the 'what was he thinking?' rhetorical gimmick, in an effort to fill in the historical blanks. Of course, it's a shame we don't know certain things, but that doesn't give us license to impose upon real life characters. This extends to quoting from a contemporary of a character of whom little is known. The quoted passages may represent a window into the life of the person of interest, but then again, maybe it doesn't. This minor quibble aside, the book is definitely worth a look if you're a fan of the painting.

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