Unmarried Masterpiece

I always go to visit the Boit sisters in their Paris apartment when I go to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Since I have gone to this museum for years, it means I am a frequent visitor to John Singer Sargent’s portrait “Daughters of Edward Darley Boit” of a fellow artist’s four daughters.

I used to go because it simply intrigued me that these children would be painted so magnificently and yet, in these poses of detachment and curious placement relative to one another.  Also, the two large Japanese vases in the painting are owned by the museum as well and are positioned near the actual painting in the museum, so there is that odd feeling of being part of the portrait somehow.

The scale of the portrait ( a large square) dominates the rectangular dark room with little, if any, natural light.  The dark and empty space within the canvas puzzled yet resonated with me, and inevitably, I would simply shake my head and marvel at how this painter painted “white”.  Truly, it has more colored nuances than any logical thinking person might imagine.

The only other artist who I’ve seen in person who mastered white in quite this way and on this scale was J. M. W. Turner whose large and I mean large scale “Battle of Trafalgar” included a sailing ship with full sails in the foreground.  My goal, after seeing it two years ago in an exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, was to try and live my life as fully as those sails.

But, back to this painting.  Recently, I found out that none of these daughters ever married.  Since I find it rare to find someone my age who has never married, and virtually impossible to find one without a cat, then to find four women, part of the late 19th century who never married?  Well,  it simply adds another layer to this painting.

So, I read a little about it on line.  It seems like the two girls in the background ended up with mental illness, which strange and as insensitive, as it may sound– made me laugh out loud.  In my experience, being mentally ill or woefully unattractive has been my culture’s only readily acceptable reason for a woman to be unmarried.  No one questions if any or both of these characteristics are present.

As if  only mentally stable, balanced, pretty women married.

Seriously, one trip to the mall ought to disabuse you of that idea, as well as the workplace.  But, nonetheless, it is the scope and the limit of explanation for most people for this statistically improbability.

The typical process that Sargent was purported to have used in his portraiture was to be with the subject or subjects, spending time outside of the painting session, taking notes about his observations before he picked up his brush.  He would also routinely choose what the subject would wear.

After hearing that all four were unmarried,  I looked at this painting and wondered if he had a clue at the time he was painting of the mental health issues of the two in the background and whether he’d observed, in fact, a distance between these sisters that caused his choice of composition.

He is thought to have had a marked problem with “talking” easily and fluently with others except those very close to him.  He labored over his choice of words, and when he found them, spoke slowly.  Sometimes, excruciatingly slowly.

Perhaps, all adults and children who have despair over their limitations might take a look at this painting,  or for that matter, any of his portraits.

His fluency with words was certainly unimportant when compared with his fluency with his brush and his command of paints.  And, as I look at this painting of the Boit sisters in yet another visit to their Paris apartment, I wonder the cliched wonder: that perhaps this facility to acutely observe was made keener by his own difficulties with dysfluency–and that he observed these girls at their tender ages and saw his final composition as well as the course of their future lives.

Cliched or not, I know what it has done for me:  I now refer to myself as an “unmarried masterpiece”.

©Pat Coakley 2008

Photo of John Singer Sargent’s portrait came from Museum of Fine Arts, Boston: mfa.org.

The website: http://jssgallery.org/ had interesting background information about this painter and this family that I have used in this post.

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4 comments on “Unmarried Masterpiece”

  1. I can imagine that the girls grew up in a fairly intelligent and affluent family that had many interesting friends. I think that such an environment would’ve been full of contradictions for young girls because of the behaviour of many of the men they would’ve meet in the circles they inhabited.

    The men they would’ve met, were probably creative people who moved within artistic circles. Back then, most of the models in the paintings of the day were either wealthy patrons or prostitute lovers. Wives of such men were often left at home while the men went out and had their affairs whilst picking up various sexually transmitted diseases. When many of these guys weren’t painting or whoring, they were destroying their brains with absinthe.

    I don’t find it difficult to imagine that married life wouldn’t have been an attractive career option for young girls brought up surrounded by such people. Perhaps a woman who was not interested in “ordinary” men who led respectable lives would’ve have seen the alternative option of marrying a dissolute, self obsessed artist equally unattractive.

    Maybe (as my mind runs wild with speculation) women who saw their marriage prospects as bleak were further disheartened by constrictive social mores of the society they lived in.

    I also find myself thinking about “Paris green” (made with arsenic) and white paint (made with lead) which were used in interiors back in those days.

    Was the girl’s eccentricity and non-conformist behaviour brought about by a confusing up-bringing or perhaps environmental poisoning?

    I can’t help but think of the word, “saturnine” which comes from the Latin for “lead poisoned” and in our language means gloomy. Depression is a symptom of lead poisoning

  2. Well, Razz, you have started off the year with a comment spectacular! Honestly, who but you would know all this..absinthe and speculations and then conclude lead poisoning?? That’s a new single for a reason as far as I’m concerned and I’m employing it right away as my reason #4008! I’m not kidding, the next person who asks me why I’m not married, I’m answering very matter of factly: lead poisoning. You are amazing.

  3. omg, i’ve never married for exactly that same reason! but at this point who knows, perhaps there is an equally saturnine companion, nah forget it, it’d be like planets orbiting in wide circles, i’d be in some ufo somewhere…..but then again i sort of would like to be abducted but awake and given the choice of return time. and thats another reason, even abductions have to be on my terms ha ha. couldnt help it, thanks pat!

  4. Yes, Tipota, lead poisoning makes you single. I love that even abductions would have to be on your terms!! Yes, we do get used to making our own rules, don’t we??


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