In 1869, Whistler made a large and elaborate drawing of a nude figure, which was intended to be transferred to canvas, a decorative scheme that was never completed. However, the drawing or cartoon, is now in the Freer Gallery of Art, and it bore, instead of Whistler’s signature, a monogram of his initials ‘JW’ in the form of a butterfly. The ‘J’ was the body, and the ‘W’ the wings.
Venus, black crayon and white chalk on brown paper,
119.4 x 61.4 cms,
Freer Gallery of Art, F1904.66a-b
This precise butterfly with its angular wings is visible on a square cartouche at lower right. This monogram evolved over the years into the butterfly that became Whistler’s mark, as distinctive as a signature. Within a couple of years he was applying it to his paintings, including the famous portrait of his mother, and views of the Thames.
In 1871, two paintings of the Thames were exhibited at the Dudley Gallery in London (cat. nos. 225 and 265), Variations in Violet and Green (now in the Musée d’Orsay) and ‘Harmony in Blue-green’ (which was later renamed Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Chelsea and is now in the Tate.
Whistler was away in Liverpool, leaving his faithful followers, Walter and Henry Greaves, to check on the paintings. ‘I am very glad you and Harry have been to the Dudley – and that the two “harmonies” look swell among the crowd’, he wrote to Walter, adding, ‘Have they managed to fit in the little gold flat you know that Clay took down to the Gallery and that they wouldn’t let him put in the frame, but fixed it in themselves? Does it look all right? They have not taken off too much of the butterfly have they?’
Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Chelsea (Tate) in the Tretyakow Gallery:
(I took this snap while the show ‘Whistler in Russia’ was being hung).
The butterfly is on the frame at lower right.
At the Dulwich Gallery, the pictures were reviewed favourably by the resident art critic of The Times, Tom Taylor on 14 November 1871:
‘’The colour, consistently with the theory of the painter, is carried out into the frames by means of delicate diaperings and ripplings of faint greens and moony blues on their gold and the Japanese influence in which the painter delights is carried even to the introduction of the coloured cartouche, which on Japanese screens bears the address of the painter or seller.’
It is possible this refers to the rather cramped butterfly painted on the flat between the reeded surfaces of the picture frame. The other picture in the Dudley exhibition of 1871 was also signed with a butterfly, quite a small one, and presumably both the frame design and the butterfly were as Whistler wanted them. Variations in Violet and Green is signed with a butterfly and dated ‘71’ on the right, and signed with a butterfly on the frame at upper left.
In May 2014, Variations in Violet and Green will be reunited for the first time in a century with its companion piece, Variations in Pink and Grey: Chelsea in the exhibition An American in London: Whistler and the Thames at the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington DC.
Variations in Pink and Grey: Chelsea
Freer Gallery of Art: F1902.249a-b
There is a little red and gold butterfly on the frame at left, and a small blue butterfly on a cartouche (which could be interpreted as a signboard) in the painting itself, also at left. Both are variations on Whistler’s original butterfly. The butterfly was to metamorphose further over the next 30 years, adding and losing veins on the wings, antennae, and occasionally, a sting!
You could say that it became the symbol for Whistler himself, a very serious butterfly.
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.