Lily, rose, and a silly pose

For kids: John Singer Sargent was a famous artist. Here's the story behind his painting of two girls in a garden.

When you have your portrait painted, who works harder, the artist doing the painting, or you? I'm sure the artist thinks he or she is the one doing just about everything. But for you, the subject of the portrait, things aren't as easy as you might expect. That's because paintings can take a long time to paint. The "sitter" (you're called the sitter even if you're standing up) has to keep very, very still – for ages. This may explain why portraits of people running are unusual. Or of people smiling. It's easier to hold a straight face than a grin.

In September 1886, a 6-year-old girl named Kate Millet was painted by artist John Singer Sargent. He shows her as very solemn, gazing straight back at him. She isn't smiling but looks as if she is concentrating on trying not to move at all. Her dark brown hair frames her serious face.

Sargent came to be recognized as an outstanding portrait painter. At this time, though, he was not well known in England, where he decided to live after spending several years in France.

But he wasn't French. His parents were Americans, although he was born in Italy. Kate's parents were Americans, too. They lived in the English village of Broadway, south of Stratford-Upon-Avon, where Shakespeare was born.

Sargent came to stay in Broadway near the Millets. They gathered around them a group of writers and artists.

When Sargent visited Broadway, his art was going through a French phase. He was strongly impressed by the French Impressionists. And, like them, he was painting out of doors, catching the changing daylight.

In the late summer and autumn of 1885, he started to paint what was to become a popular masterpiece. Kate was his first model for it.

This picture, painted over two years, is shown here. It illustrates the powerful light that occurs just when afternoon turns into evening. He had earlier seen Chinese lanterns at dusk hung among white lilies, and he now decided to paint a child or children lighting lanterns to capture what he remembered and make it even more charming.

He started with one child – Kate – but he wanted her to be blond. So he gave her a wig to wear while he painted her. Then he decided to use two older girls who had fair hair, and poor Kate was given the sack! She was not happy about this, according to a new kids' fiction book about Kate, Sargent, and the painting ("Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose: The Story of a Painting," by Hugh Brewster; ages 9 to 12).

On the other hand, Kate no longer had to be ready at twilight every day to stand like a statue for Sargent to go on painting his picture. But things came out right for Kate the following year when he painted her portrait – no lilies, no lanterns, no other children, just her.

The name of Sargent's painting with the fair-haired girls, "Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose," came from the lyrics of a popular song at the time.

Poet and art critic Edmund Gosse wrote a vivid recollection of Sargent painting this masterpiece. Although Gosse probably exaggerates the short amount of time each day that the light was just right – he said it lasted only two or three minutes – he shows the dramatic way that the artist had to seize the moment, breaking off from a game of tennis, for instance.

"Everything used to be placed in readiness, the easel, the canvas, the flowers, the demure little girls in their white dresses...," Gosse wrote. The tennis stopped. And "instantly" Sargent "took up his place at a distance from the canvas, and at a certain notation of the light ran forward ... with the action of a wag-tail, planting ... rapid dabs of paint on the picture...."

Kate's father did a funny caricature of Sargent painting this picture (above left). Sargent was always able to laugh at himself, and later he would refer to his famous masterpiece humorously as "Darnation, Silly, Silly, Pose."

All the same, the charm and appeal of his picture continues – and part of that appeal is the way he has somehow seen vivid enchantment through children's eyes.

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