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John Singer Sargent – Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose

by Sarah Baur

The painting was Sargent's first great success at the Royal Academy in London. The painting depicts two girls in white dresses lighting paper lanterns hung there in a flower garden. They are surrounded by a sea of carnations, roses and lilies - which are also mentioned in the title. This refers to the piece "The Wreath" by Joseph Mazzinghi. The magnificent decoration of the picture with countless different floral patterns creates an extremely aesthetic arrangement.

The painting was created in the fall of 1885 and the following summer at the home of friends in an artists' colony in England, after Sargent had spent some time in France, where he often devoted himself to Impressionist painting together with Claude Monet. He was inspired to the motif in this painting by a boat trip on the Thames, on the banks of which he saw Chinese lanterns among flowers and trees.

Sargent's main concern in this work was to capture both complex natural and artificial lighting effects, so he was careful to time the twilight just right. Any leisure activities had to be interrupted for ten minutes each evening, during which Sargent literally swung himself in front of the canvas in the garden and swiftly set his brushstrokes. The interplay of the cool light of dusk and the warm candlelight of the lanterns, reflected in the faces of the children, their white dresses and the bright petals, makes an atmospheric and realistic impression. Sargent demonstrates his sensitivity to light and atmosphere here, creating a poetic overall image through subtle color coordination. Here aesthetic impulses meet impressionistic principles of plein-air painting. However, Sargent is not painting a random scene here, as Monet would have done. Instead, this is a thoughtfully conceived and meticulously constructed work: the girls, who are Polly and Dolly Barnard, were deliberately chosen by Sargent for their hair color. The dresses were also designed according to his ideas, and the flowers were replanted, or replaced with artificial flowers at the end of the season. Despite the open-air painting and the concentration on light effects, the work strictly speaking distances itself from Impressionism because of this careful and lengthy planning. On the advice of Sir Frederic Leighton, then President of the Royal Academy, the painting was acquired for the Tate Gallery, where it can still be admired today.

John Singer Sargent - Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose

Oil on canvas, 1885-1886, 174 x 154 cm, Tate Gallery, London


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