1 of these is not like the other...or is it?

You know how sometimes something reminds you of something else?

Even though it might seem ridiculous to most people?

Well, here we go.

In the hallway outside my modest apartment, there is a vase. It has been there since I moved in. Was if left behind? Was it decor added by the landlord? All I know is I see it frequently and it's a pop of color outside my door.

The other day, it reminded me of the Asian vases that flank the famous painting at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, "The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit," by John Singer Sargent. This week was Sargent's birthday (Jan 12, 1857 - Florence, Italy), so I've been thinking about him.

"The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit," by John Singer Sargent
"The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit," John Singer Sargent. Oil on canvas, 1882.
In the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

This is a revolutionary painting. There are hundreds of pages of scholarship on this magnificent painting, so I have to control myself. Some key concepts from me as an artist:

  • It's square (87 3/8 x 87 5/8 in). Square is unusual. As an artist, you usually avoid square.
  • It's four portraits, yet some of the subjects are in shadow. And they are standing separately.
  • It's painted in the hallway of a grand house. Usually the more opulent the room is the better for the portrait. Setting a portrait in a hallway is rare.
  • The girls are each looking in different directions. Only the toddler, Julia, holding her doll (in an awkward pose for a portrait--normal pose for a child), is looking at "the viewer."
  • There is a large red triangular shape, that once you see it, you are surprised how dominant it is.
  • There is light from a window in the background that carries the eye across a dark passage. Even if there wasn't a window there, it would be a good compositional move to add a bright spot there to carry the eye to the other side of the painting. Sargent is a genius at composition.
  • There are two enormous, 6' high shiny blue and white Japanese vases.

Henry James, a friend of the Boit family as well as of Sargent, said, "With this painting, Sargent masterfully transcended portraiture, providing a continuously evocative meditation on openness and enigma, public and private, light and shadow."
Henry James, “John S. Sargent,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, 75 (October 1887), 688.


One of my favorite books on the topic is "Sargent's Daughters. The Biography of a Painting" by Erica E. Hirshler. I've linked to the MFA shop, so you will support that museum if you purchase through this link. I have no affiliate relationship, other than I love the MFA 😀

Sargent painting hangs in the Art of the Americas wing at the MFA

These vases have a remarkable set of "passports" to accompany them. First, they arrived in Europe in the 1870's, after the re-opening of trade and discourse between Japan and the world in 1853. Japan had been cloistered to most trade for two-hundred years.

These vases were made in Arita, Japan, and they, or vases similar to them, may have been part of the shipment of over 30,000 objects from the Fukagawa workshop to the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876.

Japonismé was the French word coined to describe the flood of objects, textiles, music, and other cultural influences from Japan at that time. The effect on artists in Europe changed the art that was created from then on.

Henri de Toulouse Lautrec, for example, adopted wood block print attributes into his poster art.

A poster drawn by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec featuring a rotund man at a table with a dancing girl at his side. She is kissing him on the cheek. He is dressed in black. She is in red.
A poster by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, "Reain do Joie."

Mary Cassatt was also influenced by wood block prints. She created a series of inspired prints including this one, "The Letter."

 

"The Letter," by Mary Cassatt. In the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.
"The Letter," by Mary Cassatt. In the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Claude Monet painted his wife in a kimono. In fact, the kimono became quite de rigueur in affluent Parisian society.

Madame Monet en Costume Japonais," 1875. Painted by Claude Monet illustrating the influence of the Japanese culture on the artists of Paris.
Madame Monet en Costume Japonais," 1875. Painted by Claude Monet illustrating the influence of the Japanese culture on the artists of Paris.

Whistler included Japonismé in some of his most famous works, including in the Peacock Room reconstructed at the Freer Gallery in Washington D.C.

"The Princess from the Land of Porcelain," in the Peacock Room, Freer Gallery, DC. James Abbott McNeil Whistler. Notice the Asian porcelain surrounding the portrait.
"The Princess from the Land of Porcelain," in the Peacock Room, Freer Gallery, DC. James Abbott McNeil Whistler. Notice the Asian porcelain surrounding the portrait.

Van Gogh, Manet, Tissot, Degas, Gauguin, Beardsley, Klimt, Renoir, and Sargent, and the artists above, are names of painters who were influenced by the Japonismé trends.

In music, we have examples including "The Mikado" and "Madame Butterfly." I'm sure a music historian could give many more examples. And, there are influences in literature and other art forms too.

Japanese Gardens, so prevalent now in many public gardens, were inspired by this appetite for all things Japanese. Monet's bridges at Giverny, and many of his garden spaces were fashioned after these influences.

Back to the story about the "passports" of the vases...the Boit family traveled with these vases!

"They were packed and repacked moving back and forth across the Atlantic with the family...relatives later recounted with amazement that the vases crossed the Atlantic more than a dozen times, suffering only relatively minor damage to their rims. Six feet tall and massive...their colossal proportions dwarfed the girls making odd relationships between the animate and inanimate subject of Sargent’s portrait.”
"Sargent’s Daughters," Erica Hirshler.


One of the Japanese vases shown in the Sargent painting, Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
One of the Japanese vases shown in the Sargent painting, Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Tucked inside the vases were “a cigar stub, a paper airplane, a pink ribbon, a tennis ball, sheets of geography lessons, a letter about the repeal of Prohibition, an Arrow shirt collar, an old doughnut, an admission card to a dance at the Eastern Yacht Club in Marblehead, Mass., three badminton shuttlecocks, many coins, and a feather.” "Sargent's Daughters," Erica Hirshler.

The contents of the Boit's vases tell the history of that hallway.

So, as I looked at this simple vase in my front hall this week, it brought all this back and made me smile. Nope. No tennis ball and no fliers on Prohibition found inside.

The vase in my hallway that triggered this discussion.The vase in my hallway that triggered this discussion.


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