Genius, Explained: Sargent's Masterpiece

By Matthew Reed Baker | Boston Magazine |

In the Museum of Fine Arts there hangs a huge square painting of four young girls dressed in white, and for a century it’s been stopping visitors cold, even if they couldn’t say exactly why. But senior curator Erica Hirshler can: Her just-released book, Sargent’s Daughters, is devoted to the story of this single enigmatic canvas by a 26-year-old John Singer Sargent. Here she offers a quick tour of "perhaps the best example of Sargent’s ability to create an image that resonates so beautifully over time." 

MOOD:
At the time, commissioned portraits were meant to flatter above all else, so only a good friend of Sargent’s—as Boit was—would have allowed one of his children to be mostly obscured. That freed up Sargent to add mystery to the scene.

SHADING:
"Sargent was a fabulous painter of white," Hirshler says, pointing out how he used different brushes and a palette knife to make textures and shades on this skirt. "I often see artists looking at this picture trying to see how he did it, physically."

DEPTH:
Sargent used a mirror reflecting light from outside the scene to draw the viewer into the darkened room, while balancing the composition with the pale-frocked girl on the far left. "It’s a very complicated spatial relationship," Hirshler says.

[sidebar]FOCUS: The Japanese vases were shown with far less detail than they have in real life (the vases in question actually flank the canvas at the MFA). "If he’d left all the decoration in," Hirshler says, "the eye would be distracted from the girls."

FASCINATION: Hirshler says the key to the painting’s appeal is its ambiguity. Henry James described it as the "happy play-world of a family of charming children," for instance, while art critic Sister Wendy sees the girls as "homeless in their own home."