Here are two remarkably similar stories about remarkably dissimilar works of art. Maryalice Huggins calls hers “a love story” as in Aesop’s Mirror: A Love Story; Erica Hirshler prefers “biography of a painting” for Sargent’s Daughters: Biography of a Painting. In fact, both are mysteries. The mystery is why certain works of art seize our hearts and won’t let go.
For Huggins, an antiques restorer, it happened at an auction in Clayville, Rhode Island, in 1995, when she spotted an enormous gilded Rococo mirror: “Rapture and intrigue hit me at once.” She’s spent the past 15 years trying to find out who made it, where, and for whom, and how it got to Clayville. In the process she has restored it, tried unsuccessfully to sell it, stored it away at great expense, and finally hung it on her own wall. “Owning it was like owning a pet elephant that followed me around, forcing me to keep working in order to feed and house it,” she writes. “But that’s love for you. You don’t keep tabs.”
By contrast, Hirshler’s interest in John Singer Sargent‘s famous (and also enormous) painting The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit is more scholarly than personal. Like Huggins, she provides a wealth of information about her subjects: Sargent, his friend and fellow artist Boit, and the four girls in white pinafores who both inhabit and haunt the painting, one of the jewels of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. But the great mystery is the painting itself–and its effect on viewers. She quotes one man whose wife “stands there crying, for about twenty minutes” every time she sees it.
The novelist Henry James, a friend of both Sargent and the Boits, once described “the sense it gives us as of assimilated secrets and instinct and knowledge playing together.” Hirshler’s book reveals some of that knowledge and those secrets, and they are sad, sad, sad. The girls’ wealthy but aimless father never approached the fame of his friend Sargent; joint shows in 1909 and 1912 seem like cruel jokes in retrospect. None of the four little girls married, and one suffered from a nervous ailment all her life. Their mother died at 48. “I am very sorry indeed for poor Boit and his crazy children,” wrote Henry James at the time.
I’ve stared at that painting every time I’ve visited the MFA and never cried. Next time, I might.