Along with El Jaleo (see “Avedon and Sargent” post from 15 March), Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose is my favorite painting by John Singer Sargent. I encountered it for the first time in a book, then saw the real thing at the Tate Gallery (now Tate Britain) in the early 1990s.
In September of 1885, while boating on the Thames with fellow American artist Edwin Abbey, Sargent spotted a number of Chinese lanterns hanging among the trees on shore and was inspired to begin this beautiful painting. His models were Dolly (11 years old, on the left) and Polly (7, on the right) Barnard, daughters of the illustrator Frederick Barnard. (His first model, a single 5-year-old girl, was replaced because the older girls were better at holding still and because they had lighter hair, which better suited the color scheme of the painting).
He worked on the picture from September to early November 1885, and again during the summer of 1886; he finished it in October of that year. Because he painted it outdoors, in natural light–something he didn’t typically do–he was only able to work on it a few minutes each evening, when the light of dusk was exactly as he wanted it. Its creation was thus a challenge, and a protracted one: in a letter he wrote, “I shall be a long time about it if I don’t give up in despair.”
There are so many aspects of this painting I love, the glow of the lanterns in the dusk most of all, in particular the one held by the girl on the right; it appears to have just been lit and the light has yet to fill the lantern as completely as the others. While I never stood in a flower garden in a white frock lighting Chinese lanterns, the painting does conjure memories of my own childhood. I grew up at a time when it was almost unheard of for children this age not to be outside playing with friends at dusk on a spring or summer evening, whether it was riding bikes (with baseball cards clothespinned to the spokes), playing kickball in the cul-de-sac, or trying to catch frogs at the edge of Christensen’s Pond. At a certain point, the natural light got purply-grey, and then the artificial lights would start coming on: not Chinese lanterns, but streetlights, lights inside neighbors’ kitchens and family rooms, and the front porch light at home.
Do you have a favorite painting that evokes childhood, or a particular kind of light, or both?
Trivia tidbit: The painting’s title is taken from a popular song, Ye Shepherds Tell Me, that Sargent and his artist friends often enjoyed singing. Its lyrics include these lines:
Ye Shepherds tell me,
Tell me have you seen,
Have you seen My Flora pass this way?
In shape and feature beauty’s queen,
In pastoral, in pastoral array.
A wreath around her head,
around her head she wore,
Carnation, lily, lily, rose,
And in her hand a crook she bore,
And sweets her breath compose.