John Singer Sargent’s Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose painted between 1885 and 1886 coincided with a period in which the artist, usually a society figure, withdrew from public life after the scandal of his Portrait of Madame X, and lodged with fellow painter FD Millet in the British countryside of the Cotswolds. Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose is a vivid reproduction of the likenesses of the daughters of a local illustrator there, which encourages the viewer to perceive the world through the eyes of the children. The inflated, colourful, and unique perspective performs a remarkable trick of scale and balance, as the flowers appear to tower over the children and, by extension, the viewer. This staged reproduction from life contains within it a number of discarded styles and embryonic genres, most notably the pastoral worlds of the Symbolists and the naturalism of the Impressionists. Sargent’s mythic garden is a conjuring of childhood, recreating and re-enacting the inner world of young children, and attempting to conjure their vision of life.
Sargent was inspired by a boating trip along the Thames which he took with the artist Edwin Austin Abbey, witnessing the Chinese lanterns hung between the trees and hanging lilies. Beginning the painting in the Cotswolds, Sargent continued to work outdoors, or en plein air, which was particularly unusual for this wholly studio painter. Choosing to work only during golden hour, those few minutes between daytime and dusk, to capture the perfect light, Sargent spent a comparably long time on the canvas. For the artist each element in this imagined reproduction of childhood was an essential element. He was particular about the hair color of the children, the hanging of the flowers and the positioning of the lanterns. Yet each element in this exquisitely worked masterpiece manifests itself in a work of balance, vision, and myth.
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