Shortly after his arrival in England in the summer of 1885 Sargent went on a boating expedition on the Thames with the American artist Edwin Abbey. When Sargent cut his head open diving onto a hidden obstruction, Abbey took him to recuperate to the village of Broadway in the Cotswold hills, which had become a summer colony for a group of young English and American artists and writers. Sargent stayed with the painter F.D. Millet and began this picture in the garden of his house in September 1885. It was partly inspired by a garden with beds of lilies and hung with Chinese lanterns that he had seen on the Thames one evening. He continued work on the painting until early November, then took it up again the following summer and completed it sometime in October. The reason for such slow progress was that the picture was painted out of doors and work could only proceed for a short time each evening when the right kind of mauvish light was present. Sargent would place his easel and paints ready in the garden beforehand and position the models, the daughters Dorothy (on the left) and Polly, of the illustrator Frederick Barnard, who also lived in Broadway. Sargent's biographer Sir Evan Charteris reported that then, as daylight faded, the whole artist colony would accompany Sargent to the scene of his labours: 'Instantly, he took up his place at a distance from the canvas, and at a certain notation of the light ran forward over the lawn with the action of a wag-tail, planting at the same time rapid dabs of paint on the picture, and then retiring again, only with equal suddenness to repeat the wag-tail action. All this occupied but two or three minutes, the light rapidly declining, and then while he left the young ladies to remove his machinery, Sargent would join us again, so long as the twilight permitted, in a last turn at lawn tennis.'
Sargent himself wrote to his sister in 1885: 'Fearful difficult subject. Impossible brilliant colours of flowers, and lamps and brightest green lawn background. Paints are not bright enough, and then the effect only lasts ten minutes.' In spite of the difficulties 'Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose' is undoubtedly a triumphant success, glowing with extraordinary effects of colour and was acclaimed at the Royal Academy exhibition of 1887. An outstanding feature of the picture is the richness of its surface and Sargent's later biographer, Richard Ormond, has noted '... the dazzling textures of the bushes illumined by the lanterns where the surface has coruscated into fierce whorls of pigment. The sheer expressiveness and intensity of the technique are remarkable in a picture of such size and complexity.' The title comes from a popular song of the time 'The Wreath' by Joseph Mazzinghi.
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.103