Carnation, Lily, Lily Rose

Ye Shepherds tell me
Tell me have you seen,
Have you seen My Flora pass this way?
In shape and feature's beauty 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.

The Wreath, Joseph Mazzinghi (1765 - 1844)

Expatriate American artist, John Singer Sargent, was invited to stay and recuperate from a head injury in the Cotswold village of Broadway by his friend and fellow American expat artist Edwin Austin Abbey.  Here a group of artists would gather around a piano and sing the popular song, and spend glorious evenings together either playing tennis or going on boating expeditions on the Thames.  It was during one such boating expedition, when the natural light of the day was fading, that Sargent saw some Chinese lanterns hanging amidst trees and lilies in a garden. This vision of that exact purple twilight moment in the day when natural light gets replaced by artificial light captured Sargent’s fantasy, and he spent the next few months trying to capture that light, the result of which was the absolutely spellbinding painting which he titled Carnation, Lily, Lily Rose.

He chose two sisters, daughters of a fellow artist for the painting because they had hair of the exact color he was looking for.  Every evening, Sargent would stop his tennis game, and wait in the spot with his models for the light to be exactly like he wanted and paint for a few moments.  He repeated this every evening from September to November 1885, when the light changed completely with the changing season.  He then resumed in the summer of 1886 and completed the painting in October 1886.

Lantern with illuminated ridges. Courtesy Tate Britain.

The painting is simply mesmerizing. In it Sargent has captured the twilight moment when natural light is replaced by artificial light, the innocence of childhood with the intense childlike concentration at the task of lighting the lanterns, the beauty of the late summer foliage in the darkness of the leaves and the maturity of the flowers, and the glow in the white cotton-linen dresses of the girls.  The young girls themselves are surrounded by a garden that forms a protective cocoon around them, the eye goes upward with the growing size of the flowers, and the age old Japanese technique of the increasing size of the flowers as the eye moves upward has the effect of bringing the background forward. At the same time the eye moves along the curve of the lantern string, stopping with the two central figures, where balance is achieved with the two girls facing each other.  The glow of the lanterns, some brighter than others, illuminate their faces and dresses, and the ridges of the lanterns. The painting draws you in – into the world of the fleeting light of dusk, and of fleeting childhood summers.

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