The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit was painted in Paris in the autumn of 1882, one of a number of portraits of members of the American expatriate community that Sargent made in the French capital in the late 1870s and early 1880s. While the exact circumstances of this commission remain unknown, Sargent was a friend of the girls’ parents, Edward Darley Boit and Mary Louisa Cushing Boit. Ned Boit was from Boston, a Harvard-trained lawyer who turned away from his profession in order to pursue a career as a painter. His wife Mary Louisa, called Isa, was a vivacious and social woman who preferred Europe to America; her inheritance, a legacy of Boston’s China Trade, allowed the family to live abroad. They kept elegant quarters on the avenue de Friedland in the eighth arrondissement, a luxurious neighborhood much preferred by wealthy Americans. The foyer of their apartment served as the setting for Sargent’s portrait, a shadowy space in which the painter arranged the Boits’ four daughters: Mary Louisa (eight years old when Sargent painted her), Florence (age fourteen), Jane (twelve), and Julia (four).
While Ned and Isa may have initially approached Sargent to make a traditional portrait, they supported his ambition to create something more unusual, a painting that is half a portrait and half an interior scene. Each of the girls is presented individually, but the features of two are obscured, an attribute antithetical to conventional portraiture and one that, combined with the lack of connection between the girls, stymied critics when the painting was first displayed. Its unusual format was inspired by the art of both the past and the present, a characteristic approach that Sargent employed to make paintings that seemed simultaneously traditional and modern. The historical precedent for the Boit portrait can be found in the work of the seventeenth-century Spanish master Diego Velázquez, an artist greatly admired in nineteenth-century France. Sargent had traveled to Madrid in 1879 to make copies after Velázquez at the Museo Nacional del Prado; among the paintings he studied was Las Meninas (about 1656), a large and famous portrait of the young Spanish infanta with her maids in a great shadowed room. Sargent adapted Velázquez’s mysterious space, his dark subdued palette, and the manner in which his self-possessed princess directly confronts the viewer. At the same time, Sargent must have been thinking of the unusual portraits and oddly centrifugal compositions of his French contemporary Edgar Degas. The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit shares some of Degas’s strategies: the asymmetrical composition with an almost empty center, the sense of disconnection between family members, and a feeling of modern life interrupted.
Sargent placed the Boit girls in an indeterminate space—the entrance hall, neither entirely public nor entirely private—that is brightly lit in the foreground but recedes into a vaguely defined drawing room half-lit with mirrors and reflections. The two tall Japanese vases, made in Arita in the late nineteenth century specifically for export to the West, were prized family possessions; their unusual size in relation to the girls makes the interior seem strange and magical. The sisters are dressed almost alike, in the sort of casual clothes they would have worn in the schoolroom or at play. Their white pinafores gave Sargent an opportunity to demonstrate his mastery at painting white in different conditions of light. Only the youngest girl, Julia, engages the viewer, while the older girls recede progressively into the shadows, becoming increasingly indistinct.