Sargent is chiefly known as a society portrait painter although a glance at this composition will reveal that this description of him does not do justice to the range of his art. Trained in the Parisian studio of the fashionable portraitist Charles Carolus-Duran, he was soon competing with his mentor for the custom of the most glamorous clients in Paris. However, it was one such society portrait of 1884 which precipitated a decision to move from Paris to London. His mildly louche portrait of ‘Madame X’ draped in a revealing evening gown was considered to be too provocative by some of the more conservative elements in the French art world. Sargent was offended and, after some prevarication, decided to move across the channel.
He spent the summers of 1885 and 1886 as the guest of an American amateur painter in the beautiful Cotswold village of Broadway which was at the time frequented during the summer and early autumn by a number of British and American artists. It was here that he decided to recreate on canvas a scene which he had witnessed some time before of two girls in a garden, amidst beds of lilies, engaged in lighting Chinese lanterns at twilight. He dressed the two daughters of a local Broadway friend in white dresses and set to work on a number of preparatory sketches. But he found that the special light which accompanies the waning of a summer evening, and which he wanted to capture, could only be glimpsed for a few minutes. His work on this composition was consequently restricted to a very short interlude each day. Sargent usually worked with some speed but the exigencies of painting this picture led him to become frustrated — he wrote to his sister about this ‘Fearful difficult subject. Impossible brilliant colours… Paints not bright enough, and then the effect only lasts ten minutes.’ Unable to finish the painting during his first sojourn at Broadway he was obliged to pack it away and resume the following summer.
The title he gave to the piece comes from a popular nonsense song of the time — in answer to the question ‘Have you seen my Flora pass this way’ the answer is ‘Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose’. The exasperated Sargent privately dubbed the work ‘Darnation, Silly, Silly, Pose’. However, when it was eventually exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1887, the painting was a huge success, it was immediately bought for the nation and its popularity has continued to this day.
Sargent’s technique — having just decamped from the city of Impressionism — is a synthesis of Impressionist exuberance, especially in the treatment of the lilies and background foliage, and a more controlled and measured style for such areas as the children’s faces.
The picture is a superb evocation of that sublime, transient moment in a summer evening when the fading light seems to play tricks with one’s senses and actually intensifies the colour of garden flowers. The use of children as his protagonists enhances the inherent nostalgia of the piece — we all have powerful memories of childhood episodes which are recalled with a heightened sense of perfection. This picture fixes one such instance.
Photo © Tate – CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported)
1886 Pierre Auguste Renoir: The Umbrellas, London, National Gallery
1886 Georges Seurat: A Sunday Afternoon on La Grande Jatte, Chicago, Art Institute
1887 John Atkinson Grimshaw: Liverpool Quay by Moonlight, London, Tate Britain