John Singer Sargent’s 1882 painting The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit shows four girls of differing ages in a nondescript domestic setting. The most imposing details of the room are the Chinese vases on either side, that act almost as a faulty border of the composition, since the right vase is cropped and one of the figures exists beyond the vase to the left and another sits in front of the porcelain outline. The other easily readable detail of the setting is the decorative rug which similarly breaks the composition up by dividing the figures between each other.
Though the conventional title suggests a portrait, the arrangement of figures does not allow priority to be placed on the girls as a unified group. The smallest child is given the most prominent and conventional portrait position. However she is not posed, or was posed and has since broken it, with her legs turned in and her eyes darting off in the direction of the viewer. Whether she appears to be engaging because she wants to, or because the painter has captured a flash of attention of the child is ambiguous. This child is also the most included in the composition, sitting on the carpet and being framed by the two Chinese vases.
Directly behind the youngest girl are the two eldest. In a much more shadowy location, the girls seemed to be united, in their dress, their overlapping positions and their evidently much smaller age gap. However, what breaks them apart is the girl on the right turning towards the viewer and engaging with her eyes, while the sister on the left defiantly looks and turns away from both viewer and painter by facing one vase and leaning on the other. The sister who is looking at the viewer also has a sense of either forward motion towards the viewer, or least squaring her body towards the viewer. From the white highlight of her shoe to her frontal body and face to her slightly open mouth, the girl looks like she could either walk towards the viewer or say something impertinent. Of course her path to the viewer is directly blocked by her toddler sister’s positioning. The other sister to the left does not have this sense at all. Unlike her younger sisters who glance, or engage fully, or the not yet discussed momentarily distraction from the viewer of the middle sister, this girl is defiant in her refusal to engage in the portrait. But as it will be seen, her defiance is not what breaks the composition or is even the most disturbing in the painting.
The middle sister, in both age and composition, is the most disengaged from her sisters. She is neither on the rug or framed by Chinese vases. In fact if she were moved to the right of her youngest sister, neither forward or backwards, the composition would be that of a regular portrait, since all the girls would be united by layering. Her placement on the far left is what causes the one Chinese vase to be cropped since she pulls the framing to the left. She is separated from her sisters in other ways as well. All the other girls come in pairs, the two eldest sisters together and the youngest sister with a doll. Also this girl is only child wearing red, while her older sisters favor dark blue dresses under their pinafores, and the youngest child wears a white dress that blends into her dolly. As for her gaze, the middle girl glances off to the left, while not turning her head, so her disengagement from the viewer is only seen in her eyes themselves.
Though traditionally titled with the identifier of the figures in the painting, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit does not read as a portrait of four sisters. It almost seems instead that the girls have broken their posing for the painting or have not been coerced into the right places. By breaking up the sisters into individuals, Sargent allows for a study of their differences. Each sister has her own lighting, her own place in the composition, and her level of engagement with the viewer. The only place where they are united fully is in the title.