One of the world’s most beloved depictions of a garden is “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose” by American painter John Singer Sargent (1856-1925). How Sargent came to capture that magical moment at the end of a summer’s day in his portrayal of two little girls standing amidst flowers is a fascinating one.
In 1885, the 29-year-old Sargent was feeling somewhat discouraged. Although he had built a reputation in France as a promising new artist, his months of hard work on a painting of a Parisian society matron, “Mme. Pierre Gautreau” (now called “Madame X”, and one of his most famous paintings) were met with controversy and scandal. He sought a change of scenery and traveled to England
The inspiration for a new painting came from a boat trip down the River Thames that Sargent took with fellow painter Austin Abbey. Sargent describes it in a letter: “I am trying to paint a charming thing I saw the other evening. Two little girls in a garden at twilight lighting paper lanterns among the flowers from rose-tree to rose-tree. I shall be a long time about it if I don’t give up in desperation.
At Broadway, a village on the River Avon, just south of Stratford, Sargent joined an informal colony for the arts, where the company included American author Henry James. Here the scene which had so delighted him on his boat trip came to occupy him for two whole summers. Just after sunset, Sargent would race to his large canvas, on which he had originally planned a scene of a young girl lighting a Chinese lantern in the twilight. His first model was little Kate Millet, his host’s daughter. Because he thought her brown hair too dark for his painting, he found a blonde wig for her to wear when she was posing.
But when illustrator Frederick Barnard and his two daughters arrived in Broadway, Sargent’s plan changed. Polly and Molly Barnard were blonde, so no wigs were required, and they had the added benefit of being seven and eleven--a little older than Kate Millet and thus better able to hold still as they posed. So the painting became a portrait of two girls rather than one. Progress on the painting was painstakingly slow, since Sargent could capture the light of dusk (which of course came earlier and earlier each day) for only a few minutes.
Sargent’s daily routine never varied--he painted landscapes creating a complete sketch, which the next day he would paint over. Art critic Edmund Gosse, also summering at Broadway, wrote “I often could have wept to see these brilliantly fresh and sparkling sketches ruthlessly sacrifice."
Sargent worked just after sunset for about 20 minutes to record the effect of the light as his little models held their Chinese lanterns. With the warm glow of the lanterns against the dusky purple of the summer twilight, he told Robert Louis Stevenson that he was seeking to capture “a most paradisiac sight [that] makes one rave with pleasure”. The painting came to be called “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose” after the refrain of a popular song of 1885.
In a letter to his sister Emily, Sargent wrote, “ I am launched into my garden picture and have two good little models and a garden that answers the purpose although there are hardly any flowers and I have to scour the cottage gardens and transplant and make shift...Fearful difficult subject.” Sargent walked through the village offering to buy flowers from the residents’ gardens. By November the air was chill and the little girls wore wool cardigans underneath their summer frocks. Because the rose bushes were bare, his hostess tied on artificial flowers for Sargent to paint. His painting was far from finished, though, so the canvas was stored until the following year.
Sargent was prepared for the second season of painting. In April, he had sent fifty Aurelian lily bulbs to his hosts in Broadway--twenty to be put in pots for him to use for his painting, and the rest for the garden. When he returned to Broadway in the summer of 1886, he once again worked to capture the few minutes of light with his little models. Sargent finally finished by the end of October 1886. He entered "Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose" in the1887 Royal Academy exhibition in London, where it was both a critical and popular success. Soon after it went on view, it was purchased for the Tate Gallery.
The completed oil on canvas, which measures 68 1/2 inches by 60 1/2 inches, depicts two young girls in white smocks standing amidst a garden of carnations, roses and white lilies. The paper lanterns held by the girls shimmer against the summer twilight. Despite the fact that it took two summers for Sargent to complete it, the painting does not seem labored over--it appears as fresh as the girls and the flowers themselves.
This story about the painting appeals to me because recently I have been excited about painting in oils. The part of the story above about "capturing the few minutes of light" jumped out at me. Yesterday I saw a scene near the river, the field was lit a very bright green atop a hill. By the time I grabbed my camera from the car, the light had changed and the field was once again dark. I have been doing some research online and have bought some new supplies. I need to stop talkin' about it and Just Do It! :~)
It took John Singer Sargent two summers to complete this painting.