Las Meninas and John Singer Sargent

I visited the famous Prado art museum in Madrid with my sister in March of 2010 and was fortunate enough to view the temporary pairing of Las Meninas by Velázquez with The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit by John Singer Sargent.  The Sargent painting was on loan from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and it was really interesting to see them hanging near each other.  I had never connected the two works on my own, but seeing them together made for a very interesting and unique comparison.

Diego Velázquez, Las Meninas,1656
Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid 125.20 x 108.66 in. (318 cm x 276 cm)
Las Meninas (Infanta Margarita and her maids of honor) might be one of the most famous paintings in the world and also one of the most unique.  Diego Velázquez was the royal court painter, during his career he was responsible for painting dozens of portraits of the Spanish Royal Family during the reign of King Philip IV.  This was painted near the end of his career and at a time when he had been painting for the court for over 30 years.

It is perhaps the familiarity he had with the royal family that let him to this type of portrait, a big departure from the typical formal portraits more people at the time, especially royalty.  It is as if someone had taken a candid photo in the artist's studio while Velázquez was painting and the young princess and her maids were caught unaware in a moment in time.

It is a painting that seems purposely enigmatic, what exactly is going on here?  Diego Velázquez shows a foreground with the young princess and her maids, Magarita's pose is rigidly formal while the others move more naturally around her.  Velázquez creates a long vertical axis with the edge of the painting he is working on.  Is he painting a self-portrait?  He has given the viewer a self-portrait within a portrait.  Or instead is he painting a portrait of the princess and at this moment perhaps she is taking a break from her pose?  Or perhaps he is painting a portrait of the king and queen, who can be seen in the background reflected in a mirror.  On second look are the king and queen reflected in a mirror or is that meant to be a painting of them hanging on the wall?  It almost seems as if Velázquez is painting us, the viewer and drawing us into his daily life.
Velázquez has given the viewer some insight into a day in the life of the royal family, its busy court and his own important role as the royal court painter in the midst of everything. 
John Singer Sargent, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, 1882
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (221.93 x 222.57 cm (87 3/8 x 87 5/8 in.)

John Singer Sargent was an American painter who spent most of his life in Europe.  He was trained as a painter in Paris, studying at the École des Beaux-Arts, and in the Ateliers of both Carolus-Durand and Léon Bonnat.  Sargent is probably best known for his many beautiful and original portrait paintings as well as his landscapes.
Sargent's painting on loan at the Prado was a portrait commissioned of Boits’ four daughters, from left: Mary Louisa (eight), Florence (fourteen), Jane (twelve), and Julia (four).  While he was likely commissioned to paint a more conventional type of portrait, Boit was pleased with the work and Sargent's more contemporary approach allows each of the girls personalities to show through.
As Erica E. Hirshler writes of the work:

"Its unusual format was inspired by the art of both the past and the present, a characteristic approach that Sargent employed to make paintings that seemed simultaneously traditional and modern. The historical precedent for the Boit portrait can be found in the work of the seventeenth-century Spanish master Diego Velázquez, an artist greatly admired in nineteenth-century France. Sargent had traveled to Madrid in 1879 to make copies after Velázquez at the Museo Nacional del Prado; among the paintings he studied was Las Meninas (about 1656), a large and famous portrait of the young Spanish infanta with her maids in a great shadowed room. Sargent adapted Velázquez’s mysterious space, his dark subdued palette, and the manner in which his self-possessed princess directly confronts the viewer. At the same time, Sargent must have been thinking of the unusual portraits and oddly centrifugal compositions of his French contemporary Edgar Degas. The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit shares some of Degas’s strategies: the asymmetrical composition with an almost empty center, the sense of disconnection between family members, and a feeling of modern life interrupted." 1

Las Meninas by Velázquez and Sargent's The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit  can be compared and contrasted with one another in several ways:
Both are large paintings and both are group portraits of young women shown in an informal and unique way.  Each artist breaks from a traditional portraiture style and also has more than one figure looking directly at the viewer. 
There are figures in both sets of foreground and middle ground and also both have a darker background, the depth of which is difficult to discern.  Each painter uses long vertical lines to break up the composition; in Las Meninas we have the edge of the frame on the left and in Sargent's work the painting and figures are divided by a doorway.

The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, Sargent
Las Meninas, Velázquez

There are many differences between them too, the biggest one being that they were painted over two hundred years apart and for very different reasons.   Velázquez was the painter in the royal court of Spain, during the height of the country's colonial period in the mid-17th century.  Sargent was a well known American portrait painter living abroad in Paris who was commissioned by a fellow expatriate and painter Edward Boit to paint a group portrait of his young daughters.  While in Las Meninas the focus is on other members of the court including the artist himself, the Boit portrait focuses only on the children.

When seen together we can note the contrast between the palate and technique of each painter.  As was the style of the time Velázquez was using a darker and more monochromatic palate and has created his painting with many layers of oil paint.  The brushstrokes are smaller and well blended with many tiny details painted into the work.

Sargent is painting at a time after the French Impressionists have been exhibiting their work for a decade.  His palate is subdued but is still brighter, lighter and contains a wider variety of color and pigments than the earlier work.  The brushstrokes are looser and more painterly and several bright highlights are not blended in, these effects bring his subjects to life. 

Still even with these differences, it seems apparent that Sargent was looking back towards of the work of Velázquez and that he was influenced by the Spanish master in this and other of his own paintings.

It has been a few years since I saw these artworks hanging near each other, but I still think of this pairing each time I see a reproduction of either painting. In the last few years the Prado has had several pieces as part of its "Invited Work" series where a well known painting from another museum is hung near a work at the Prado. I think starting these types of conversations about art is a large reason that I am so drawn to all aspects of art history.

1-Erica E. Hirshler, Sargent’s Daughters: The Biography of a Painting [] (Boston: MFA Publications, 2009)

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