John Singer Sargent coming to LACMA
The first John Singer Sargent painting I ever saw was The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (1882), at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The work (like most of Sargent's) is huge, spanning floor to ceiling. It immediately grasped my attention. But what kept me observing the painting for hours (actually more like minutes, I came too close to the museum's closing), were the looks in the girls' eyes.
There's something haunting in this painting. It makes me slightly uncomfortable. In fact, my first thought was that these aren't ordinary happy children at all.
The two girls hidden almost entirely in the shadows, one of them not even looking forward, made me think of their attitude toward their father. Maybe earlier she was chastised for doing something wrong. Or maybe it is all much simpler, they're just children embarrassed at having their portrait drawn. There's been some discussion about the girls in the shadows being children of servants, not Boit himself. I don't agree with that. The title clearly states they are his daughters. In person, it never occurred to me that they might not all be related.
The younger girl on the floor has an expression the perfect blend of curiosity and indifference, characteristic of children. John Singer Sargent is absolutely brilliant for having captured this.
The simplicity of the young girl's expression is in direct juxtaposition with that of the girl on the left. When I saw this painting, I kept staring back and forth between their two faces. Her pose is stoic, as is her face, and she strikes me as someone who has been taught early on what is expected of her.
I thought, after seeing this, that Boit was a very strict father...Or maybe something much darker lurked beneath the surface.
I read an article on the Russian women with flowers Instagram trend, and the author, Molly Young, referenced John Singer Sargent's work as a historical precedent to the trend. After reading her article, I became even more fascinated by Sargent's depiction of women. In the work cited -- The Wyndham Sisters: Lady Elcho, Mrs. Adeane, and Mrs. Tennant (1899), all three women's expressions, surroundings (and of course, the flowers) raised points for discussion.
These girls were the first, original, socialites (or at least some of the first).
The one in the middle is obviously the better looking, more popular of the three sisters. Her body language says it all, she is poised and relaxed, perhaps used to having her portrait drawn. Her facial expression is almost smug. She is definitely well off in her life. Maybe I am wrong, though. Her appearance makes me think she's the youngest of the three women. As the youngest, she may simply posses the blind confidence of youth.
As I look to the woman on the right, I get the sense she is the older sister. I read that the two sisters, Pamela Tennant in the middle, and Mary on the right, were the party animals of the family. She is gazing off into the distance with a knowing, but still hopeful expression. There's still a hint of smugness here, but it is being replaced with experience.
Now the woman on the left, Madeline Adeane, has an expression entirely different. She is not smug, or all-knowing. She seems tired most of all. She looks like she is the oldest, or definitely the most mature. I read that she married very young, to a man her sisters thought was boring. She was also disillusioned with the Souls' ideologies (the social group the Wyndham family belonged to).
Mrs. Adeane's face conveys that message quite clearly. She seems to be a bit sick of her sisters, and this rich, posh sitting room. Lady Elcho on the right seems to be the most well-off -- but all three women, with their expensive dresses, surroundings, and tons of flowers command a sense of aristocracy and privilege. Yet there is a sense of disillusionment that comes with it. The older sister looks hopeful yet knowing, that this life is fleeting. The youngest, Pamela, will soon learn how vapid and empty a life of luxury truly is.
N0w that John Singer Sargent's work is making its way to LACMA, I thought it interesting to look for further similarities. In Barbara Streisand's donated work -- Mrs. Cazalet and Children Edward and Victor (1900-1901), Mrs. Cazalet's face kept me fixated.
The stiffness of her shoulders and her taught smile is in stark contrast to the bright faced, beautiful children she's holding. It makes me wonder about her life. Did she want children? Did she get married to the man of her dreams, the love of her life? Maybe she has everything she has ever dreamed of, but it still isn't enough. Or could it be that having two sons, who will shortly depend solely on their father and need nothing from her, leaves her feeling worn out -- feeling like nothing more than a glorified babysitter.
I don't know the answers to my own questions. I do know that John Singer Sargent was incredibly brave to paint so honestly.
He is a master at capturing emotion, a treasured talent, and I cannot wait to view his work at the LACMA.