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.)
But in 1884, Sargent was struggling to find a place in the art world. His now famous painting Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau) had been savaged by the Paris art critics, and the young man, born in America and reared in Europe, found few commissions. He closed his Paris studio and began working in London, hoping for greater success there—but British critics were equally harsh. (Interestingly enough, one complained bitterly about the “crudity of the carnations” in an 1884 portrait.) However, he had a number of friends, and in 1885 he joined a colony of artists—painters and writers—summering in the Cotswolds, in a village about a dozen miles from Stratford: Novelist Henry James was one of their number, as was poet and art critic Edmund Grosse; so was portraitist Frank David Millet and illustrator Frederick Barnard and his wife, Alice Faraday Barnard, and their two daughters. It was a happy group by all accounts.
Sargent spent the summer dashing off oil sketches of everything he saw, painting in a very nearly Impressionist style. One of those sketches was of two children in a garden, standing among towering lilies. Sargent revisited the idea the following summer, replacing the boy and girl in the preliminary study with the two Barnard girls, Dorothy and Polly, who were seven and eleven at the time.
Regardless of the delicacy and freshness of the painting, the final work was anything but dashed off. Sargent did study after study for it, and then toiled away on the painting itself for two successive summers. He had only a few minutes at dusk each day when the light was exactly right, so his time was extremely limited. The scene was carefully set, and as the magic moment neared, his subjects would take their places and he would paint feverishly. As summer became fall in 1885, the roses withered and were replaced by wax ones wired to the bare shrubs, and paper lilies stood in for real ones. Finally, in November, the work had to be set aside for another season.
He finished Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose in the summer of 1886. The painting proved a turning point in his career. London art critics who had scorned his work praised Carnation, Lily when it was exhibited in 1887 at the Royal Academy; it was purchased almost immediately for the Tate Gallery in London, where it hangs to this day. Within five years Sargent was the leading portraitist of his day, painting lords and ladies, industrialists and presidents. But every summer he abandoned the studio and headed for the outdoors, where his subjects were family and friends and the natural world. Among those lifelong friends were Alice Faraday Barnard and her daughters (Frederick Barnard died tragically in a fire in 1896), and the family often accompanied him on painting vacations.