Two little girls stand in a garden at dusk, intently lighting the candles in Chinese lanterns; lilies tower over them. Everything glows in this painting: the white dresses on the girls, the girls’ faces, the lanterns—and the lilies.
This is Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, one of John Singer Sargent’s most beloved works. The title comes from a popular song in England of the 1880s, when the artist spent two summers working on the painting.
A garden scene might seem like an unlikely subject for a man best known for his portraits of Gilded Age society figures, portraits that now hang in museums from San Francisco to London, as well as in ducal mansions in Britain. (Though a closer looks reveals many flowers in those portraits, tucked into hats and hair and corsages and nosegays, so obviously he got plenty of practice.)