Examining Sargent’s “Daughters of Edward Darley Boit”

As this blog evolves, I thought it would be fun to occasionally jump outside of the photography world for a minute and look around the larger world of art.  I wanted to take a look at a few of my favorite paintings and thought of no better place to start than with one of my favorite paintings by John Singer Sargent.  I first encountered this image while visiting the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.  I was intrigued by its elegant deviation from the classical portrait.

Originally titled “Portraits d’enfants,” Sargent created this piece in 1882 for a friend and fellow painter, Edward Boit.  The painting caused a stir at the Paris Salon the following year, due in no small part to its unusual composition and large, square format.  The painting is almost eight feet square and has the subjects placed all about the composition.  The four girls are the daughters of Boit and are posed in the foyer of the family’s Paris apartment.   The youngest is seated in the foreground with her doll, with her older sister standing off to the left.  The two oldest sisters stand at the back, almost lost in the shadows.  This unorthodox composition and posing was quite a departure from the typical family portrait of this time period.  My guess is that only an artistist type,  such as Boit, could appreciate this style.

The main room is well-lit and the little girl sits on a comfortable rug.  The next oldest is still in the bright room, but now must stand.  The oldest two are right on the edge of the darkness, probably representing their departure into the unknown – outside the comforts of the family home.

During this time, Sargent had been studying the work of Diego Velazquez and many art historians have compared this painting to Velazquez’s “Las Meninas.”

Both paintings have a strong sense of depth and unusually spaced subjects in the composition.  The also share a similar lighting style with the foreground bathed in plenty of light and the background fading into darkness.

When you view Sargent’s painting at the MFA, it is displayed in a very unique manner.  The two blue vases, visible in the portrait, are actually flanking the painting in the museum.  It is interesting to compare the actual vases to the ones represented in the painting – specifically, how Sargent simplified their ornate decorations to keep them from competing too much with the girls.  It is truly an incredible thing to view and makes a trip to the MFA something to put on your “Must Do” list next time you are in Boston.


  1. Monex

    At this time Sargent was..far more..popular with Americans and although Elsie herself was American it..would be paintings such as this that did much to break the ice with the..British and..eventually..bring them around to Sargent style. The Fogg museum at..Harvard has two..studies of this painting the one below which is an oil and a pen and..ink..drawing.

  2. Bill

    I found your blog while researching Sargent’s painting. You might enjoy McCullough’s “The Great Journey.”. Lots about Sargent and other American painters working at that time in Paris.

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