The paradox of representation is that it is never real. It remains a fragment of cultural dialog that even if conceived in the absence of narrative finishes by providing one. Both Singer’s Daughters of Edward Darley Boit and Velazquez’s las Meninas have been linked, in art through Singer’s indebtedness to the conventions established by Velazquez. In both works there is an overhanging sense of doom that permeates the musty odor of darkness and anxiety. Alienation and disconnect. The human being as being superimposed into contexts over which they have little sense of free will or control, almost mechanically pre-destined to fulfill bit roles in a larger cosmic sequence of orderly random coincidences that impinge and predict their behavior. Both works compress the sense of eternal and immortal as imprisoned within a three dimensional world and the relentless in unequal cadence of time and death. Illusions of innocence, inertia and melancholy lend credence to the sense of vulnerability underlying the awkward poses of individuals suffering in cages and the viewer is implicated in the spectacle of this menagerie as interpreter of their role and ours within the narrative; there is no ideal point of view, just secondary options all of which deny them the light of day. With the bang of the gavel, lie Kafka’s Before the Law, they are free to pass but transfixed and inert, paralyzed as they look out before whisked away to their fate, dispatched to the more fulfilling role as a fragment of nature.
Both paintings construct the fiction of a hidden king, an unseen hand, who stands behind all representations and authorizes them.The only vectors of reality reflected within the works are shown to be invalid. Everything vacillates against several planes of form and meaning, all within the painting itself. The takeaway is that illusion and reality become confused, both just as convincing as the other, and competing, one for our faith and the latter as a point of repair to heal our emotion. In the end, we cannot easily discern that what we see is the truth because it is only part of the illusion. The truth may be in the discarded gestures that went into making the painting, each stroke unique and never to be repeated, each struggling between emancipation and submissiveness, between the grammar of color and the language of form.
…Each of these two remarkable paintings suggests a range of tantalizing narratives. Velázquez shows us the young Infanta (princess) Margarita, her maids and tutors and playthings, as well as her parents, King Philip IV and his queen, Mariana of Austria, and the painter himself. Each functions within a series of interlocking yet somewhat independent spaces; each is presumably a likeness. Sargent’s portrait of four young girls does pretty much the same thing with a smaller cast of characters. The young artist (he was only 26 at the time) challenges his iconic predecessor by reconceiving the radical and the unprecedented manner in which Velázquez had visually engaged the viewer as an active participant in the palace scene. They are extremely different works of art, so what justifies this pairing?
…From its first official showing at the Paris Salon of 1883, Sargent’s painting suggested to critics, with some justification, that the artist had somehow been inspired by “Las Meninas.” It’s not an unreasonable assumption. The Prado’s official register of copyists, displayed nearby, shows that Sargent had spent Oct. 27 to Nov. 14, 1879, in the museum copying the Velázquez painting. But seeing the works together makes it evident that it’s more accurate to describe Sargent’s work as informed by Velázquez….
…Each painting explores spatial placement and shows a nuanced understanding of depth of field. Great swaths of darkness—blacks, browns and indescribable in-between colors—accentuate intensely subtle gradations of light, especially through varied uses of white paint. Certainly not an avant-gardist, but nonetheless a modernist for his time, Sargent takes these explorations much further than Velázquez, whose studio in the royal palace—its walls adorned by paintings, a mirror and a door—we can visually enter with some ease. On the other hand, Sargent places the Boit girls in rooms—the entrance hall of their parents’ Paris apartment—that we can’t really enter because, even with what is presumably a mirror in the background, we don’t quite understand where we are. Two of the girls are in the forward space and two in the rear, but Sargent intentionally confuses us in our reading of the room configurations, despite the carefully constructed geometry that aligns the foreground carpet with the hints of architecture. The only other props here are a red screen (at about the same angle as the painter’s canvas in the Velázquez work) and two oversized Japanese blue-and-white vases (the actual ones are placed near the painting in its permanent Boston installation). They loom larger than the four young girls without upstaging them.
…There’s something incredibly daring about Sargent’s painting. Ostensibly a group portrait of four sisters, it isolates each of them. Baby Julia, in the foreground, seems to look out at us warily, as does Mary Louisa (Isa) at the left; but it’s possible they aren’t actually looking at us but simply being contemplative. Florence and Jane in the shadowy background are even less like portraits, given their mysterious, dark and hovering presences. Where is all this happening? The Velázquez painting is surely one of the most thoroughly analyzed in the history of art, but we can locate its actors much more easily, just as we can figure out where we, the viewers, stand in relationship to the action. Sargent deprives us of this comfort. His Prado visits would have given him plenty of other paintings of children for inspiration; especially noteworthy is the luscious portrait by Anton Raphael Mengs (1728-1779) of Archduchess Maria Theresa of Austria, at age 5 (1771), in a white satin dress not wholly unrelated to that of the young Infanta in the Velázquez painting….
…But Sargent is playing a different game. His mastery of the gradations of white—especially as expressed in the girls’ pinafores—from foreground intensity to how it’s gradually and varyingly inflected with the darker background is impressively daring. Surely the Velázquez painting exudes a hauntingly magical glow, but even as seen from afar in the Prado’s long galleria, the whites in the Sargent painting actually glitter, in a way that confirms Henry James’s observation: “when was the pinafore ever painted with that power and made so poetic?”
“Las Meninas” remains a copyist’s dream for its innumerable angles and complexities. Barcelona’s Picasso Museum has three rooms devoted to 44 Picasso paintings of 1957 playing with and interpreting the intricacies of the Velázquez masterpiece. And the Prado is concurrently hosting a small exhibition of the British artist Richard Hamilton’s own 1973 celebration of Picasso’s “Las Meninas” in variations of his own. We can enter the history of the painting and its meanings through the works of a wide range of specialist art historians and even the theater and opera director Jonathan Miller. Sargent’s “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit” is the subject of a brilliant and insightful recent study by Erica E. Hirshler. Historical facts, analyses and even anecdotes add to one’s understanding of these amazing works. But nothing can quite prepare you for the direct viewing of them, especially in their current brief and unique encounter with each other at the Prado. It’s worth the trip just for the ultimate lesson in how great paintings can mesmerize us and transform the way we see….Read More:http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303491304575188181552332078.html