Monday, September 20, 2010

John Singer Sargent, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, 1885-86

Reeling from a front-page scandal that almost derailed his career, the American painter John Singer Sargent spent the summer of 1885 healing his wounds in England. Though he was fantasizing about starting a new life in music or business, he saw a vision that ignited every fiber of his creative being: a
child’s face lit by a paper lantern in a garden at dusk.

Sargent touched off the firestorm in Paris with his notorious “Portrait of Madame X.” It’s hard to believe that a lady’s evening-gown with a loose shoulder strap could so infuriate the French; in reality, the scandal had more to do with the opulence, the haughty indifference, and the corpse-like pallor of the model. Sargent’s brush had said the one thing that everyone knew but that no one wanted said: high-society Paris wallowed in decadence and malaise.

Across the channel, where society routinely shrugged off Parisian scandals-du-jour, Sargent picked up a string of tame portrait commissions and fretted about how he was going to pay the Paris studio’s rent. Visiting a friend’s enclave of well-to-do Bohemians in the country, Sargent soothed his nerves playing lawn games with his guests and their children amid herb-scented twilights in wild gardens filled with giant roses, lilies, and poppies, all bathed in a soft golden light. At evening gatherings he played popular songs on the piano, including a favorite that year with a lyric that went “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose.”

According to Deborah Davis’s wonderful account in Strapless, “this song, the sight of the children playing in the garden, and the memory of Chinese lanterns along the Thames at twilight inspired a painting” that Sargent would only paint from life, working every evening only for the two or three minutes or so when the light was just right.

“Every day for weeks," Davis writes, "just before sunset, Sargent would drop his tennis racket, gather his canvas, paints, and young models, and head for the garden. He would work for [between two and 20] minutes - the brief period of perfect light - to catch the magic transition of late afternoon into evening. When the sun had set, Sargent and his friends would cary the oversized canvas to its resting place to await the next twilight."

Study of Polly Barnard for
'Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose'
c. 1885

Perhaps unwilling to let go of his lifeline to paradise, Sargent took two years to complete the painting, storing the unfinished canvas in his host's barn for the winter. He would call the painting Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose.

I think a good part of its magic resides in the stillness of the two girls standing quietly side by side, each absorbed in the process of lighting her lantern with a long wax taper. I've seen my three-year-old and his friends play like that many times - they're "together" but also solitary and apart.

It's the orange light reflected on the faces that I remembered most about this image after not seeing it for a while. Amid the cool colors of the garden, the warm glow of the firelight tints their faces, and we feel as though we're being admitted to the secret world of children. What an antidote to the clamor of fashion and the arrogant demi-mondes of Parisian society! The painting was an instant hit in London (it's still there, by the way, at the Tate), and Sargent's career as a painter was saved.

The John Singer Sargent online gallery has this to say:

“The idea (a purely fanciful one to be sure) was to capture, not the most perfect sunset, but the affect of the most perfect sunset has, in terms of color, shadows and light on a scene. But it was more than that. How about the artificial light of Chinese lanterns at the precise moment of twilight when lanterns and sun are at perfect equilibrium! -- Could he paint that magical transient moment that lasts no more than a couple of minutes most -- capture that most perfect color of mauve when the sun is still flush in the sky and the lanterns glowing equally? Not create the scene from his mind or memory of what it would or should look like, but actually capture it -- could he paint the exquisite beauty between those two minutes?

Of course not. No one could paint in two minutes and even come close to a faithful adaptation no matter how prepared he or she was prior. But what if he painted only for those magical minutes every day? If he was faithful, if he kept true to the principles of Impressionism -- painting only what he saw and not what he thought he saw or wanted to see, if he did it every day for two minutes could he capture lightning in a bottle so to speak?

It was silly, but the idea was hatched in a community of people that weren't constrained by the blinders of convention. These were people who could see things that weren't and ask why not? Sargent was going to do the impossible and they were all going to help!

He started off by using Mrs. Millet's young daughter who was only 5 at the time. They put a wig on her to lighten her hair and then propped the poor thing up as if she were lighting a Chinese lantern. Everyone in the community took an interest, but the demands of maintaining an exact pose every day proved to be too much; so in her place Mrs. Barnard's two girls stepped in of a more appropriate age of seven and eleven. 

Edmund Gosse wrote: "The progress of the picture, when once it began to advance, was a matter of excited interest to the whole of our little artist-colony. Everything was used to be placed in readiness, the easel, the canvas, the flowers, the demure little girls in their white dresses, before we began our daily afternoon lawn tennis, in which Sargent took his share. But at the exact moment, which of course came a minute or two earlier each evening, the game was stopped, and the painter was accompanied to the scene of his labors.

Study of Polly Barnard for 'Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose,' c. 1885

Instantly, he took up his place at a distance from the canvas, and at a certain notation of the light ran forward over the lawn with the action of a wag-tail, planting at the same time rapid dabs of paint on the picture, and then retiring again, only with equal suddenness to repeat the wag-tail action. All this occupied but two or three minutes, the light rapidly declining, and then while he left the young ladies to remove his machinery, Sargent would join us again, so long as the twilight permitted, in a last turn at lawn tennis" (Sir Edmund Gosse letter to Charteris , P74-75).

"The seasons went from August till the beginning of November "Sargent would dress the children in white sweaters which came down to their ankles, over which he pulled the dresses that appeared in the picture. He himself would be muffled up like an Artic explorer."

Of course, by then, the flowers had faded and died, so artificial roses were ordered and wired to the withered branches. But who would suspect such time and effort? At its heart Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose is very much a moment only - a rare and perfect one, though with every hallmark of accident and chance. It's as if we too had been invited to enjoy those lovely evenings in that fairytale garden and had happened to glance over a shoulder at the chance moment that distilled its full store of sweetness and spontaneity.

All this, and it is for everyone, and it lasts for all time.


  1. Madame X's strap, a hint of arrogance, a devil-may-care gesture, a seductive whisper... one simple line that changed John Sargent's life. I am compelled to read more. I have seen this painting but did not know its story. Now I will see the image in context and that makes all the difference. Thank you for the post! Also inspired by Carnation Lily Lily Rose.

  2. Jan - You are going to LOVE "Strapless." You can buy a used copy dirt cheap on Amazon. Do it!