When John Singer Sargent first displayed his enigmatic The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit in Paris in 1882, critics praised the artist’s technical abilities but were perplexed by the unconventional approach to portraiture. The painting’s singular composition positions the figures of the four Boit girls on the threshold of a dark central void, obscuring the features of the two eldest girls. The ambiguous nature of the painting, both beautiful and mysterious, has continued to delight and confound audiences ever since. Sargent’s painting serves as the major inspiration for Spanish artist Jorge R. Pombo’s latest series of paintings, Variations on Sargent’s Daughters. Pombo’s striking Variations reinterpret the historical painting, obscuring figure and form through fluid abstraction.
A self-taught artist, Pombo describes his artmaking as a struggle of opposites: figuration versus abstraction, image against words, narrative versus non-narrative. His methodology is similarly paradoxical, and his techniques mirror this perpetual exploration of opposing forces. Appropriating images from master artists like Tintoretto, Michelangelo, Velázquez, and, of course, Sargent, Pombo paints works bound to specific points of departure, specific times and places, but then frees them from historicity via more modern means. Once the chosen image is rendered on canvas, the artist pours solvent over the oils. This method, reminiscent of mid-twentieth century action paintings, produces a fluid, abstracted version of the original masterpiece - a blurred variation emphasizing color and movement rather than figure and form.
Pombo says of his process: “I erase images, affirming as well as eliminating them. By blurring them capriciously with the solvent. I cause chance to intervene in the finishing decisions of the painting, emphasizing the liquid aspect of the discipline, trying to respect the dynamics of the nature of the paint puddles.”
Though familiar with The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit through photographs, Pombo first saw the painting in person in 2014 during a trip to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. He was immediately drawn in, the work holding an inexplicably powerful magnetism over him. Pombo has returned to Boston for a handful of visits since that fateful encounter, each time reserving a full day to reacquaint himself with Sargent’s painting.
Pombo’s reaction to The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit is not uncommon, though his connection to the piece (which he likens to “an impossible love”) is significant. The unconventional work has been the subject of much speculation and admiration since its 1882 debut. Painted in the autumn of the same year, the work is half group portrait, half interior scene, depicting each of the daughters of American ex-pat Edward “Ned” Boit individually, yet obscuring the features of two. Sargent places the girls in an indeterminate space, a foyer both familiar and unfamiliar, light and dark, public and private. The painting has been variously described as a “happy play-world of a family of charming children,” and a commentary on the nature of childhood and adolescence, among other interpretations.
There are parallels between Pombo’s Daughters variations and Sargent’s original that extend beyond the obvious. As Pombo looks to art history for reference, Sargent, too, found a historical precedent for his unusual composition, taking inspiration from Diego Velázquez’s famed Las Meninas. Both Pombo and Sargent play with opposites within their respective works, creating enigmatic spaces that offer no straightforward answers, but rather evoke more questions. Perhaps part of Pombo’s intense affinity to The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit is its artistic familiarity, a commonality between two artists that spans across time. There is additional personal resonance; Pombo has a daughter himself and is a godparent to a young girl in Boston as well. His variations on Sargent’s Daughters are thus also reflections of the lives of daughters he knows.
Pombo started his series during the Covid-19 lockdown in the beginning months of 2020. Living in northern Italy, an area hit by the pandemic early and particularly hard, Pombo used the imposed isolation to begin his interpretations of The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit. In the face of the unknown of a global health crisis, Sargent’s painting proved especially relevant to Pombo’s (and the world’s) circumstances. The painting’s central dark mass took on an unnerving nature, becoming a threshold towards something unpredictable and unsettling. Pombo chose this black void as the central feature of many of the variations, intending to paint both nothingness and absence, a reflection of the isolation and uneasiness experienced during the pandemic.
Variations on Sargent’s Daughters is Pombo’s first solo exhibition at Boston's Childs Gallery, though the artist has exhibited extensively internationally including solo and group shows in China, Italy, Germany, Spain, Switzerland, and the UK. His exhibition venues include the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne, the Museo del Duomo di Milan, and the Scuola Grande di San Rocco in Venice. Variations on Sargent’s Daughters will be on view November 18, 2021 through January 8, 2022.