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Sargent, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose

John Singer Sargent, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, 1885-86, oil on canvas, 1740 x 1537 mm (Tate Britain, London). Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

STEVEN ZUCKER: The fading light of the sun is being replaced by the lanterns being held by these children. It is that moment at twilight when artificial light just begins to assert itself against the light of the day. BETH HARRIS: It is a wonderful and haunting time of the day. And Sargent captured it in his painting "Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose," from 1885 to 1886. STEVEN ZUCKER: That title is pretty poetic. And the repetition in the title really gives us a sense of the idea of repetition of form and light throughout this painting. Look at the way that the Japanese lanterns move from left to right across the middle of this canvas. BETH HARRIS: Forming a curving arabesque across the center. STEVEN ZUCKER: They're almost like the notes that you would find in a musical score. And we do read across. But of course, our eye also stops because there's so much that's beautiful to look at here. BETH HARRIS: All we have is this really lush, rich surface. STEVEN ZUCKER: There's nobody that moves paint across the surface of the canvas like Sargent. And how he's just moved that brush across the surface in rendering those roses or the carnations down towards the bottom, or even the ridges of the lanterns themselves, and the way in which those blue shadows play against the beautiful, warm, illumination from within. BETH HARRIS: It's interesting because the parts of a painting that you would expect to be illuminated are not. Everything is drenched in dusk. You look to the faces of the children for where they would be illuminated, where you might see the expression on a child's face, but he hasn't concentrated his attention there. His attention is dispersed across this decorative surface. The parts that are illuminated are these lanterns against this graying, green forms of dusk. STEVEN ZUCKER: Look at the way that the canvas is really flat-- clearly, the influence of Japanese prints. The way in which, for instance, the flowers are smallest at the feet of the children. And then as we move up to those large lilies, they rise. And that's directly in opposition to the way that paintings would normally be constructed. And it has the effect of making the background come forward. BETH HARRIS: And so there is a conflation of nature and childhood and innocence, and all of those things coming together. It's just lovely. STEVEN ZUCKER: And so 19th century. BETH HARRIS: So we have a painting that lacks any kind of a real subject except for the quality of light and color harmonies-- these greens and peaches and pinks and white. And we see this in British painting in the last half of the 19th century with artists like Albert Moore, where the subject of the painting is the color harmony, art for art's sake. STEVEN ZUCKER: This is well into this movement that we know as aestheticism, which removes all of the literary, all of the weighty subjects of history, and really make the painting and the beauty of the painting its main focus. BETH HARRIS: And the formal qualities of the painting, shapes, patterns, colors, those are the things that become most important. We could think about artists also like Whistler. And it's easy to see how this becomes important to the beginnings of abstraction, looking at art not for what it's representing, not for the objects it's copying from the world, but for the things that art is made of itself. STEVEN ZUCKER: Sargent actually painted this plein air. That is, he painted it in a garden. So he was also very interested in tonal accuracy and accuracy of form, even if, in fact, ultimately the painting is about painting. And apparently this was a bit of a frustration. Painting outside with models is not an easy thing, especially when you've got children, and dusk is such a fleeting moment. And so one could imagine him in England, in this garden, really trying to keep everybody's attention, making sure that the weather is right, making sure that the light is just right, and trying to get all of this down. BETH HARRIS: The children are really concentrating on the lighting of their lanterns. STEVEN ZUCKER: Their thoughtfulness draws us in and allows us to linger over all of the beautiful, visual, lushness that the artist has given us.