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1887 John Singer Sargent's Star Turn

“The most interesting and original picture in the whole show,” was the radical paper The Artist’s summation of John Singer Sargent’s Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, (1885–1886), a painting that eluded the typical classification of Royal Academy subjects: literary and historical subjects, “incident pictures”, landscapes, seascapes, and portraits (Fig. 1). “The main motives of the picture,” the critic continued, “are apparently variations of gentle colour and subtle gradations of tone.”1 Set at twilight in a garden sprinkled with lilies, carnations, and roses, the painting depicts two young girls, dressed in white gowns, lighting Chinese lanterns that cast off an orange-golden glow that pushes back the gathering gloom. The composition produces the sensation of being immersed in the garden scene; the green field that constitutes the plane on which the children stand continues to the top of the frame so that no horizon line is visible; and the cropped flowers, lanterns, and grasses along the edges of the picture further enhance the embowered impression. The starry petals of the lilies cluster over the young girls’ heads as they peer into their lanterns, and the grasses, carnations, and roses swirl about their legs and hems.

Explore the 1887 catalogue

This painting was pivotal for Sargent’s career. The subject had come to him in August of 1885 while he was boating along the Thames. Just around this time, he was resolving to move from Paris to London as he wrote a friend in September, explaining “just now I am rather out of favour as a portrait painter in Paris” and that London might prove more suitable to his practice “although it might be a long struggle for my painting to be accepted. It is thought beastly French.”2 For his 1887 Academy submissions, he strategically paired Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose with a portrait painting of Mrs. William Playfair, the wife of a well-established obstetrician, shown in a gleaming yellow silk gown and a fur-lined, dark green cloak and set against a deep red background in the manner, as one critic observed, of Spanish painter Velázquez (Fig. 2).3 Well received at the Academy Exhibition, this portrait, which showed the sitter, despite her splendid clothing, with a surprisingly relaxed smiling expression, reinforced his emerging reputation as a leading and distinctive painter of London society.4

So what was the aim of Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose? According to Harry Quilter, with this painting, which the critic described as “an exquisite work of art” as compared to the “willful ugliness” of The Misses Vickers (1886), Sargent “has proved himself capable of producing a beautiful thing, and so given hostages to fortune.”5 But The Times offered a different take: while calling attention to the artist’s concern with “the hardest problem of light and color”, the paper asserted that the painter was fulfilling the prophecy of critic Alfred Stevens that: “our old Europe is probably destined to receive one day its artistic renovation at the hands of young America” and added “it is interesting and a little amusing to see him [Sargent] at work upon the ‘artistic renovation’ of the veterans of the Royal Academy.”6 The Daily Telegraph, a paper with more conservative tendencies than The Artist and The Times, was harsher in its estimation, wondering if the painter “got confused in his sense of artistic right and wrong” or if the painting was “deliberately intended to be a practical joke, and nothing more”.7 The Art-Journal, publishing after the Exhibition was well underway, observed that “as artists almost come to blows over this picture, a difference of opinion about it is at any rate allowable.”8

A significant component of the painting’s controversy stemmed from its obvious ties to the newest directions in plein-air painting, or what The Art-Journal dubbed the “dab and spot” school, to refer to the obvious facture deployed by the painter. Sargent began the painting in the late summer of 1885, using the garden of his friend F.D. Millet, who had a home in the town of Broadway in the Cotswold region; the daughters of the illustrator Frederick Barnard served as his models. The painter wrote to his sister of the challenges he faced in capturing the envisioned scene:

there are hardly any flowers and I have to scour the cottage gardens and transplant and make shift … Fearful difficult subject. Impossible brilliant colours of flowers, and lamps and brightest green lawn background. Paints are not bright enough, & then the effect only lasts ten minutes.9

The brilliant colouring, attention to the effects of light, and evident rapidness of touch in areas of the canvas led many critics and artists to associate the canvas with French impressionism, which for many standard-bearers of the Academy, such as W.P. Frith, was a threat to the national school. But the painting’s acquisition by the Council of the Royal Academy for the nation under the auspices of the Chantrey Bequest demonstrates that the Academy as a whole neither rejected Sargent nor his painterly innovations.10 Frederic Leighton served as the head of the Chantrey Bequest Committee and under his leadership the Committee invested in works by the younger generation of artists who affiliated themselves with progressive French painting and the movements of naturalism, realism, and impressionism.11 Indeed, the painting arguably led many critics to revise their mode of looking and appreciating art, now more consequently regarding form and content as indissoluble and recognising the artist’s right to select virtuosic subjects drawn from modern life.12 The critic Claude Phillips, writing for The Academy, attempted to explain this phenomenon: 

So lovely and so consummately drawn and modelled are these girl-flowers that there is room for regret that they should not more completely dominate the other elements of the picture … But then the picture would have been other than it is, and the self-set problems altogether different. The element of eccentricity, the evident striving to receive and give back an impression, both mental and visual, which should be one of absolutely novelty, are not to be denied; but the genuine originality and charm of the work and its exquisite technical qualities are equally unquestionable, and, such as it is, it would be hard to point to any other painter who could have achieved it.13

In this Exhibition, Sargent was both insider and outsider, participating in the common strategy of submitting both a portrait and subject picture to the Annual Exhibition, while concomitantly placing on display his distinctive style, an individualism that critics assigned alternately to his American background or French preparation.

  1. “Oil Paintings at the Royal Academy”, The Artist Academy Guide (May–June 1887): 165.↩︎

  2. Marc Simpson, Uncanny Spectacle: The Public Career of the Young John Singer Sargent (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997), 129.↩︎

  3. Simpson, Uncanny Spectacle, 126 and 153. Claude Phillips wrote: “Mr. J.S. Sargent’s ‘Mrs William Playfair’ (197)—a portrait belonging, like all the artist’s works, to the school which acknowledges Velasquez as its head.” Claude Phillips, “The Royal Academy, II”, The Academy 31, no. 785 (21 May 1887): 383.↩︎

  4. For example, The Saturday Review proclaimed, “Our conviction that Mr. Sargent’s ‘Mrs. William Playfair’ is the finest piece of painting in the Academy becomes strengthened every time we see it”, quoted in Simpson, Uncanny Spectacle, 153.↩︎

  5. Harry Quilter, “The Royal Academy”, The Spectator 60 (30 April 1887): 591.↩︎

  6. “The Royal Academy, First Notice”, The Times, 30 April 1887, 10.↩︎

  7. “The Royal Academy”, The Daily Telegraph, 5 May 1887, 8.↩︎

  8. “The Royal Academy Exhibition”, The Art-Journal 49 (July 1887): 350.↩︎

  9. Simpson, Uncanny Spectacle, 128.

    For a further summation of the painting’s production, see the catalogue entry in Elaine Kilmurray and Richard Ormond (eds), John Singer Sargent, (Boston, MA: Museum of Fine Arts, 1999), 114–116.↩︎

  10. Anne L. Helmreich, “John Singer Sargent, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, and the Condition of Modernism in England, 1887”, Victorian Studies 45, no. 3 (Spring 2003): 438–439.↩︎

  11. Anna Gruetzner Robins, “Leighton and British Impressionism, The Academician and the Avant-Garde”, in Robin Simon (ed.), Lord Leighton, 1830–1896, and Leighton House, a Centenary Celebration (London: Apollo Magazine, 1996), 45–47.↩︎

  12. Helmreich, “John Singer Sargent, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose”, 442–443.↩︎

  13. Claude Phillips, “The Royal Academy, II”, The Academy 31, no. 785 (21 May 1887): 369.↩︎

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Explore the 1887 catalogue