Monday, December 31, 2012

For The New Year

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925)
Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose
Tate Britain, London

Oil On Canvas
69 5/8 Inches By 61 1/2 Inches


“Have you seen my Flora pass this way?”

“Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose.”

The lyrics of a sentimental 19th-Century parlor song provided Sargent with the title of one of his greatest masterworks.

Sargent worked on the canvas for fourteen months, always working at twilight in order to capture the precise light he needed. The painting is a technical marvel, portraying as it does both the natural light of dusk and the artificial light provided by lanterns. Only Pierre-Auguste Renoir, in both versions of his “Bal du moulin de la Galette”, was able to achieve anything comparable in blending natural and artificial light.

“Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose” is almost always on display at Tate Britain, a museum notorious for keeping important paintings off-view. The painting is generally hung near or alongside the equally-riveting “Harmony In Grey And Green: Miss Cecily Alexander” by James Abbott McNeill Whistler.

It is ironic that the two greatest artists working in late-19th-Century Britain were Americans.

Both “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose” and “Miss Cecily Alexander” were intensely criticized by the British art establishment when the paintings were new, largely because the paintings did not comport with the mawkish and colorless style favored by British painters of the period.

In the late 19th Century, British painting was as insufferably provincial as it is today—which is why one never sees Edwin Landseer, John Everett Millais or Luke Fildes paintings on museum walls outside the British Isles.

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