Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (1882) by John Singer Sargent
Interpretation of Impressionist Portrait Painting

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The Daughters of Edward
Darley Boit (1882) (detail)
By John Singer Sargent.
Acknowledged to be one of the
greatest portrait paintings of
the nineteenth century.

The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (1882)


Analysis of the Daughters of Edward Darley Boit
Other American Impressionists
Explanation of Other Impressionist Figure Paintings


Name: The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (The Boit Sisters) (1882)
Artist: John Singer Sargent (1856-1925)
Medium: Oil painting on canvas
Genre: Portrait art
Movement: Impressionism
Location: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

For an interpretation of other pictures from the 19th and 20th centuries, see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).

Close-up of Boit sisters
Mary-Louisa, aged 8 (left),
and Jane, aged 12.

For analysis of portraiture
by portrait painters like
John Singer Sargent, see:
How to Appreciate Paintings.


One of the best portrait artists from the era of modern art, John Singer Sargent was famous for his natural painting ability and his classical au premier coup technique. Excelling at all types of portraiture, including quarter, half and full-length formal works, as well as more relaxed compositions set in gardens and landscapes, he is best known for his society portraits of the rich and powerful, from which he derived a sizeable income. Although his works are usually classified as American Impressionism, Sargent was actually born in Italy to American parents, and spent most of his life in Europe, notably Paris and London. In Paris he became friends with Claude Monet (1840-1926) and other French Impressionist painters, who were instrumental in helping him to master the handling of light. One of the results was this sublime portrait of The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (1882), without any doubt one of the greatest Impressionist portraits of all time. Two other outstanding works in the Impressionist style include El Jaleo (1882, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston) and Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (1886, Tate Collection, London). However, Impressionism was not the only technique that inspired him during his career. He also developed his own style of realist painting - see, for instance, Portrait of Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau) (1884, Metropolitan Museum, New York). For more background, please see: Characteristics of Impressionist Painting, and also Realism to Impressionism (c.1830-1900).

Analysis of the Daughters of Edward Darley Boit by John Singer Sargent

The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (also known as The Boit Sisters), depicts the four young Boit girls - Florence, Jane, Mary Louisa and Julia - in the foyer of their family's Paris apartment. It is currently displayed in the new Art of the Americas Wing of the MFA, Boston, where it is flanked by the two tall blue-and-white Japanese vases depicted in the painting, which were gifted to the museum by the heirs of the Boit family.

Dressed in white pinafores, the Boit children appear (left to right) as follows: the 8-year-old Mary Louisa stands on the extreme left; Jane, aged 12, and Florence, aged 14, are in the shadows at the back of the picture; while the youngest, 4-year-old Julia, sits on the floor with her doll. In 1919, the four daughters donated the portrait to the MFA, Boston, in honour of their father.



There is no record of how this portrait came to be painted, nor what, if any, payment was agreed. It seems likely that Sargent himself suggested that he paint the girls, to tempt other wealthy American expatriates - or members of the French bourgeoisie - into sitting for him. The Boit Sisters, as the painting is often called, was painted in Paris and shown at the official Salon of 1883 where it was well received, eliciting positive comments from the novelist and critic Henry James who, like his friend Sargent, understood the world of American expatriates.

The many parallels between The Boit Sisters and Velazquez's monumental work Las Meninas (1656, Prado, Madrid) have often been noted. Indeed, in 2010, the MFA loaned The Daughters to the Prado Museum, so that the paintings could be displayed side by side. In fact, Sargent had painted a fully resolved copy of the Velazquez on his visit to the Prado in 1879, and this copy was in his Paris studio when he was working on The Boit Sisters. How one yearns to find a ghost of Sargent himself lurking (Velazquez-style) in the shadows of his work, behind the folding screen, engaged in painting not the sisters but their unseen parents.

NOTE: In addition, art critics have noted similarities in contemporary works like Renoir's Madame Georges Charpentier and Her Children (1879, Metropolitan Museum) and Degas' The Bellelli Family (1859, Musee d'Orsay).

The fact that the girls wear white pinafores to protect their clothing while they play in the apartment suggests that, indeed, they are not posing to be painted but have been captured at an informal, intimate moment. The cropping of the vase on the right, which is half-in and half-out of the picture, also adds to the 'photographic' quality of the composition.

This is a very clever, aesthetically layered work of art. Typical for the public exhibition of society portraits, Sargent called the work simply Portrait of Children when it was shown, but its large scale and evident aesthetic ambition separated it from the other works he exhibited in 1882-83. Many critics instantly recognized the affinities between Sargent's informal and rapidly painted style and that of Impressionist artists, but this similarity was always tempered by Sargent's "high art" training. Indeed, the full range of blacks and dark tones gives The Boit Sisters a quality of shadowy mystery completely at odds with the light-infused portraits of Sargent's only French rival as a painter of children, Renoir (1841-1919).

The most extraordinary achievement of the portrait is its composition. Rather than arranging the children in a pleasing group at the centre of the picture - or at least giving them equal prominence - Sargent treats them quite separately. A reviewer of the 1883 Salon said the painting had been "composed from new rules; the rules of the game of four corners," and this must be correct. By locating the girls so that they either confront or avoid the light from a large unseen window, and by relating them to enormous oriental blue-and-white vases (witty substitutes for the Boit parents?), Sargent seems to be giving us clues about their personalities and relationships. The youngest, Julia, sits comfortably on a great carpet and is, thus, isolated from her sisters both in pose and position. Her next oldest sibling, Mary Louisa, stands at the very edge of the composition, fully accepting the light and acknowledging the fact of her representation. The oldest girls, Florence and Jane, stand in the shadows, Florence leaning against the huge vase and avoiding the viewer entirely, Jane looking shyly at us from the edge of the darkness. Curiously, Sargent seems to have understood the personalities of these girls, because it was precisely the older two who became increasingly disturbed and unstable, living their lives in the world of shadows in which Sargent set them in 1882.

Other American Impressionists

For more information about American Impressionism, see biographies of the following: William Merritt Chase (1849-1916), Theodore Robinson (1852-96), Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), Childe Hassam (1859-1935), J. Alden Weir (1852-1919), and John H Twachtman (1853-1902). Other exponents include: Joseph Rodefer De Camp (1858-1923), Maurice Prendergast (1858-1924), Willard Metcalf (1858-1925), Edmund Charles Tarbell (1862-1938), Frank W Benson (1862-1951) and William McGregor Paxton (1869-1941).

As well as these painters, Robert Henri (1865-1929) and William James Glackens (1870-1938), both members of The Eight, produced a number of excellent Impressionistic canvases.

See also the similar but separate traditions of luminism - exemplified by the artist George Inness (1825-94) - and tonalism - exemplified by Whistler (1834-1903).

Explanation of Other Impressionist Figure Paintings

The Ballet Class (1871-4) by Edgar Degas.
Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

Family Reunion (1867) by Frederic Bazille.
Musee d'Orsay.

Portrait of Emile Zola (1868) by Manet.
Musee d'Orsay.

Portrait of Berthe Morisot With Violets (1872) by Manet.
Musee d'Orsay.

Absinthe (1876) by Edgar Degas.
Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

Luncheon Of the Boating Party (1880-1) by Renoir.
Phillips Collection, Washington DC.

A Bar at the Folies Bergere (1881-2) by Edouard Manet.
Courtauld Gallery, London.

We gratefully acknowledge the use of certain material from the original publication, Art: The Critics' Choice (1999) edited by Marina Vaizey: an invaluable work for all students interested in the interpretation of paintings throughout history.


• For the meaning of other Impressionist portraits, see: Homepage.

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