Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose; John Singer Sargent
One of my favorite paintings by Sargent (which is to say, one of my favorite paintings by anyone), this is something of an elaborately constructed fantasy of a summer night, created by Sargent to capture the idea of the glowing lanterns at dusk, and the innocent childlike delight they can evoke.
What is not obvious is the large size of the work: 68 × 60 in (174 × 154 cm), and the way it envelops you when standing before it. The painting’s critical reception was mixed, but it was the first of Sargent’s works to be purchased by a museum.
Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose was painted during the time when Sargent had left Paris for England, and temporarily semi-retired from society portraiture following the unwelcome scandal that surrounded his famous Portrait of Madame X.
The account is that Sargent was inspired by a glimpse of chinese lanterns on the shore while boating on the Thames with American artist Edwin Austin Abbey.
Sargent set up to paint in the garden of painter F.D. Millet, at whose home he was staying, initially using Millet’s daughter as a model, but then replacing her with the daughters of illustrator Frederick Barnard, whose hair color he preferred for his composition.
Sargent worked on the piece for more than two months, his painting time limited by his desire to catch the real color and sensation of twilight.
The background is a made-up amalgam of elements, that Sargent gleaned from studying the children, lanterns and the garden over the course of several weeks, eventually even using lillies in vases when those in the garden faded. His preparatory work included drawings and painted sketches (image above, bottom).
The title comes from a song popular at the time, The Wreath, a line and refrain from which mention Flora, Goddess of Spring, and goes… “A wreath around her head, around her head she wore, Carnation, lily, lily, rose”.
The children seem innocently enrapt in the lighting of the lanterns, with that complete absorption they can bring to simple tasks. I love the way the reflected light in their faces and hands carries forward the glow of the lanterns. Even the flowers and buds, set against the darker grass and foliage, take on much the same character as the lanterns, as if the flowers themselves were alight in the dusk.