Grade 7 Up–In this rather gothic mystery, Rees introduces readers to a man who is frequently called the greatest American portrait artist. Sargent is the narrator of this eerie and unusual story. Early in his career, he is commissioned to paint Edward Boits four young daughters. But all is not well in the restless household. Iza Boit is known to be eccentric, and Sargent is bemused by her capriciousness and the daughters antipathy toward him. This odd scenario builds slowly and steadily into a macabre tale of spirits, demons, and possession, as the artist tries at first simply to fulfill his commission, then is drawn deeper into the dark mystery. Rees provides plenty of detail and insight into Sargents creative process as he paints this dark portrait of the four unhappy sisters. The story and the detailed reproduction of the painting on the books jacket are woven together with an atmosphere rich in foreshadowing and dread. Appendixes provide an excellent framework for the period in which Sargent painted, including a time line, a brief biographical sketch, and a list of additional resources. Readers should be sufficiently captivated to look up more information about the artist and his work.
If you live in Boston, as I do, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, the portrait at the center of this art encounter, is one you are familiar with. And I must say, all the times I have seen the painting at the Museum of Fine Arts, I've never sensed anything sinister about it. Four little girls in white pinafores are situated in a grand foyer, with two enormous Chinese porcelain vases in the scene.
Rees turns the story of these girls into a haunting tale related to Henry James's story, "The Turn of the Screw." There is an evil presence, and it is unclear whether it is an outside force or the result of mental confusion and illness--there is a dysfunctional family here, at the least. In a historical note at the end of the novel, it is mentioned that the four girls in the portrait grew up without marrying; two of them were known to be eccentric, perhaps mentally ill. John Singer Sargent is the narrator of the story. He is a young, little-known painter in his 20s, in Paris, an American like the Boits. Sargent needs work, so he accepts the commission from the girls' father, a friendly man. Mr. Boit soon leaves for a business trip, and as Sargent visits the family to paint the girls, he finds a dangerously troubled mother and daughters who are frightened; someone in the household secretly enlists his help. Objects in the painting are part of the eerie story, as are details of the girls' various stances. The youngest daughter sits on the floor with a doll on her lap: this doll is a bizarre presence in Rees's spooky novel. Everyone familiar with this painting will enjoy Rees's ghostly tale, and will certainly look at Sargent's work differently. Claire Rosser, KLIATT
Early in his career, John Singer Sargent, widely known as America's greatest portraitist, painted “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit.” The work has puzzled observers for decades. What's with the eerie, shadowy tone? Isn't there something strange about that doll in the foreground?
Rees' book is one in a series of “Art Encounters,” books that create stories behind great canvasses. They combine historical fact with fiction, creative process with mystery, biography and suspense. Previous books have explored works by Frida Kahlo, Georgia O'Keeffe, Leonardo da Vinci and Paul Gauguin. The last, “The Smoking Mirror,” was written by Rees in 2004.
Now, he uses the same blending technique in a deeply affecting story that puts Sargent in the middle of a profoundly troubled family. “I have painted greed and ignorance, and a great many times I have painted vanity,” Sargent says. “Only once have I created horror.”
Sargent's commission to paint la famille Boit goes badly from the beginning. Madame Boit is a serious temper case, the girls are strange and poorly behaved and the tutor moves about pale and terrified. Sargent conjures excuses to quit until he receives a message, etched by fingernail, “Help us.”
With seamless prose and complete command, Rees leads readers into otherworldly realms, and gratefully back out again. Along the way, we learn it is not only the Boits who are distressed by demons. An irresistible work that surpasses all expectations.