Monday 1: Carnation, Lily, Lily Rose
John Singer Sargent
This painting shows two young girls, Dolly aged 11 and Polly aged 7, lighting chinese lanterns surrounded by lilies and roses. We see the moment when the girl on the right has just lit her lantern. She is holding a long taper which is still alight. The bottom of the lantern is beginning to glow as the fire starts to illuminate the entire lantern, like her sister’s to the left.
John Singer Sargent, an American living in Britain, is primarily known for his portraiture. The acclaimed French artist and sculptor Rodin called him the ‘Van Dyck of his time’. Sargent completed this painting just after he had caused a sensation at the Paris Salon* for his overtly sexualised portrayal of society beauty Madame Gautreau.
Carnation, Lily, Lily Rose was inspired by a boat trip along the Thames in Pangbourne (c. 50 miles west of London) with fellow American artist Edwin Austin Abbey. While floating along the river Sargent spotted lanterns hanging in some trees and lilies on the bank on the river. The two young girls in this painting are the daughters of his friend the illustrator Frederick Barnard.** He painted this scene in two different locations, both of which were the homes of painter F. D Millet. Originally Sargent used Millet’s daughter Katharine as a model but the Barnard girls had the exact hair colour that Sargent was looking for.
Sargent took his inspiration from impressionism, in that he painted ‘en plein air’***. This meant that the painting took a while to complete as it could only be painted at dusk when the light was just right, with each sitting only lasting a few minutes.
The length of time it took to complete meant that summer had turned to autumn and so the now dead flowers were replaced with fake ones.
The longing for the exact light of dusk gives the painting an overall dark purple feel to it, only lit up by the crisp white of the girls’ dresses and the vivid orange of the scattered lanterns. Dolly’s neck on the left shows her porcelain skin while her face and that of her sister’s is glowing in the orange light of the fire.
The closer you look at the painting the more you see impressionist techniques, particularly in his quick brushstrokes in the grass. The long, dark green grass has flecks of yellow and red which gives a sense of movement as if the setting sun has brought an evening breeze with it.
As with many portraitists, like renowned 18th century artist, Thomas Gainsborough, Sargent’s love for painting lay in landscapes. In later life he took fewer and fewer portrait commissions and focused more on the medium of watercolour in which he triumphed as much as he did in his use of oil. This painting could be seen as one of his first forays into more informal studies where we see a departure from his love of the Spanish greats such as Velasquez and Hals into the less stylised world of everyday life and impressionism.
* Paris Salon - where art is exhibited in Paris
**Frederick Barnard - known for creating many caricatures for Charles Dickens’ novels including Tale of Two Cities, Bleak House and Barnaby Rudge
***’En plein air’ - means “outside” in French