The Lack of Possession and Belonging in John Singer Sargent's "The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit"

The trick to art is to pretend a friend made it, and you want to say something nice and thoughtful to them.

The Lack of Possession and Belonging in John Singer Sargent's "The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit"

To my readers: I apologize for not posting more. This has been a very busy month. I'm still getting used to teaching this much and dealing with student needs as well as my own. There have been multiple doctor visits this month, as I finally have real health insurance and need to get things checked out. There's been lots of grading and class preparation (significantly more of the latter). And as I'm still new to Missouri, there's been lots of exploring, figuring out what's around me and what I can do. I still have papers on Nietzsche and Plato to write.

In class we discussed the painting below. The students did well despite the fact my questions were less than exemplary. I felt I had to write something showing how interpretation works. How one can have a judgment and then critique that judgment.

Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

The trick to art is to pretend a friend made it, and you want to say something nice and thoughtful to them. Of course, some art is wretched, even harmful, but pejorative criticism is an advanced skill, and perhaps not a necessary one. Plato puts many of Socrates' antagonists in a radiant light, giving them incredible eloquence and clever, resonant arguments. There's no need to say anything mean if you're confident the good is readily seen. —Still, I must confess, I am prone to saying that because a color looks wrong in a landscape, the artist is a serial killer. I may not be an authority here.—

"OK," you say. "But what if I don't care about art? Don't want to care?" Fair. I can only point to its potential importance, as I have limited rhetorical options. A high school teacher of mine, challenged to explain the value of education, asserted "Education can enhance your life." I didn't like that proposition then, I like it even less now, but I understand why it was said. My teacher would not have been able to convince his interlocutor, whose respect for school extended as far as the slogan "D is for diploma." How was he going to explain debates about the origin of language, or the stories which taught us how to tell a story, or the persecution of those pursuing knowledge in previous ages? All he could say was "Education can enhance your life," criminally understating the nature of the benefit. One can retort that art does not have the utility education in general has. A survey of what artists do for their art would be helpful here. In any case, utility, I've learned, is more about what we declare useful than anything else.

You are not convinced in the least. I'm too preachy. I might as well tell you what's bad is good and what's good is bad. I need to show you a painting and walk through it detail by detail. I need to point with more precision.

John Singer Sargent, "The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit"

John Singer Sargent unmistakably displays a virtuosity with oil paint. In "The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit," no one can deny his outstanding rendering of lustrous blue and white vases. Nor can they avoid the haunted expressions on the girls' faces. His mastery of composition, however, should not be passed over. He sets the scene in a brown, cavernous space consisting of two rooms, one in front of the other. Four girls, Boit's daughters, are scattered within. All wear white pinafores. Two are in the well-lighted foreground. One dressed in red stands next to a wall, hands behind her back, almost hiding from her sisters. Another who is clearly the youngest, sits on an elaborate carpet with a bright pink doll. The light strikes her white garment so strongly that it gleams; it feels like she wears a more elaborate dress, though she probably does not. Behind these two are two others, both wearing black, emerging from the shadows of the backroom. One stands in the exact center of the painting, hands by her side, as if at attention but staring blankly at us. Another leans on a giant vase, turned away from us, staring at what might be the wall.

Despite rich objects, the area feels drab. It fails to fit the children well, as there is too much space and too many objects bigger than them. The children are overshadowed by both the intimidating geometry of the interior and the combination of browns, blues, and shadows which may be elegant but are understated to a fault. Nothing is theirs, save a doll the youngest holds.

Sargent's painting comes dangerously close to not working. The colors are not eye-catching, the individuals seem an afterthought. But he has created, through choices edging toward mistakes, a deeply unsettling scene.


I am staring at the vases. The giant blue and white Japanese ones, made in Arita, which the painting itself actually sits between (1). And smaller blue vases on a mantel, only visible by the combination of some light from the foreground and the reflection of light from another room.

Four vases, four sisters in pinafores. The big vases tower over the children, framing the space three dwell within. The sister in red stands outside that space. She's not close to the vases on the mantel either. They're mysterious objects, shrouded in darkness like the two sisters near them.

This leads me to a ridiculous idea: each sister has a vase. The smaller blue vases on the mantel pair with the girls nearest them. Even though one of the sisters in the back leans on a vase from Arita, that vase corresponds to the youngest in the foreground, the youngest who holds a doll. And the other giant vase is bounded by a red-orange screen, exactly opposite the sister in red.

Each sister has a vase, each sister has a pinafore. Each is assigned an adult object and a garment specific for children. The drabness of the painting echoes in this symbolism. They are trapped in a world that is not theirs. The vases make no sense for them to have. The pinafores suggest they are at play, but play is paused, and none of them are looking at each other.

What is missing is any sense of what vases are good for: flowers. The vases are empty. The painting almost completely lacks bright colors. There's only the pink of the doll, the red of one dress, a flare of red-orange. An explicit celebration of growth nowhere to be found.


Like a number of viewers, I want to say more about the girl with the red dress. She places her hands behind her back as she stands against the wall, out of sight of each one of her sisters. It's hard to read her expression, but she looks more nervous than anything else.

Even without knowing she's a middle child, you know she's a middle child. Between the older, who are more fascinated with authority and obedience, and the younger, prone to be pampered or neglected. There's a way of being passed over that isn't quite neglect, because someone would have to remember you were there in the first place. There's a way of getting things that isn't the same as pampering, because what you get separates you.

What can be said to a nervous 8 year old to relieve the anxiety? (3) Sargent makes this problem acute some 20-30 years before Adler develops his ideas about the significance of birth order on sibling development. There are no easy answers for us as adult viewers. We can and should give children attention and care. But we can also see how children grow apart from each other, and it is near impossible to adequately address this. Some parents I knew insisted children be treated exactly equally, as if treating each exactly the same creates the solidarity they need. Henry James' statement that this painting depicts a "happy play-world of a family of charming children" seems a quip to allow that sort of parent to contemplate something less difficult (2).

I should qualify how this painting is unsettling. Wikipedia offers a summary of the opinion of Bill Brown, who says the vases are rendered in a way reserved for people but the children resemble objects:

Author Bill Brown has commented on what he calls the "uncanny qualities" of the depiction of the girls and the vases, which he asserts promote "an indeterminate ontology [because of] the inability to distinguish between the animate and the inanimate." Brown claims that the painting offers a portrait of vases and a still life of the girls, and that this "discloses a dialectic of person and thing." (3)

I do not read the painting exactly the same way. The girls relate to each other, despite their distance. The larger tragedy is a profound alienation which takes them through too much that is human before depositing them wherever it will. The sisters are surrounded by opulence and are being painted by one of the greatest painters ever. Yet they have virtually nothing. They're lost in a space. Love and concern can only alleviate their problems; growing up and recognizing what you have take time. It is not clear that process has started, though, or ever will start.


(1) Hirshler, Erica. "The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit." The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, (Accessed 9/30/2022)

(2) Ibid.

(3) Ibid.

(4) Wikipedia contributors. "The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (Accessed 9/30/2022)