19th-Century Art

Conservation of a Portrait

Conservation of John Singer Sargent’s Mrs. Edward Darley Boit (Mary Louisa Cushing)

Left: Conservator Lydia Vagts delicately removes heavy layers of yellowed varnish from Sargent’s Mrs. Edward Darley Boit (Mary Louisa Cushing).

Right: Note the bright colors of the cleaned portion in the right-hand section of this detail from the painting.

Level 2 of the new Art of the Americas Wing, opening in November, is devoted to the MFA’s great collection of 19th-century American art in all media. Galleries are dedicated to Homer and Eakins, the Aesthetic Movement, Heade and Lane, American Impressionists, the Arts and Crafts Movement, works by Americans abroad, and those devoted to life in America. Featured prominently will be a splendid new gallery devoted to John Singer Sargent; the Sargent portraits on view will include familiar faces and some new ones, several revitalized by conservation treatment.

Many of us know about Edward Darley Boit and his daughters—but what of the mother of those four charming girls? Mrs. Boit’s likeness, once described by the family as a “portrait that will live with the old masters,” will rejoin John Singer Sargent’s beloved portrait of her daughters and that of her husband (on loan from a private collection) for a family reunion in the new gallery.

Described by her friend Henry James as “brilliantly friendly” and “eternally juvenile,” Mary Louisa Cushing Boit (1845–1894), always known as Isa, was lively and vivacious, full of spirit, the social heart of her family. MFA conservators have recaptured Isa Boit’s sparkling character, removing a thick layer of yellowed varnish from the surface of her portrait and revealing the color scheme of periwinkle pink and deep black-blue. Sargent painted her in November 1887, sitting on a sofa in the front drawing room of 65 Mount Vernon Street, the Beacon Hill townhouse the Boit family had taken for the season and where the artist also stayed during his Boston visit. “Sargent is very fond of her, and evidently loves the task,” noted one family member during the process. The painter captured his sitter poised to laugh; her bold polka-dotted skirt and pert feathered headpiece match her buoyant personality.