top of page

Why did John Singer Sargent Cause a Scandal in the Victorian Art World?

Sargent's scandal in Paris had erupted over his audacious "Portrait of Madame X." While the controversy initially revolved around a lady's evening gown with a loose shoulder strap, it was, in reality, a commentary on the decadence and indifference of Parisian high society.

Madame X, John Singer Sargent
Madame X
Madam X - Originally
Madam X - Originally

Sargent's brush had unveiled a truth that no one wanted to acknowledge.

In the summer of 1885, the renowned American painter John Singer Sargent found himself at a crossroads in his career. A front-page scandal had rocked his reputation in Paris, threatening to derail his artistic journey. Seeking solace and inspiration, Sargent retreated to a countryside estate in England, far away from the tumultuous world of high-society Paris.

Little did he know that this retreat would give birth to one of his most celebrated masterpieces, "Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose."

"Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose." Detail John Singer Sargent
"Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose." Detail

In England, Sargent found refuge among a community of Bohemians and spent his days playing lawn games, enjoying the scent of herbs, and taking in the serene beauty of wild gardens adorned with giant lilies, roses, and poppies, all bathed in soft golden light. It was during these evenings that he played popular songs on the piano, including one that captured his imagination, "Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose."

Inspired by this song, the sight of children playing in the garden, and the memory of Chinese lanterns along the Thames at twilight, Sargent embarked on a painting that would become his masterpiece. He worked diligently, but only for the brief window of two to twenty minutes each evening when the light was just right. This approach followed the Impressionist plein-air technique established by Monet.

Sargent's dedication to capturing the elusive twilight moment was unwavering. Every evening, he would gather his canvas, paints, and young models, working tirelessly until the sun had set. This process took two years to complete, with the unfinished canvas stored in a barn during the winter.

The magic of "Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose" lies in the warm, orange glow that illuminates the faces of two girls as they light their lanterns. It transports viewers to a world of innocence and enchantment, far removed from the decadence of Parisian society. When the painting was exhibited in London, it was an instant success and saved Sargent's career.

"Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose."
"Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose."

Sargent's dedication to capturing a transient, perfect moment challenged the conventions of his time. He painted only what he saw, not what he thought he saw, and did so faithfully for those magical minutes each evening. It was a testament to his unwavering commitment to his craft.

Today, "Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose" continues to captivate audiences, inviting them into a world of beauty and serenity. His willingness to challenge the norms of his era remind us of the enduring power of creativity.

Closing the circle, contemporary musician Meilyr Jones composed a piece of contemporary classical music inspired by the painting. The composition was performed in front of the artwork, celebrating the enduring influence of Sargent's masterpiece on various forms of art.

This work serves to remind us that art has the power to transcend scandal, captivate the imagination, and inspire for generations to come.

50 views0 comments


bottom of page