Lucky enough to see this in person some time ago; wondered at what is going on in it for years. I think I remember the curator – or maybe it was Paul – had a comment that the girl in red to the left is an outcast. The other sisters form a tighter, more conventional triangle in our line of sight. The Boston MFA site helpfully lists the ages of the daughters: “Mary Louisa (eight years old when Sargent painted her), Florence (age fourteen), Jane (twelve), and Julia (four).” It makes perfect sense the 12 & 14 year olds want nothing to do with their 8 year old sister. The 4 year old can obviously get whatever she damn well wants.
The background is not incidental. I confess, I didn’t pay enough attention to it before. The vases correspond to the girls. The two in the center have a big one of their own; the one on the right is set off by red and away from everything else, much like Mary Louisa. Directly behind Julia are two small vases on a dresser, but she doesn’t really need a vase to stake her claim. Her white dress is almost formal and she holds a doll that with its color stands out even in a room full of rich objects. She’s set off by a rug that probably costs more than Air Force One.
Those large vases are not cheap, though. Again, from the MFA site: “The two tall Japanese vases, made in Arita in the late nineteenth century specifically for export to the West, were prized family possessions; their unusual size in relation to the girls makes the interior seem strange and magical.” Not really sure about “magical,” but definitely sure about “strange.” This is Wonderland, with all the darkness of inanity. There are vases, markers of wealth, that are as big or bigger than people; there’s the casual holding of a doll as if it were just another puppet, like some servant that needs lashes for not cleaning the stables after mowing the lawn and fixing the carriage. These daughters seem to emerge from the house, coming out of its darkened corridors or from its sides. The key to the whole thing is that a sister is being excluded because. Nothing here makes any sense, except the territoriality of young girls with wealth. That makes even less sense because there’s nothing they have to fight each other for, unlike some families where one has to fight with siblings to eat. One is tempted to want to give the 8 year old a book and some encouragement, but having been around families like these, we all know better. There’s probably too much cynicism on her part to take any help or attention.