Thursday, December 06, 2007

Book Review: Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose

Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose tells the tale of one famous John Singer Sargent painting from the perspective of a young girl named Kate: "The summer I was five, John Singer Sargent came to visit us. He wasn't a famous artist then. But he painted a picture in our garden that became quite famous. Here is how I remember what happened..."

Kate, the daughter of painter Ned Abbey, was chosen to model for the painting, which Sargent wished would "make people simply rave with pleasure." Kate is initially reluctant about posing--an artist's daughter, she knows it can be tedious and painful--but soon is proud of being part of such a beautifully conceived work. She poses tirelessly, wearing an itchy blond wig, while artists and authors socialize at her bustling home in Broadway, England.

One day, just as Sargent has completed his sketches of Kate and sets up a large white canvas "far too big to put on an easel," guests arrive to the house:

"I remember Mr. Frederick Barnard (another artist!) coming through the gate in his straw hat. He was followed by his wife and two daughters, Polly, aged eleven, and Dorothy (nicknamed Dolly), who was seven. I saw that Polly and Dolly both had fair hair and beautiful curls. Mr. Sargent saw it too.

Things then happened very fast. Within minutes I was standing off to once side and Polly and Dolly were holding the lanterns between the rose bushes."


Hugh Brewster's Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose: The Story of a Painting is a marvel for the 7-12-year-old reader. Kate's voice is a compelling guide through the years it takes to create a masterpiece. Through Kate we learn about John Singer Sargent and his work, what it takes to compose a large-scale painting like Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, about artistic circles in late 19th-century England, and about Impressionism. Brewster illustrates this wonderful picture book for older readers with Sargent's own paintings and sketches, photographs and postcards from the era, and photographs of relevant objects, like flags and tennis rackets. Brewster also has included biographical information about the real-life Kate, her family members, and visitors the Abbey home as an appendix. Published by Kids Can Press, the production value of Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose is excellent, so children will appreciate Sargent's lush, light-infused paintings fully. Brewster's skill at combining the fictional (in Kate's voice and presentation of daily life) and the real (everything else) is masterful--a model for this increasingly popular technique for presenting history and biography to children. *
*I meant to include this review in the latest issue of The Edge of the Forest, but to be honest I could not decide in which column it belonged. Is Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose non fiction if the narration is fictional? (See Marc Aronson's Non Fiction matters for several recent posts on this issue.)