I have seen post cards and book reproductions and even one large poster of John Singer Sargent's "Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose," but nothing quite prepared me for its startling beauty. It's so much more breathtaking in person than I had expected -- indeed so luscious, alive and immediate that my eyes could barely contain their good fortune.
Everything has a rhythmic swing about it, even the title, "Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose." My eyes were so filled with this movement that they almost felt forced to whirl around the painting, like a top spinning round and round.
A black and white reproduction unfortunately dilutes the effect, but imagine a splash of agitated colours, activated because of wind disturbance or human interference within the picture. Against a lush green lawn a diagonal of warm, pink roses rushes between and among the girls; a stream of cranberry-coloured carnations flows through the parting between the children and comes out on the other side, with the child on the left wading in among them; bright, white lilies gaily float like flags above their heads; and in among them all, lanterns sway and glow with an incandescent orange light. On one level, it's a study in colour and design that works with such brilliance that I find it difficult not to want to touch the painting.
On another level it's a painstaking record of precisely what Sargent saw. During a period when he was grasping hold of Impressionism, reeling with pleasure over the plein airm technique of painting to which Monet was exposing him, this picture was at the apex of his out-of-doors experiments. But this was no painting dashed off in a few hours. To begin with, Sargent chose to catch the ephemeral effects of twilight, which meant that he only had a few moments each evening to capture the exact nuances of what he observed. It was a painting of slow progression, begun during the autumn of 1885, returned to in the summer of 1886 and finally finished in the autumn of that same year. Furthermore it was worked on in two different house gardens. And when all those glorious flowers faded (as flowers do after a short time, let alone months and even a year), Sargent transplanted rosebeds and placed new lilies in flowerpots so that he could proceed with his painting. This may not sound like Impressionism with all this careful planning of a studio portrait, but it must be remembered that Sargent only had a brief flutter of time to record his impression, and for this artist it had to be absolutely right.
The other aspect of this work is the children, Dorothy and Polly Barnard, daughters of the artist Frederick Barnard. There's no doubt about it, Sargent understood the whole look, feel, quality and wonder of children and received much satisfaction in posing and portraying them. For me, some of his best paintings are of children. And this particular figure study was executed numerous times, with different poses and positions, each study achieving an altered effect until the final product was a refined climax.
But what astounds me about this portrayal is Sargent's discernment of children, as though he became a child himself in order to depict what they experience. It's a mood of wistful magic and fascinatin, and he seems to have known just the right feel of enchantment and meticulous intent they're experience here.
The interesting thing is that it was painted during the Victorian era, when childhood at last came into its own and portraits were painted with cloying sentimentality. Although this initially helped Sargent to attract public praise , "Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose" is curiously unsentimental and even modern, like the fairy tale illustrations of the 1920s.
But I must return to the effect this painting has. When it was first exhibited at the Royal Academy, it was so electrifying that it deadened everything around it. Indeed, when I saw it, it still upstaged everything in the room. This is partly due to the intensity of those shimmering coloured harmonies -- whorls of pigment that almost pop out of the picture -- and partly because of his unforgettable vision of children. But I believe a large portion of the credit goes to his absolute sureness of touch and his unerring eye for detail. And he has an imaginative skill of knowing what to do with those details, how to weave them together in such a composition as to create the most vibrantly captivating image.
The first thing that riveted me about the painting was the quality of the light in the lanterns. No reproduction does it justice, but it's as though he had bottled lantern light and inlaid it with the actual canvas. From there my eyes wandered onto the children's faces and hands, suffused in precisely the areas such a light would shed, as on the finger tips, the cheek and the forehead. Then my eyes were entranced by the exquisite hues of the flowers themselves, and from there I looked with apreciation at how Sargent drew the carnations climbing up the white dress, and how the carnation stems and grasses slash in front of the black-stockinged leg. These details of accuracy are as endless as they are admirable, and the more I see of John Singer Sargent's work, the more I want to sing his praises. If ever a painting was intended to give pleasure, "Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose" is it