Next time you’re at a trivia night and the question is along the lines of “John Singer Sargent masterpiece, four words, associated with flowers/famous song”, rest assured and lock in Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose. The renowned oil on canvas work was completed from 1885-6, set in a garden in the Cotswolds village of Broadway, where John Singer Sargent stayed in the summer of 1885. The artwork depicts two children, Dolly (left) and Polly Barnard, lighting Japanese lanterns with tapers at dusk; their father was the illustrator Frederick Barnard, a close friend of Sargent’s. This was one of the rare works that Sargent completed in “a plain air” manner working outdoors: he wanted to capture the exact level of light and so he turned to the impressionist method.

As with everything Sargent did, his approach to Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose was methodical. Dozens of preparatory sketches of the two girls in various postures were made, many later painted so that details such as their hair colour were exactly the same as they appeared in the oil painting. He also completed at least five oil studies in preparation for the final canvas: according to the experts, the variation in the canvas sizes suggested it took Sargent some time to decide upon the exact shape of the composition. The work itself took an arduously long time to complete, compared to other Singer Sargent paintings. From letters it is known that Sargent worked on this picture from September 1885 to October 1886. Progress was slow because he could only paint for several minutes each evening (for the perfect light). New plants also had to be used due to winter killing off the garden.

Sargent’s meticulous approach was recorded beautifully by Sir Edmund Gosse in a letter to Charteris:

“The progress of the picture, when once it began to advance, was a matter of excited interest to the whole of our little artist-colony. Everything was used to be placed in readiness, the easel, the canvas, the flowers, the demure little girls in their white dresses, before we began our daily afternoon lawn tennis, in which Sargent took his share,” the letter read. It goes on: “But at the exact moment, which of course came a minute or two earlier each evening, the game was stopped, and the painter was accompanied to the scene of his labours. Instantly, he took up his place at a distance from the canvas, and at a certain notation of the light ran forward over the lawn with the action of a wag-tail, planting at the same time rapid dabs of paint on the picture, and then retiring again, only with equal suddenness to repeat the wag-tail action. All this occupied but two or three minutes, the light rapidly declining…”. What an exciting, but time consuming, method!

In other news, mark this exhibition down early in your calendar for our Dallas, United States, readers: Sargent’s Youthful Genius: Paintings from the Clark will be held from March 11–June 17, 2012, at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art. Four spectacular paintings will be on display, including the epic Sargent painting Fumée d’Ambre Gris. You’d be fuming if you’d missed it.