Welcome to the Chubby Chatterbox Newsletter, where I’ll be posting favorites from the Chubby Chatterbox archives. In addition, my complete thriller Return of the Mary Celeste will soon be serialized here for those who have asked for something beyond a regular post.

My novel is based on a true event, arguably the greatest maritime mystery of all time. In 1872 the crew and passengers of Boston brigantine Mary Celeste abandoned their seaworthy ship and its valuable cargo, vanishing in the middle of the Atlantic. Speculation over their fate has never abated. History records that after the Mary Celeste tragedy no one from that fateful voyage was ever seen again. History is about to be rewritten…

Return of the Mary Celeste

Prologue

Tragedy struck the brigantine Mary Celeste on the morning of November 25, 1872. The hourly log was later recovered from the deserted vessel; At 8 a.m. the last notation was made. By 9 a.m. no one remained aboard to chalk the next entry.

Something had terrified Captain Benjamin Briggs and his crew, prompting the seasoned skipper to make a decision certain to affect not only himself, his ship and crew, but his family as well—his wife and two year old daughter were aboard Mary Celeste. Much ink has been spilled in fanciful and scientific attempts to explain the calamity that engulfed this perfectly seaworthy ship, yet all that is known for certain is this: in a matter of minutes Captain Briggs became convinced that the only way to save their lives was by ordering everyone into a hastily launched lifeboat. By giving the order to abandon ship, he also launched the greatest of all maritime mysteries.

On December 5, 1872, a month after leaving New York Harbor, Mary Celeste was found drifting on a calm and empty sea. The ship was in fine condition, perfectly intact with valuable cargo safely stored in her hold, but the crew and passengers had vanished. None were ever seen again.

Until now….

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Four Corners and a Void

May 30, 2014

 

 

 

 Expatriate American painter John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) is best known for his flattering portraits of aristocrats, heiresses and well-heeled businessmen. He is famous for virtuoso brushwork and his ability to capture a moment or gesture. But his name doesn’t spring to mind when one thinks of portraits that dig beneath the surface to reveal the complexities of human nature. For the painting The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, Sargent chose not to group the four sisters—Florence, Jane, Mary Louis and Julia— together for a happy family portrait, creating instead an unconventional tableau.

 

 

    

 

Although critics praised this group portrait when first exhibited in Paris in 1882, much of the painting disturbed critics and viewers, with one quip calling it four corners and a void. Others were troubled by the fact that the four girls, all depicted in the same room, don’t interact and seem isolated from each other. The space, a plush Parisian apartment, seems dark and forbidding, the giant blue and white porcelain vases nearly as important as the girls. One art critic astutely commented that the painting displayed the various stages of childhood with the two older girls positioned in the dark passageway to suggest their entry into adulthood.

    

Sargent was intrigued with the work of the Spaniard Diego Velazquez, who you will remember from my discussion of the portraits of Juan de Pareja and Pope Innocent X. Velazquez’ most celebrated painting was Las Meninas (The Maids of Honor) painted in 1656. If we compare the two paintings, which the Prado Museum did when both works were hung side by side, it’s easy to conclude that Sargent’s canvas is a tribute to Velazquez’ work. Both works feature real personalities in authentic settings, with a focus on pictorial space.

 

    

 

 

Some observers to the 1882 exhibit of Sargent’s painting, when confronted with a picture that defied conventional portraiture, couldn’t believe the four girls were sisters. One girl’s features are concealed in shadow. In spite of the painting’s title and matching pinafores, some viewers incorrectly thought the two girls in the background were the children of servants.

    

The Boit family crossed the Atlantic sixteen times, bringing with them the large porcelain vases depicted in the painting. They bounced between Rome and Paris for many years. Sargent, born in Florence, Italy, to parents who believed their native country uncouth, must have felt a kinship with them. Few would have commissioned a portrait of children as unconventional as this, a massive square, but Boit was himself a modest painter who admired Sargent’s bravura brushstrokes and unconventional design.

 

 

    

 

The daughters of Edward Boit donated this painting to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 1919, along with the two large ceramics depicted in the painting. If you look closely at the photograph of these vases it’s possible to see how Sargent simplified the patterns to avoid distraction.

 

    

 

 

As mentioned earlier, Sargent is often accused of being psychologically shallow, but here he dispels his critics. The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit is a masterpiece of psychological penetration. Was it luck that caused him to understand Boit’s daughters so well? None of these attractive, wealthy girls went on to marry, and the two in shadows ended their lives insane. Sargent couldn’t have predicted this. Or did he?

 

 



Comments

22 Comments
Maybe that painting drove them insane; it is kind of creepy looking for a portrait. But I like the explanation about the stages of childhood.
By: PT Dilloway on May 30, 2014
A fascinating tale!
By: John on May 30, 2014
If you were to put all these dissertations and more together into an "Art Appreciation" book, and as you were a former professor in the subject I know you could, I would buy a copy for sure.
By: Cranky on May 30, 2014
oh my gosh- what a fascinating exploration of this painting. Especially the history of these 4 sisters and their lives. No marriages and two ending up insane. It makes this painting even more interesting. Thanks once again for the Art History lesson.
By: Kathe W. on May 30, 2014
oh, gosh! how eerie!
By: TexWisGirl on May 30, 2014
I do love his work. So romantic and rich. I am amazed that those beautiful vases are still around and travel with the painting!
By: Tabor on May 30, 2014
I like it. They probably were alienated from one another. Families aren't always close and loving. Why pretend? Love, Janie
By: Janie Junebug on May 30, 2014
What an interesting story about the actual children and what became of them. Most art to me that is really interesting, is up for different interpretations by the viewers. I found the painting dark and disturbing. I have always tried to make up stories about the subjects.
By: Akansas Patti on May 30, 2014
I really like the close ups of the faces - they show life and warmth -- but his composition is so cold and static. That's probably why it's so unsettling. It just doesn't work well as a whole.
By: Lexa Cain on May 30, 2014
I've learned so much from you!!
By: fishducky on May 30, 2014
Would it prove me an imbecile to simply say that it is an enjoyable portrait to look at? Methinks it probably would. So, I shan't.
By: Jerry E. Beuterbaugh on May 30, 2014
I think it speaks highly for you that I kept scrolling back up to look at the picture as I kept reading your blog post. And your words "Or did he?" made me scroll up once more, to study the painting again, looking for something that might be there. You are great at this!
By: Pixel Peeper on May 30, 2014
It's surprising that the right of the picture doesn't contain any of the sisters. He must have picked up that these girls were a bit strange.
By: red on May 30, 2014
I don't find it creepy or odd. But those are some big-ass vases.
By: Val on May 30, 2014
Wow. A scary foreshadowing.
By: mimi on May 30, 2014
Wow! I just got chills when I read the end because as beautiful as the painting is, I found it a bit disturbing---the two girls in the shadows creeped me out a bit. Very telling.
By: marcia @ Menopausal Mother on May 30, 2014
A fascinating and intriguing post. Your scholarship on this is appreciated. The fact about the two girls in the background is eerie.
By: Tom Cochrun on May 30, 2014
I saw the painting when we were in Boston two years ago, but didn't pay half as much attention to it as I have this morning.
By: (not necessarily your) Uncle Skip on May 31, 2014
I remember this painting and those vases well. I was lucky enough to see them in Boston over a decade ago and I felt an uneasiness with it then. For many reasons, that was a fascinating section of the MFA.
By: Hilary on May 31, 2014
This is fascinating. Thanks so much for shedding light on this for me. I was familiar with the painting and have always liked it, but had never really studied it.
By: Mitchell is Moving on May 31, 2014
Mr. Boit must have been very unhappy with this result ... but it sure makes for a great story. The girls looked ghostly to me, even before I got to the ending. Fascinating, in the true sense of the word.
By: Tom Sightings on May 31, 2014
It may be perceived as dark and foreboding to some. I see it as one painting that is particular telling of each girl for their age. As one gets older they withdraw and try to create a space to call their own. If my assumptions are close to the painters direction then I guess I've understood the intent... with your help. ;-)
By: Daniel LaFrance on June 4, 2014

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