John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) Carnation Lily, Lily Rose, c.1885-6, oil on canvas, 174 x 153.7 cm, Tate.
As a child a print of Carnation Lily, Lily Rose hung from one of my bedroom walls. Catching the mauvish evening light as I clambered through the door every day after school, it seemed to mimic what Sargent had aimed to capture impressionistically in the painting itself. Depicting two little girls in crushed white garments, the painting places them at odds with the long sharp strands of grass surrounding them, yet at one with the landscape’s soft pastel flowers. Inspired by French Impressionism, Sargent painted only what he saw in the transformative moment of dusk, the harmonious purple light and Chinese lanterns sprinkling an orange glow across the children’s faces.
Sargent chose his subjects Polly (7, right) and Dorothy (11, left) Barnard (daughters of the illustrator Frederick Barnard) for their fair hair and pale features, and worked on the painting in the English countryside at the home of Francis David Millet. A boat trip down the Thames in which Sargent saw Chinese lanterns glinting from branches was the source of his inspiration. Telling Robert Louis Stevenson that he sought to capture ‘a most paradisiac sight [that] makes one rave with pleasure’, he embarked on a project with beauty and sensation at the fore.
Perhaps Sargent aimed to defend his reputation through the painting. After the scandal of Portrait of Madame X, his 1884 painting of Virginie Amelie Avegno Gautreau (infamous in French high society as an adulterer), Sargent had fled to England. The provocative, shadowy painting of Madame X draped in a revealing dress of black silk could not seem further from the innocence and pastoral glee of Carnation Lily, Lily Rose. EF