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   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.

About mfmmacdonald

I am an artist and art historian, and my research is focussed on the work and life of James McNeill Whistler. Based in the School of Culture and Creative Arts, University of Glasgow, I am Director of the Whistler Paintings and Etchings Projects. These blogs are informal, and, I hope, interesting and even quirky discussions of individual works and events related to Whistler.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s