Lot 8
  • 8

John Singer Sargent 1856 - 1925

4,000,000 - 6,000,000 USD
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  • John Singer Sargent
  • Poppies (A Study of Poppies for "Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose")
  • inscribed 'Painted by John Sargent in Russell House Garden/1886 Lily Millet' on the reverse
  • oil on canvas
  • 24 3/8 by 35 7/8 inches
  • (61.9 by 91.1 cm)
  • Painted in 1886.


Lily Millet (gift from the artist)
Private Collection (sold: Sotheby's, London, December 16, 1942, lot 148)
J. Leger & Son, London (possibly acquired at the above sale)
Private Collection, 1948 (acquired from the above)
By descent to the present owner


London, Tate Gallery; Washington D.C., National Gallery of Art; Boston, Massachusetts, Museum of Fine Arts, Sargent, October 1998-September 1999, no. 36, illustrated in color p. 118
Cleveland, Ohio, The Cleveland Museum of Art; London, Royal Academy of Arts, Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse, October 2015-April 2016, no. 39, p. 125, illustrated in color p. 140; illustrated in color as a detail pp. 132-33


Edward Verrall Lucas, Edwin Austin Abbey, Royal Academician: The Record of His Life and Works, London, 1921, vol. I, pp. 158-59
Edwin Howland Blashfield, Commemorative Tributes to Sargent, New York, 1927, p. 39
Charles Merrill Mount, John Singer Sargent: A Biography, New York, 1955, p. 111
Linda Ayres, Annette Blaugrund et al., John Singer Sargent, New York, 1986
Stanley Olson, John Singer Sargent: His Portrait, New York, 1986, p. 134
Warren Adelson, Donna Seldin Janis et al., Sargent Abroad: Figures and Landscapes, New York, 1997, p. 173, illustrated in color pl. 168
Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray, John Singer Sargent: Figures and Landscapes, 1883-1899, New Haven, Connecticut, 2010, vol. V, no. 863, pp. 112, 342, illustrated 

Catalogue Note

Poppies belongs to a series of innovative paintings and drawings that John Singer Sargent executed in preparation for his Impressionist masterpiece, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (Fig. 1). Sargent created both works at Broadway, a picturesque village in the English Cotswolds where, along with other notable artists of the time, he spent the late summer and early autumn of 1885 and 1886. Sargent had by this time become a well-known portrait painter of elite society on both sides of the Atlantic and traveled intermittently between England and France for much of the decade. Now immersed in this new pastoral environment, however, he began to engage closely with flower and foliage subjects, and cultivated his growing preoccupation with capturing the most subtle and minute effects of light and shadow on canvas. 

Just before returning to England in August 1885, Sargent almost certainly made a visit to Giverny, the small French village outside of Paris that—as the home of Claude Monet—would become a haven for European and American artists. Sargent likely met Monet at Paul Durand-Ruel’s gallery in Paris in 1876, and now grew reacquainted with the French master during his stay in Giverny. As they painted together, he also came to deeply respect Monet’s preference for painting en plein air. The trip was transformative for Sargent, and with his portrait commissions somewhat diminished in the wake of the scandal caused by his daring portrait of Madame X (1883-84, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), the artist left for England with a new desire to paint precisely what he saw before him, no matter how fleeting the moment. 

Soon after arriving in England, Sargent embarked on a boating trip of the Thames with his new friend and fellow artist, Edwin Austin Abbey. In what scholars now refer to as the “happiest accident in his life,” Sargent sustained a head injury while swimming at Pangbourne, a wound so serious that Abbey insisted his friend come to nearby Broadway to recuperate. The idyllic sights and strong light he found at Broadway were perfectly suited to his growing preference for painting out-of-doors. Almost immediately he began to undertake what would become Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose. An image of two young girls lighting Chinese lanterns in a lavish garden, the painting as Sargent envisioned it was enormously complex in structure and technique. As such Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose occupied the artist periodically for nearly two years, and he executed numerous studies in pencil and oil as he planned and refined the ambitious composition. 

Sargent painted Poppies during his second stay at Broadway, where he returned after spending the winter months of 1886 primarily in London. Now residing at Russell House, the new home of the painter Frank Millet and his wife, Lily, Sargent resumed work on Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose. Anticipating his return, that spring his hosts planted new flowerbeds in their garden to provide the artist with a visual for the foliage that would comprise the background of painting. In addition to the 50 Aurelian lily bulbs Sargent sent to the Millet family himself, the new trimmings also included a bed of poppies whose vibrancy attracted the attention of many of the painters, including Abbey and Edwin H. Blashfield, in residence that summer.

The aesthetic particulars of the poppies simultaneously enticed and challenged the artists. Monet himself had exhibited two paintings of the flowers the year prior (Fig. 2), and nearly all of them were eager to try a hand at capturing their likeness on canvas. “We grew a great bed of poppies on purpose to paint,” Abbey later recalled, “but it was too many for us, much the most puzzling and intricate affair I ever saw. I funked it entirely” (letter to Charles S. Reinhardt, October 2, 1886; quoted in Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray, John Singer Sargent: Figures and Landscapes, 1883-1899, New Haven, Connecticut and London, 2010, vol. V, p. 112).

Sargent’s effort is probably the only surviving painting of the poppies executed at Russell House, very likely given to the Millets by the artist upon his departure. Described by Blashfield as “better than those of the rest of us,” his depiction of the demanding subject is arresting (Blashfield, 1926, p. 113; quoted in Ormond and Kilmurray, p. 112). The painting’s brilliant palette of red, black and green and bold textures are lush and vibrant, and the techniques Sargent honed at Giverny are plainly displayed. Painting en plein air, the artist captures his subject with sensuous strokes of paint, eschewing botanical veracity in favor of immediacy. His active handling of his medium creates a richly patterned and dynamic surface punctuated by highlights of dappled light and passages of thick impasto. While emphasizing the sense that Sargent has painted his subject from direct observation, his painterly style of execution also contributes to the dazzling sense of wild fecundity and abundance the painting strongly conveys. 

The composition represents Sargent’s personal impression of his subject, and the vigorous and gestural brushstrokes he uses to render the forms of the flowers emphasizes the clear sense of exuberance he derived from painting them. Indeed, the physicality underlying his execution draws parallels to the canvases of Abstract Expressionists like Joan Mitchell, who also strove to highlight the act and the process of painting in her work. Also influenced by the work of Monet, Mitchell utilizes impassioned strokes of pigment to create powerful evocations of subjects like sunlight, foliage and water—similar to the motifs that occupied Monet, Sargent and other impressionist painters—but expressed through more dramatically abstract means (Fig. 3). 

While Sargent does not entirely abandon representation and maintains an emphasis on form, he fills the picture plane nearly to its entirety with the poppies, excluding a larger environmental context and eliminating a conventional foreground. The low vantage point he adopts indicates that he has positioned the viewer among a tapestry of bold and unruly blossoms, imparting an immersive experience of nature and color. The strikingly decorative effect ultimately seems to celebrate the lyricism of natural world and recalls the work of painters like Gustav Klimt, who translated his own floral subjects through sumptuous patterns of tessellated, jewel-like colors (Fig 4). As Sargent privileges surface texture, color and mood over naturalistic detail, he reinterprets the genres of landscape and still life with his distinctive and thoroughly modern vision. 

Sargent exhibited Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose at the Royal Academy in London in 1887, where it was met with great fanfare and confirmed that he was more than a society portraitist. The painting was immediately acquired for the nation by the Trustees of the Chantrey bequest, a fund formed by the sculptor Sir Francis Chantrey in order to establish a national collection of British art. The months Sargent spent at Broadway represent a vital moment of transition for the artist both personally and artistically. He left Paris in 1887, making London his permanent home.

Professionally, he continued to accept portrait commissions but his work demonstrates a new boldness that illustrates his break from the conventions of Salon-style studio painting and embrace of an impressionist aesthetic. Painting now with less regard for convention, Sargent felt liberated creatively and as he continued to travel and paint what he saw before him, created "pictures [that] were not only personal statements, [but] gifts to himself; they were his resolution of outdoor painting. They were his spontaneous, snapshot vision. They represent the culmination of his powers as an observer able to render quickly those effects of light and color that fell into his field of vision, without regard for composition of traditional balance. They were the free field for his eye in which he could run to paint as he saw it, life as it was before him, friends if he chose to, and, above all, color and the effect of light on it" (Warren Adelson, Sargent at Broadway: The Impressionist Years, New York, 1986, p. 60).