Book Review: Sargent’s Daughters

Sargent's Daughters: A Biography of a Painting by Erica E. Hirschler

I picked up this book at the Agnes Scott Library after feeling a hole in my life that can only be filled by John Singer Sargent. My love of the expatriate is no secret. One of my first art history related posts was about The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit. Two of his paintings are among my top ten favorite pieces of art. I have a weakness for figural representations and society portraits. I love knowing the stories of models and the distinction between someone posing as something else and a portrait.

I’ve read a book about one of Sargent’s paintings before-Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X by Deborah Davis. That book was a wonderfully engaging story about a woman whose reputation and notoriety had been eclipsed by the man who painted her. I would recommend that book to any one interested in the subject, however the same does not go for Sargent’s Daughters.

I enjoyed the book a lot and learned quite a bit. But in an effort to be completely inclusive in the history of the Boit family through at least three generations, John Singer Sargent, the Gilded Age in Boston, London and Paris, and the art surrounding this time period, while containing the tome to little over 200 pages, the pace comes off as manic. Also, lots of names are thrown about and within a background in understanding of the art, it is hard to find a grasp on the context because the other context provided is society names. Also the art discussed is not the stuff of intro level survey, or even upper level classes in most undergraduate programs. John Singer Sargent is the stand out of Victorian and Edwardian art who firmly was not any of the avant-garde styles surging through Paris. So the other names mentioned are not commonly discussed outside of this circle of expatriates not participating in the avant-garde.

However, once the author establishes context and then dives into the lives of the Boits and Sargent and the life of the painting after its patrons and painter, the pace calms and the book becomes much more interesting.

I also enjoyed the very feminist historical approach at the sisters’ lives after the painting. Long as it been remarked on  “how sad” it is that none of the sisters ever married. But Hirschler looks at their lives, as well as the lives of many unmarried women in the Boston age, and determined that they were not doomed to unfulfilled lives simply for their lack of marriage, especially since their fortunes allowed them to live with the pressure to be married.

Overall, I would recommend this book to someone who knows a little bit about expatriates from the Gilded Age (read any Edith Wharton or Henry James) and has an interest in Sargent. It made me appreciate both him and this painting even more.

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