John Singer Sargent was an American expatriate artist who lived much of his life in Europe. He often painted similar people from these circles. This group portrait of the upper middle class Boit girls shows a clear influence by the works of Velasquez, though Sargent created an unconventional environment on the canvas. The room is cave-like and rather than being formally arranged, the girls are disparately placed with no relationship to each other.

John Singer Sargent, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, 1882, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Wiki Commons.

John Singer Sargent, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, 1882, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Wiki Commons.

The figures are almost dominated by the oversized Japanese vases. They are all wearing a similar smock that could mistake them for servants if their identity was not known. This uniformity of costume may be used to show their connection, however, their position within the canvas and of their bodies themselves demonstrates a psychological scene of disconnection and melancholy.

This may be imagined or even the girls’ response to being represented, but their extreme shyness may be a reaction to their lifestyle. Being transported across the Atlantic by their parents some sixteen times, they lived in Paris, Boston and Rome. Whether Sargent was sympathetic to the girls and their lives is unknown, but he gives them each space on the canvas. The consequence of this sort of peripatetic lifestyle on their young personalities became evident in the fact that none ever married, highly unusual for this time.

The two youngest girls shown at the front are highlighted, but in position and in brightness. Whether or not this was reflected in their personalities is conjecture, but they did go on to be the happier sisters, remaining close and the youngest becoming a successful artist. The oldest sisters are shown closer in proximity, yet further apart psychologically, with one not even facing the viewer. They would go on to become increasingly more isolated and suffer from debilitating mental illnesses.

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