Note in Blue and Opal: Jersey

Note in Blue and Opal: Jersey (1881, watercolour, Freer Gallery of Art, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, 04.83).

This lovely watercolour, with the tiny details of beaches, houses, reflections was painted with exquisite precision, and tints of delicate colour and signed with a jaunty butterfly that appears to be related to a star-fish.  The peaceful scene – undoubtedly painted under good calm conditions –  rather contradicts Whistler’s description of his experience of the Channel Islands.  He wrote to his beloved sister-in-law, Helen Whistler on 17 October:

‘I only got here on Saturday morning – after a trip – … of the wildest – … At Guernsey then I chucked up the game and went ashore – There I stayed and struggled with wind and weather – and paintboxes with that perseverance that is the peculiarity of this family, as you will know – … quite hopeless – After being whisked about on the tops of very grand rocks and nearly blown into the sea canvas and all and dragging myself each evening back to the inn a dishevelled wreck of fright and disappointment I ceased a career only fit for an accrobat [sic] and came over to Jersey remembering that you had said it was comparatively flatter! – Well it’s flat – or a bit of it is – … but the weathercocks in the place have played me another trick and gone round, the lot of them, to the East – North East by East! – and awful it is – cold as Venice in winter – and everything hard as nails – What shall I do! – not a single picture have I managed yet – though I have tried ever so hard – but that you know is no comfort for – have I not written it! – ‘mere industry is the virtue of the duffer’! – and poor as I am – well you know – how is my journey to be payed [sic] for! – It is true that I have partly discovered a little game in watercolors that may possibly be worked into one pound or so – but alas – what is that – However I shall still try – for a few days longer’

So, this watercolour is one of several – a ‘little game in watercolours’ – and it was exhibited in the Grosvenor Gallery in the following year, 1882,  and possibly in Paris in 1887, and was eventually bought by the lithographer Thomas Way, to help pay for this and many other working trips to the shores of Europe.  And Charles Lang Freer bought this and many other beautiful works from Way, and bequeathed them to the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington where they reside in safety, free from wind and flood.

But what of the other ‘games’ played in the Channel islands? Whistler had told ‘Nellie’ that he had ‘lots of boxes and traps enough to produce a Gallery of chef d’oeuvres!’ but very few have been identified. Blue and Brown – San Brelade’s Bay was also shown in 1882 (the two  were dismissed in the papers as ‘slight sketches in water-colours!) and some oils were exhibited or recorded under titles that suggest they come from the same trip, including Bleu et argent: La Mer, Jersey;  Blue and Brown: The Little Bay and  Blue Wave: Near the Casquet Rocks.   The Casquet Rocks are a navigational hazard eight miles west of the island of Alderney and T.R.Way jr described the painting as a ‘vast deep blue wave’. If so, and if it was painted at sea, it was unusual but not unique in Whistler’s work, and it is an enormous pity that it has not been found!

Blue and Brown: The Little Bay was shown in Whistler’s one-man show at Messrs Dowdeswell’s gallery in Bond Street in 1884. It  inspired a dismissive description: ‘A few smears of colour, such as a painter might make in cleaning his paint brushes, and which, neither near at hand nor far off, neither from one side nor from the other, nor from in front, do more than vaguely suggest a shore and bay, was described as a Note in Blue and Brown . . . One who found these pictures other than insults to his artistic sense could never be reached by reasoning.’ Unfortunately this does not help to identify it! Whistler so enjoyed the review that he quoted it again years later, in 1892, at his major retrospective exhibition at Goupil’s: curiously enough it was used as a comment on another unidentified painting!

Finally Bleu et argent: La Mer, Jersey, shown at the Galerie George Petit in 1887, unfortunately inspired no reviews – at least none that I have found to far.  Just to complicate matters further, it is not certain whether it was an oil or watercolour! Given the title, which emphasizes colour, as was Whistler’s wont, over site, it could actually have been exhibited elsewhere, and could have survived under another title.  I would like to think so.  We will keep looking!

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Chelsea Shops, in the Freer Gallery of Art (F1902.149a-b), is now identified as a painting shown at Whistler’s one-man show of ‘Notes’ – ‘Harmonies’ – ‘Nocturnes’ in Messrs Dowdeswell’s galleries in 1884. Whistler kept press-cuttings of the show (these are now in the Whistler collection in Glasgow University Library).

Chelsea: Yellow and Grey, which was no. 11 in the catalogue, was described by a London newspaper as ‘a newspaper shop.’ The art critic went on to query the title: ‘He calls it “Chelsea Yellow and Grey.” Why? I cannot say. It is neither yellow nor grey. It is, however, a precious little gem.’  Now, there is indeed a newspaper shop in the centre of this street scene, and the dominant colours on this shop are pale yellow and grey.

On 1 July 1884, the London Standard described it more vaguely as ‘one of Mr. Whistler’s rapid, suggestive studies of low-browed houses, shops, and the picturesque of drabs, yellows, dirty bricks, and dropping plaster’. However, this fits Chelsea Shops perfectly.  We are in discussion about whether to restore the original title or create a new one (‘Chelsea Shops: Yellow and Grey’?) or stick to the title it has had since 1904 at the Whistler Memorial exhibition in Boston.

It’s a problem: we don’t want to confuse people, rather we want to clarify what Whistler considered important (both the colour and the location- the link to an actual site on an actual day).  It’s not the only problem: Sherlock Holmes has nothing on us. Except Dr Watson.

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The chicken and the egg.

Apologies for the big blog delay, which was caused by the setting up of the Whistler paintings catalogue raisonné website. It is early days yet (we hope to go fully online in 2017), though our website has newly gone online at  http://www.whistlerpaintings.gla.ac.uk/   Watch that space!

Meanwhile here is a question that is producing considerable problems. Which came first, sketch, drawing, oil study, cartoon or oil painting?

In Victorian times, the art student and artist was expected to outline ideas in pencil or pen, follow this up with figure and drapery studies, go on to small oil sketches, draw a more elaborate full-scale cartoon for transfer tot the final canvas. Of course there were exceptions, and there are occasions, with Whistler, where there appear to be two or three possible scenarios.

The Hunterian

The Hunterian

Take, for instance, this bold sketch in the Hunterian, University of Glasgow. Does it precede a more finished painting now in the Freer Gallery of Art: Variations in Flesh Colour and Green – The Balcony?

Or is it a sketch, traced or copied from the Freer picture, and squared up  (a rectangular grid was drawn over the sketch) in preparation for the enlargement of the composition to a much large canvas that would be, in due course, submitted to the Salon?

In the end it was Variations in Flesh Colour and Green – The Balcony that was signed with a butterfly and submitted to the Salon in Paris. But it is not certain that was Whistler’s original intention.

'Variations in Flesh Colour and Green - The Balcony'

‘Variations in Flesh Colour and Green – The Balcony’

A crucial and cryptic piece of evidence is as follows: a letter from Whistler to his closest friend, the artist Henri Fantin-Latour, written shortly after the Royal Academy show of 1867:

“Je t’envoies une photographie d’apres la petite esquisse du ‘balcon’ – Je vais le faire grand presque comme nature pour le salon – Dis moi ce que [tu] en penses pour composition, lignes etc . . . la couleur en est tres éclatante” 

(I’m sending you a photograph of the little study for the “balcony” – I am going to do it almost lifesize for the Salon – Tell me what you think of the composition, lines etc., the colour is very brilliant -” (GUW 08045).

Fine: the colour is ‘tres éclatante’ in both versions. The oil sketch in the Hunterian is very bold, and roughly painted, and it would seem a little strange for Whistler to have sent a photograph of it to Fantin, for him to check the lines of the composition.  A photograph of the Freer painting, long before the butterfly was added, would perhaps have been more reasonable. But the painting is, for Whistler,  rather highly finished for a preliminary sketch.

Both, in their current state, have a rectangular cartouche for Whistler’s butterfly monogram, but that was added at a later stage on both of them. The actual butterfly on Variations in Flesh Colour and Green – The Balcony was added when it was sent to the Royal Academy in 1870.

The enlarged verion (‘presque comme nature’, almost life-size) was perhaps started but certainly not completed, and has not survived. But was the Hunterian vivid squared-up oil sketch a stage in the process of enlarging the beautiful Freer ‘sketch’?

So, which came first, the chicken or the egg?


The Correspondence of James McNeill Whistler, 1855-1903, edited by Margaret F. MacDonald, Patricia de Montfort and Nigel Thorp; including The Correspondence of Anna McNeill Whistler, 1855-1880, edited by Georgia Toutziari. On-line edition, University of Glasgow. http://www.whistler.arts.gla.ac.uk/correspondence

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A Paris Model, The Hunterian (GLAHA 46363)

A Paris Model, The Hunterian (GLAHA 46363)

A Paris Model, ca 1895-1899, Oil on canvas, 57.8 x 44.5 (oval)

Birnie Philip Collection, The Hunterian, University of Glasgow.


This unfinished canvas is among the most interesting items in the Hunterian’s huge Whistler collection, because it shows the artist in the process of working on an oil portrait. Why it was never completed is not known: perhaps the model failed to return for the next sitting, or Whistler left for London and the canvas was put aside and forgotten. As you can see, the head is carefully modeled, the back ground is roughly indicated but incomplete, and the dress is merely sketched in pencil.

If you want to paint like Whistler, here are his instructions to a young relative, Thomas D. Whistler, in November 1881:

1st. Indicate the head with charcoal – that is find its place on the canvass – and then draw it lightly with a brush – you might use a little grey for this purpose made of Ivory black – white – venetian red & a little yellow ochre.

2 – Rub this, as you draw, with a hog hair brush, into the shadow – and in short draw and model lightly your whole head with this warm grey or brown – … let this dry completely – … When you take it up again, you may work over the same places again with the same material only that now as your head is already found you will have less trouble – and in short this will to all intents & purposes be a first painting – …Continue now with your flesh color – painting from the light into the shadow while the shadow is wet – so that you will really be covering the whole head in one sitting and indeed with one painting -… You will mix your flesh tints of course with white – and as you get towards the shadow you will see how much darker the grey or brown looks than nature, and then you will perceive the color that there is in shadow and you will be enabled to reach that by a mixture of your grey with some of the flesh  tone on your palette – and so my dear Tom you will proceed and finish – …

3rd. Use if you like linseed oil and turpentine mixed – not meguilp –

4th. don’t be afraid of your shadows having white in them – You see I tell you the flesh colors will mix themselves with your shadows –  

(The full letter is in The Correspondence of James McNeill Whistler, online at http://www.whistler.arts.gla.ac.uk/correspondence/(GUW 00588)

Miss Rosalind Birnie Philip Standing ca 1897, Oil on wood, 23.4 x 13.7mm, The Hunterian, University of Glasgow, Bequest of Miss R. Birnie Philip, 1958; GLAHA 46369

Miss Rosalind Birnie Philip Standing ca 1897, Oil on wood, 23.4 x 13.7mm, The Hunterian, University of Glasgow, Bequest of Miss R. Birnie Philip, 1958; GLAHA 46369

But did he follow his own instructions? Well, not always. A subtle and painterly portrait is currently on view in the delightful Whistler exhibition at the Blue Coat gallery during the Liverpool Biennial. It was painted  more freely than these instructions indicate. It is a very small full-length portrait, showing Rosalind Birnie Philip, Whistler’s youngest sister-in-law. In one letter Whistler refers to his dissatisfaction with his portraits of Rosalind, but also fondness and admiration for her elegant dress and appearance. One day, when she had been out to a social event, Whistler inquired affectionately about what she had worn:

Was it the black dress I like? – … The pearl necklace Major? around the straight throat – most stately! – to say nothing of the small smooth head, to which I have never done justice!

(Whistler to R Birnie Philip, [18 February 1901] GUW 04790)

 Whistler’s letters to Rosalind reveal their closeness (these were written long after the premature death of Whistler’s wife, Rosalind’s older sister Beatrice).   Rosalind took good care of Whistler in his declining years, and Whistler was very fond of her. They were, you might say, equally protective of each other. It was through Rosalind that the huge and important collection of Whistler’s work and letters came to the University of Glasgow.  So after you have visited Liverpool I suggest coming right on to Glasgow!

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The Peacock Room, London 1892, photo by Lemere, V&A

The Peacock Room, London 1892, photo by Lemere, V&A

A small dinner party was held by Whistler on 1 November 1877. This is confirmed by Whistler’s purchase of fresh cod from John S. Charles, a Pimlico fishmonger, on that date. The guests included the architect and surveyor Tom Layland and his wife, and ‘Mr Godwin’ by which Whistler presumably meant the architect Edward William Godwin. 

By this time Godwin was designing a new house for the ambitious painter, a house on Tite Street where he could entertain guests, hold parties and  concerts, and have a studio where both he and art students could work, as well as a fully functioning modern kitchen. Whistler had just finished working on the famous dining Room now known as the Peacock Room in Frederick Leyland’s house at Princes’ Gate- and had fallen out irretrievably with his patron. This, plus the expenses of the new house were factors in Whistler’s bankruptcy in the following year – and, indeed, to the survival of the fishmonger’s bill, for Charles was among Whistler’s creditors.

However, the November dinner party had a straightforward hearty menu suited to the season:

Potage aux poireaux

  Cabillaud –

     Pigeons –

       Côtelettes d’Agneau –

         Mince Pies –

        Macaroni –

Café –

This comprises a starter of leek soup, a simple fish course of cod, then either pigeons or lamb cutlets as the meat course, and two deserts, mince pies and macaroni, followed by coffee. It is surprising that Whistler does not mention any sauces,  although plain boiled cod could perfectly well be served with melted butter. Let’s hope they were using young pigeons ‘pigeonneaux’ and not elderly London pigeons!

Savoy Pigeons, Lithograph, 1896

Savoy Pigeons, Lithograph, 1896

Escoffier records a very simple dish: ‘Pigeonneaux à la Bordelaise‘ which I have adapted:

1 pigeon per person.

Ask the butcher to remove the heads if you think it will put your guests off.

Cut the pigeons in half, flatten them, season with salt and pepper.

Fry them in butter (not too much, an ounce should do, about ten minutes a side.

That’s it!

Plate showing birds, including pigeons, from Mrs Beeton, 1888

Plate showing birds, including pigeons, from Mrs Beeton, 1888

 I’m amused by Mrs Beeton’s illustration, with the poor little pigeon waving its legs in the air, at lower right. I think this plate might turn one into a vegetarian. So my next blog had better be the leek soup!

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Another Whistler exhibition is now open, at the Blue Coat gallery, during the Liverpool Biennale. Whistler spent a significant amount of time in Liverpool during the period 1870-1875, when his chief patron was the Liverpool ship-owner Frederick R. Leyland. He was commissioned to paint portraits of the family and spent weeks, which turned into months, in the luxurious surroundings of the Leylands’ home, Speke Hall, which is hardly surprising : its a wonderful half-timbered house, now managed by the National Trust.


Speke Hall: The Avenue, etching and drypoint, 1870-1878, (G.101 9/14)

Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool (Acc. no: WAG 9066)

Image credit: photography@liverpoolmuseums.org.uk


Speke Hall, photograph credit: M.F. MacDonald, Whistler Etchings Project, University of Glasgow

 Whistler’s portraits were painted partly at Speke, partly in London, and only the portraits of Leyland himself and his wife Frances could be said to be completed. The splendid Symphony in Fleshcolour and pink: Portrait of Mrs Leyland is now in the Frick Collection, New York, and Arrangement in Black, the portrait of Leyland, in the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington DC. Thus, since neither gallery can lend, they can never be re-united.

However, the Blue Coat has brought together some of the etchings and drypoints that Whistler made at Speke Hall- including the beautiful drypoint of Frances Leyland, The Velvet Dress, and these set the scene for a focus show on Whistler as artist, designer, and promoter of his vision of art.

Velvet dress

The Velvet Dress (Mrs Leyland), drypoint, 1873/4 (G.120 5/7)

Hunterian Art Gallery (GLAHA 46774)

Photo © The Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, University of Glasgow 2014

A spectacular recreation of the Fighting Peacocks panel from the Peacock Room, as painted for F.R.Leyland’s London house, was painted by set designer Olivia du Manceau (with occasional input from enthusiastic Blue Coat staff) and it is a delightful surprise to come on this up a flight of stairs in the galleries. The original was moved to the Freer Gallery of Art a century ago, but for a few months we can enjoy this vivid and painterly response to it (complete with blue and white Chinese porcelain on the shelves)  in Liverpool.


Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room, 1876-77 (above, and detail, below). Reproduction by Olivia du Monceau, 2014. Installation view from Liverpool Biennial 2014. Photographs by Roger Sinek.


Central to the Blue Coat show are photographs, drawings and caricatures of Whistler, and the sharp, witty, serious, perceptive words of the artist himself. Whistler brings art to life: a picture of both the artist and his life and art emerges from the works and words as you go through the show. Here are his exuberant comments to the American sculptor Thomas Waldo Storey on 5 February 1883, describing the exhibition of his Venice etchings at the Fine Art Society:

Well great Shebang on Saturday 17. Feb – Opening of Show and Private View – “Arrangement in White & Yellow”. … in Bond Street – where I have won my battle and am on good terms with the Fine Art Society … All the World there – Lady Archie – the Prince – … great glorification – and the Butterfly rampant and all over the place! I can’t tell you how perfect – though you would instinctively know that there isn’t a detail forgotten – Sparkling and dainty – … and all so sharp – White walls – of different whites – with yellow painted mouldings – not gilded! – Yellow velvet curtains – pale yellow matting – Yellow sofas and little chairs – lovely little table yellow – own design – with yellow pot and Tiger lilly! Forty odd superb etchings round the white walls in their exquisite white frames – with their little butterflies – large White butterfly on yellow curtain – and Yellow butterfly on white wall – and finally servant in yellow livery (!) handing Catalogue in brown paper cover same size as Ruskin pamphlet!!! And such a catalogue! – The last inspiration! – … I take my dear Waldo, all this I have collected of the silly drivel of the wise fools who write, and I pepper & salt it about the Catalogue under the different etchings I exhibit! – …I give ’em Hell! …The whole thing is a joy – and indeed a masterpiece of Mischief!’

 The Blue Coat show focuses on Whistler’s designs for exhibitions, and includes rare sketches, watercolours, and etchings that were shown in Whistler’s distinctive artist-designed exhibitions.  For instance, he designed a velarium to hang over the exhibition rooms of the Royal Society of British Artists, during his brief and stormy interlude as President of the society. His proposal for a Patent application is on view, as is the Blue Coat’s evocative recreation of the velarium, a muslin cloth hung as a canopy from the ceiling and effectively diffusing the light and focussing attention on the works of art, and not the spectators.


James McNeill Whistler: exhibition view at the Bluecoat for Liverpool Biennial 2014.

Photograph by Mark McNulty.

As you see in this photograph, the spectators found plenty to enjoy, challenge and discuss in this exhibition. Go and see what you think!


James McNeill Whistler, The Blue Coat, School Lane, Liverpool, curated by Mai Abu ElDahab and Rosie Cooper. Liverpool Biennial, until 26 October 2014

Whistler’s letter to Waldo Storey is listed in:

The Correspondence of James McNeill Whistler, 1855-1903, edited by Margaret F. MacDonald, Patricia de Montfort and Nigel Thorp. On-line edition, University of Glasgow.

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IN THE YEAR 1860, during the reign of Queen Victoria, the expatriate American, James McNeill Whistler, sat down by the London docks to sketch a crowd on a ferry boat. The result, a small etching called Penny Passengers, Limehouse is one of Whistler’s rarest works. It is currently on view in the exhibition An American in London: Whistler and the Thames at the Freer Gallery of Art. The frequent ferry boats from Limehouse would take passengers, for a penny, upriver or across the river Thames. The price was low: twelve pennies made one shilling, and twenty shillings, one pound sterling (£). A penny would buy, for instance, a loaf or two of bread. The wages for these passengers and sailors could well have been between 20 and 25 shillings a week, although many earned much less.


THE ART CRITIC Frederick Wedmore said that they were ‘standing in a large ferry-boat, or little steam packet, that is to cross the River’ but since the boat itself is not visible, the people could be standing on a pier awaiting the ferry. It is a vivid sketch, unfinished (at least there is a lot of space left empty) and it is likely that it was the quick record of a scene that changed completely within minutes as the ferry set off across the broad river.  



Penny Passengers, etching and drypoint (G.71)

Image credit © Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution

(Acc. No. 1898.299)


ONLY FIVE impressions of Penny Passengers, Limehouse are known though Whistler may have planned more. It is little known and has rarely been exhibited. Thus it is a treat to see it at the Freer/Sackler in the context of Whistler’s studies of the river. and the men and women who worked by or on the river, or crossed it daily on their way to work. The river was a vital highway, the lifeblood of what was then the busiest port in the world. This etching shows barges, a side wheel paddle steamer, small sailing boat and masses of larger sailing boats moored in midstream.

THE FIGURES are as varied as the boats. There are women in summer bonnets trimmed with ribbons and lace, one carrying a parasol, and men in the extremely tall top hats of the period. Two men wearing caps may be sailors. Finally one man has a low-crowned, wide-brimmed straw hat, of the sort Whistler wears in his self-portrait, Whistler with a hat of 1859 – drawn a year before the Penny Passengers.




Whistler with a hat, drypoint (G.44)

Image credit © Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution

 (Acc. No. 1898.289)  

HOWEVER, in one photograph Whistler is seen in the sort of headgear associated with London clerks and businessmen: a bowler hat. A photograph, taken about this time, shows him with curly locks barely suppressed under a slightly rakish bowler.  It’s a great photo and not surprisingly, Dan Sutherland chose it for the cover of his excellent new biography of Whistler, A Life for Arts Sake (Yale University Press, 2014). The controversial Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (Detroit Institute of Art) acts as a fantastic backdrop to the artist, who looks as if he has just spent a long night in the pleasure gardens, watching the same rockets.





AND a final note: When the Whistler show opened at the Freer Gallery in May, there was a preview one evening featuring Victorian dress (a lot of crinolines and bonnets) and moustaches and bowler hats were given out to the visitors. Rejecting the moustaches, my colleague Patricia de Montfort and I sported dapper bowlers. Our companion, Howard Kaplan, entered thoroughly into the spirit of the evening, while researching a Whistler blog for the Freer : see his Mother’s Day blog at http://bento.si.edu/from-the-collections/american-art-from-the-collections/mother-knows-best/


Whistler 2014

Margaret F. MacDonald, Grischka Petri, Meg Hausberg, and Joanna Meacock, James McNeill Whistler: The Etchings, a catalogue raisonné, University of Glasgow, 2012, online website at http://etchings.arts.gla.ac.uk.


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