'This painting has the additional air of mystery that so often defines a great work of art

The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, 1882, 871/4in by 871/2in, by John Singer Sargent (1856–1925), Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Bridgeman Images.

Craig Brown says:
‘I first came upon this painting when walking around the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. It stopped me in my tracks. These four girls–the daughters of a rich fellow artist–stare out of the canvas with melancholy, as if trapped like butterflies by time. Sargent always had an amazing facility, but this painting has the additional air of mystery that so often defines a great work of art.’

Craig Brown is a critic and satirist, and a regular contributor to Private Eye.

Art critic John McEwen comments:
‘I used to scandalise my sober teachers by telling them I admired Sargent,’ said the late Victor Willing of his days at the Slade in the early 1950s. Teachers fashionably tarred by Marxism were blind to the merits of anyone who painted the rich. Sargent’s return to academic favour began a decade before the fall of Communism. Now, this masterpiece hangs on temporary loan in the Prado beside the larger Las Meninas, which Sargent copied in the Madrid gallery.

Velázquez was the rage when the Florence-born but American student was learning his craft at the atelier of Carolus-Duran in Paris. As a cosmopolitan American, fluent in French and Italian and highly musical, Sargent was pure Henry James, so who better to describe this portrait than the master novelist himself? James first met Sargent through Mrs Boit herself. ‘The naturalness of the composition, the loveliness of the complete effect, the light, free security of the execution, the sense it gives us of assimilated secrets and of instinct and knowledge playing together—all this makes the picture…[an] astonishing… work on the part of a young man of twenty six.’

None of the girls married, the two eldest grew to be ‘emotionally disturbed’, the youngest, Julia, was the last to die, in 1969. The Japanese vases are still in the family. Sargent eventually gave up portraiture—‘I must do something else. I have made so many enemies’. A show of his early paintings, ‘Sargent and the Sea’, is at the RA until September 26. ‘Victor Willing’ is at Casa das Histórias, Cascais, Portugal, from September 10.’

This article was first published in Country Life, July 28, 2010