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)
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!