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Sargent, a Rhapsody in Blue-violet

Updated: May 7, 2021

We have all seen it. It's that light that comes only near twilight in the evening, a varying mixture of gray and blue-violet that makes colors stand out in an unreal but very beautiful way. At that hour, color says goodbye for the evening, be back to brighten your day tomorrow. John Singer Sargent saw this in particular, it is said, when he noticed Chinese lanterns hanging in a garden of trees and lilies as he boated down the Thames. From there came the idea of capturing that special light by setting up a scene in a garden, using Dolly and Polly Barnard, daughters of friend and illustrator Frederick Barnard, to light Chinese lanterns at twilight. He'd have everything set up each day and when the few moments of that wonderful gray, blue-violet light would come, he would dash and dab at that canvas. He did this for months in 1885, then finished the canvas in his studio in 1886. I admit that when I go to the Tate Britain, to feast upon the wonderful works of J.M.W. Turner, my secret pleasure is standing before Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose. It is my sentimental favorite, but shush, for I would not like the spirit of Turner to think he had a rival, since I call upon his genius to help me with my own watercolors.

This painting, which seems so reasonable in its beauty and form, was actually controversial in its day. Sargent came to England in 1884 after having a rough go of it in Paris. He had been quite in demand, until he painted the portrait of a socialite, also American born, Madame Pierre Gautreau. Married to a banker, she was a sort of "professional beauty," like the women who populate the pages of W Magazine today. She was known for patting her ears with a rose-violet powder for dramatic effect. Sargent, who was also American, but who had lived in Europe most of his life, had originally painted Mme. Gautreau with one dress strap having fallen off her shoulder. And that, improbably, caused a scandal in 1880s Paris. It was too much for them. Her skin was too pale; the pose was too wanton; the fallen strap offensive; it was just wrong!

What I think was wrong, (and I say this having lived in France, a country I'll always love) was that these Americans had, in their style, out-frenched the French, a crime for which punishment was necessary. Things got so bad for Sargent that he headed for London, across the water, La Manche (don't for a minute believe the English own that channel), where he sought to rehabilitate his reputation. Sargent's desire was to combine technical virtuosity with elements of plein air painting used by the Impressionists. His offering for his entrée into the English art scene took two years to complete and once again caused an uproar.

Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose was met with derision in a news headline: "Voted the painting you'd least like to live with." (And I thought the French could be cruel.) It was, however, purchased by the Royal Academy (somebody had some sense) and made its way through various museums to now be a part of the collection in the Tate Britain.

The thing that most interests me as a painter is that wonderful grayish, blue-violet light, highlighted by the orange glow of the lanterns and the pink of the roses. Sargent was aware of and I'd say influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites, who were dedicated to

romantic but pretty paintings, with colors that

popped because of their use of grays, silvers, and blue-violets. Sargent had not been into the grand historical scenes that concerned some of French painting, nor the myths of ancient Britain. However, he did like to produce pretty paintings, and in my book, he was a superb colorist.

One day a few years ago, I went to the Musée d'Orsay's show on Oscar Wilde and the Pre-Raphaelites. I kept noticing the colors and asking myself what made them so vivid. I finally settled on the presence of the grays and silvers, even the violets, as the way the other colors were highlighted. The second show I saw that day was the Fra Angelico exhibition at the Jacquemart-Andre Museum, housed in a beautiful old hotel particulier. Now Fra Angelico was a true pre-Raphaelite, as Raphael wasn't even born when Fra Angelico died, and what do you see here? The colors stand out in some part due to the use of grays and blue-violets in the garden and in the Virgin's robes. And like in Sargent, there is the warm pinkish color in the the angel's robes, orange in his wings, and white on the walls.

I guess we have to say there is truly nothing new under the sun. Fortunately, artists keep combining and re-combining elements for the great pleasure of the viewers. Unfortunately, they sometimes suffer grave disapproval and the disappointment that goes with it. Normally, however, the arc of time bends toward appreciation.

What connections have you made between the works of artists separated sometimes by centuries? Log in and tell us.

Photos of Sargent's work are in public domain in the U.S.A. Madame X is at the Metropolitan Museum in New York and Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose is at the Tate Britain. Fra Angelico's Annunciation is public domain through

For more on Marjorie Vernelle, see the author page at

She also has an engaging art history blog that talks of painting and wine on

© Marjorie Vernelle 2019

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