Category Archives: American Art

Friday Fave: “The Lute” by Thomas Dewing

"The Lute" by Thomas Wilmer Dewing, 1904; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1913.34a

“The Lute” by Thomas Wilmer Dewing, 1904; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1913.34a

 

Our Friday Fave blog series features museum insiders taking a closer look at their favorite works of art.

I recently had the opportunity to view Thomas Wilmer Dewing’s enigmatic painting The Lute up close. I was first drawn to the subtle tones of the painting, characteristic of the works he created at his summer studio in Cornish, New Hampshire. Then, I started wondering about the story. The Lute features four idealized female figures in an atmospheric landscape, subtly charming with its delicate surface texture.

The figures’ dreamlike quality—suspended in a verdurous gossamer backdrop—gives the interaction between the women a certain ethereality. The clear focal point of the four actors drew me closer to examine their relationship.

In my interpretation, the woman on the right plays the lute with an air of contentment, seemingly unaware of the three women watching in judgment, sinistrally. The observer closest to the performer seems to be looking on with contempt, chin raised in superiority; the next stands enviously, arms akimbo with a brick-wall resolution; and the final figure maintains lowered eyes, aloof from the scene, listening on wistfully, sadly.

I love that so many works in Freer’s collection represent points of contact and influence between cultures. The Lute is a lovely representation of that cross-cultural aesthetic interchange, clearly inspired by Japanese ukiyo-e painting and prints of “the floating world,” which were familiar to artists in both the United States and Europe at the turn of the twentieth century. The delicate craftsmanship, leisurely models, and poetic interactions are stunning.

Most interesting to me, though, is the poignant reflection on human nature that Dewing explores. Without any associated writing on the painting, the onus to decipher the narrative is placed on the viewer. Who is this lute player? How are her actions affecting the listeners? Would another person perceive their reactions differently than I do?

To me, as I view what I perceive as troubled responses to the performer, I am cautioned that human nature has a multiplicity of beautiful and vexing facets. I am reminded to listen to the lute with gratitude.

Unfortunately, The Lute is not currently on view. You can still view this American masterwork in stunning detail anytime you like on Open F|S, and you can explore related works in the Sylvan Sounds: Freer, Dewing, and Japan online exhibition feature.

Whistler, Hiroshige, and a Fortunate Find

Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl; James McNeill Whistler; 1864, oil on canvas; Tate Britain, London

Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl; James McNeill Whistler; 1864, oil on canvas; Tate Britain, London

Margaret MacDonald, professor emerita of art history at the University of Glasgow, is guest curator for An American in London: Whistler and the Thames, on view at the Sackler through Sunday, August 17.

Luck plays its little tricks on the hardened researcher. Sometimes I try for hours, weeks even, to crack a particular puzzle. And then something exciting—and vital—turns up out of the blue. I am based in glorious Glasgow, so I rely on Scottish libraries, the Whistler Collection, university archives, and of course, the Internet to learn more about artist James McNeill Whistler. However, once or twice a year, I spend a frenzied week researching in London, where the British Library and Victoria and Albert Museum are high on my list of beloved places. They even have good cafes.

Today’s tale involves the V&A. I had arrived early, stoked up with Kensington cafe coffee and croissants. I dumped my bags in the cloakroom and loaded everything needed in a see-through plastic bag, which ensured I couldn’t nick the Whistlers. A spacious modern print room awaited with comfy chairs and online catalogues. A curator came over to gossip…bliss. I’d requested to see some of the museum’s earliest acquisitions of Whistler etchings, but the delivery was a bit slow that day, so I whiled away the time on the museum’s online collections. Somehow, I strayed further and further into the website. I entered various names and words in the search box. Apparently, a huge collection of Japanese woodcuts, including fans, had been put online. Serendipity, second sight, or sheer luck came into play at this point. I entered ‘Hiroshige River Fan’ and a gorgeous Hiroshige work appeared. I had fed in the right words and—open sesame—the wonders of Hiroshige’s world were revealed. I think I stopped breathing.

The Banks of the Sumida River, from the series Famous Places in the Eastern Capital; Utagawa Hiroshige; Japan, Edo period, 1857; woodblock print; ink and color on paper; Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Banks of the Sumida River, from the series Famous Places in the Eastern Capital; Utagawa Hiroshige; Japan, Edo period, 1857; woodblock print; ink and color on paper; Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The image I saw before me was The Banks of the Sumida River, a woodcut from Hiroshige’s series Famous Places in the Eastern Capital. The scene it depicts is strikingly similar to one within Whistler’s Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl (pictured at top of this post). For this work, Whistler’s mistress, Jo, posed in a white muslin summer dress, standing by a mantelpiece in his house in Lindsey Row, her face reflected in a mirror. Blue-and-white porcelain adorned the fireplace, and Jo held an Asian fan or hand-screen. Until recently, this fan had not been identified. Indeed, I had thought it perhaps showed a woman holding a parasol. It appears that I was looking at it upside down! The fan (when looked at the right way up) shows a boat with a sail billowing in the wind, on a broad river of deep blue with green waves. In the distance are two more boats with rectangular sails and, on the left, several barges. The spacious composition and broad bands of rich colour are striking.

The print, dating from 1857 (Hiroshige died the following year), would have traveled from Japan to London via ship, on a journey that could have taken up to seven years. It was probably trimmed and mounted for sale in Britain as a fan or hand-screen, used as a shade against heat or light. Although there may have been many impressions of this uchiwa-e (rigid fan print) in different colour ranges, few appear to have survived.

The V&A print is not literally Whistler’s fan. Along with never being mounted within a frame as a fan, the V&A print has a sky of deep blue at the horizon, where Whistler’s was red. In addition, Whistler’s collection of Japanese and Chinese objects—prints and porcelain and all—was sold when he went bankrupt. The bankruptcy sale, held by Baker & Sons in 1879, featured “Japanese hand screens,” possibly including Jo’s fan. The V&A fan came from another collection and entered the museum in 1886. However, the two prints are dated from the same time and probably traveled on the same ship.

On a later trip to London, I was able to arrange to see the fan print itself, a woodcut of great beauty. The print shows the Sumida River, with Mount Tsukuba on the horizon, from the middle of the Azuma Bridge, the northernmost of four bridges spanning the river. To the left is the Shoten Shrine at Matsuchiyama, and beyond is the entrance to the San’yabori Canal, whence travellers walked along the Nihon Embankment to the Yoshiwara licensed pleasure quarters. To the right is the Mukojima district, with steps leading down to the river and the Takeya ferry crossing, behind which, over the embankment, the torii gate of the Mimeguri Shrine is visible.

The scene makes a fascinating comparison to the approach up the river Thames to the Cremorne Pleasure Gardens, which were very close to Whistler’s house on Lindsey Row, on the same north bank of the river (more or less visible from the front room where the Little White Girl was painted). In subject, composition, and detail, prints such as Hiroshige’s had a strong influence on Whistler, not only as accessories but in composition and subject.

By the time I saw the woodcut, it was long past the date for adding works to the Whistler show, but given its importance and relevance, we were able to make a case for its inclusion. The V&A generously agreed to lend the work. The fan had pride of place in the exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery and is currently on view in An American in London: Whistler and the Thames, on view at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery…but only for a few more days. I strongly advise everyone to go and see it while you have the chance!

View a gallery of images from An American in London: Whistler and the Thames, on view through Sunday, August 17.

Whistler and the British Music Hall

The Manager's Window, Gaiety Theatre; James McNeill Whistler; 1896; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1896.76

The Manager’s Window, Gaiety Theatre; James McNeill Whistler; 1896; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1896.76

Michael Wilpers is public programs coordinator at Freer|Sackler.

Musical ideas abound in the work of American expatriate artist James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903), whose art is more abundantly represented in the Freer|Sackler’s collections than at any other museum in the world. Rather than use conventional labels for his works (such as “portraits” or “landscapes”), Whistler instead called them “harmonies,” “symphonies,” “nocturnes,” “variations,” and “arrangements.” But the connections between Whistler and music extend beyond these labels and their associated aesthetic concepts.

The London of Whistler’s time was virtually consumed with the burgeoning form of entertainment called “music hall,” a variety-show genre comparable to American vaudeville and French cabaret. When Whistler arrived in London in 1859, the Canterbury Music Hall had just been converted from a 700-seat establishment to one that held 1,500 guests, featuring tables and chairs for dining, ornate chandeliers, and a capacious mezzanine. By 1875, more than 375 music halls were open in greater London, ranging from modest taverns to massive entertainment centers, all with music and comedy to accompany their beer and food. Perhaps it is not unreasonable to wonder if Whistler’s famous night scenes (nocturnes) were so lacking in people because they were all at the music halls!

Along with sentimental and patriotic tunes, music hall’s trademark and biggest draw were its comic songs, replete with double entendre, tongue-twisters, and other risqué wordplay evidenced in such classics as “Pheasant Plucker” and the later “You’ve Got the Right Key but the Wrong Key Hole.” Such lyrics contributed to a culture of wit and conversational cleverness—of which Whistler was a proud champion. His playful, public conversations with Oscar Wilde were the talk of the town; he once famously claimed to have perfected the “gentle art of making enemies.” In addition, one might be remiss in considering Whistler’s relationship to music hall without factoring in his many romantic liaisons, which were certainly not inconsistent with the genre’s bawdy themes.

Whistler also represented music hall directly in his artwork. The Freer collection includes several of his lithographs showing the exterior of the Gaiety Theater (pictured above), which opened in 1868 with a seating capacity of 2,000. In 1877, Whistler executed a portrait of one of the Gaiety’s child-stars, Connie Gilchrist, who was just twelve at the time. She became famous for her jump-rope dance routine, “taking the fashionable frequenters of the place by storm,” the Times noted, “her ingenuousness capturing all hearts, especially in contrast to the precocious cynicism of her stage dialogue.” Many artists and photographers created portraits of Gilchrist, who married well above her station, like so many of the “Gaiety Girls.” Of course, Whistler gave his portrait a musical name—Harmony in Yellow and Gold—with the overarching colors punctuated in three spots by the red of her lips and the two jump-rope handles.

The Freer Gallery celebrated the venerable music hall tradition this summer with a performance by the British Players, a revival troupe based in the Washington area. In a nod to Whistler’s nocturnes, the troupe included its own arrangement of “Roamin’ in the Gloamin’,” a big hit of the very early 1900s. The Washington Post called the Freer show “a bawdy good time … full of bad jokes, genuinely funny acts, and naughty songs.” The critic continued, “The show went off with enormous good humor and energy, suggesting that the dark and somewhat spooky London that Whistler dwelt on must have had its lighthearted music-hall moments.”

The British Players performing at the Freer Gallery of Art.

The British Players performing at the Freer Gallery of Art.

The British Players give a series of charity performances every December and June at Kensington Town Hall in Maryland, under the patronage of Lady Kensington herself. Their shows come complete with the requisite “chairman” (a wise-cracking master of ceremonies), bow-belles, the Chord Busters vocal quartet, the Edwardians (ensemble choir), can-can, and plenty of food and drink.

For excellent material about music hall—its history, theaters, entrepreneurs, star performers, and sheet music covers—visit the Victoria and Albert Museum’s web feature and be sure to check out the related content.

A look at Whistler’s ode to a rapidly changing London, An American in London: Whistler and the Thames, remains on view in the Sackler through August 17. #americaninlondon

You Ask, We Answer: Why is American art in the Freer|Sackler?

Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen, 1864, James McNeill Whistler, F1904.75a

Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen; James McNeill Whistler; 1864; F1904.75a

Howard Kaplan is museum writer at Freer|Sackler.

This is a question we are often asked, and it makes perfect sense. We’re the Smithsonian’s museums of Asian art—yet we have important holdings of American art from the late 19th century, including the world’s greatest collection of works by James McNeill Whistler, along with works by his compatriots Thomas Wilmer Dewing, Abbott Handerson Thayer, and Dwight William Tryon. In the Freer, you can move from a gallery that features Japanese screens and enter a room that displays Whistler’s poetic Nocturnes, while the Sackler currently features a landmark exhibition of Whistler’s works alongside its many galleries of Asian art. How can that be?

For the answer, I have to take you back to 1890, when Detroit businessman Charles Lang Freer paid an unannounced call to Whistler’s London studio. The two men became friends and over the next thirteen years, Whistler helped Freer amass what the artist called “a fine collection of Whistlers!!—perhaps The collection.” When Freer observed similarities between Whistler’s art and Japanese prints, the artist encouraged him to visit Asia, where, he explained, Freer would find artistic treasures—early chapters in what Whistler called “the story of the beautiful“—from which his own work was descended. Freer thus conceived of his museum in large part as a monument to Whistler and the “points of contact” between East and West and ancient and modern that he believed the artist’s work embodied.

Freer ultimately would collect more than one thousand works by Whistler, including Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room, an opulent dining room painted by Whistler in 1876–77, and others displayed in the Sackler exhibition An American in London: Whistler and the Thames. By 1906, Freer also had amassed a considerable amount of paintings and ceramics from Japan and China and artifacts from the ancient Near East, selections of which can now be viewed near the Peacock Room in the Freer Gallery of Art.

Learn more about American art in our collections and An American in London, on view through August 17. You can also explore the Peacock Room in our free iPad and iPhone app. On Thursday, July 17, the Peacock Room shutters will be open from 12–5:30 pm. Come experience this extraordinary room in a new light!

Mother Knows Best

Photomechanical reproduction in halftone, after Whistler's portrait of his mother, "Arrangement in Grey and Black No. I"

Photomechanical reproduction in halftone after Whistler’s portrait of his mother, “Arrangement in Grey and Black No. I”

Whistler’s famous depiction of his mother, Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, is one of the art world’s most iconic images. The painting is in the collection of the Musee d’Orsay, but we have a lovely photomechanical reproduction at Freer|Sackler.

Whistler was close to his mother, Anna, who came to live with him in London, where he painted her portrait in 1871. But what interests me now is not Whistler’s depiction of maternal serenity (severity?) but the image he painted on the wall behind his mother: a kind of painting within a painting. This etching, Black Lion Wharf, is currently on view in the exhibition An American in London: Whistler and the Thames, open in the Sackler through August 17.

Black Lion Wharf, 1859, Etching and drypoint; Bequest of Mr. Samuel E. Stokes, Jr.; FSC-GR-619

Black Lion Wharf, James McNeill Whistler; 1859; etching and drypoint; Bequest of Mr. Samuel E. Stokes, Jr.; FSC-GR-619

And it’s a beauty. Black Lion Wharf is the only example among the famous Thames Set in which Whistler reversed the image on the etching plate to ensure the final print read as a true depiction of the view. The real-life Black Lion Wharf was located between Downes and Carron Wharves, east of Saint Katharine’s Dock. Whistler included signboards for several wharves in the area, thus enhancing the topographically specific quality of the scene.

In honor of Mother’s Day, we’re throwing in a bonus recipe from Whistler’s Mother’s Cookbook, edited by Margaret MacDonald, who is the guest curator of An American in London along with Patricia de Montfort.

Lemon Pudding

Take the juice of three lemons and the peel of two, half a pound of sugar, one-quarter of butter, fifteen eggs (leave out eleven whites). Mix it and put it over a slow fire—

4 eggs
11 egg yolks
1 cup sugar
Juice of 3 lemons
Rinds of 2 lemons, grated
1/2 cup butter

Set oven to 340 degrees. Whisk the eggs and yolks together until they are frothy. Beat in the sugar, lemon juice, and rinds. Melt the butter on low heat. Cool it slightly and beat it into the eggs. Pour the mixture into a buttered, 4-cup, ovenproof dish and bake the pudding for 45 minutes. Serve hot or cold. Serves 12.

A delicious bright yellow custard with a sweet lemon flavor and a deep brown top.

London Calling

American artist James McNeill Whistler arrived in London in 1859 and found its neighborhoods and inhabitants to be an inexhaustible source of aesthetic inspiration. His images of the city created over the next two decades represent one of his most successful and profound assaults on the contemporary art establishment.

In this video, Julian Raby, director of the Freer|Sackler, and Lee Glazer, associate curator of American art, discuss Whistler’s influences during this crucial period in his life. An American in London: Whistler and the Thames opens May 3 and runs through August 17, 2014. #americaninlondon

Happy Birthday, Charles Lang Freer!

Portrait of Charles Lang Freer by Edward Steichen, 1916, F|S Archives, A1993.05

Portrait of Charles Lang Freer by Edward Steichen, 1916, F|S Archives, A1993.05

Museum founder Charles Lang Freer was born on February 25, 1854, in Kingston, New York. Freer made his fortune in the railroad car manufacturing industry in the mid- to late nineteenth century. His interest in the Aesthetic Movement helped shape his tastes in art, and in the late 1880s Freer began to actively collect paintings and works on paper by James McNeill Whistler. Freer would collect more than one thousand works by Whistler, who, through his own interest in the arts and cultures of Asia, turned Freer’s attention East. Whistler introduced Freer to the arts of Asia, and by 1906, Freer had amassed a considerable amount of paintings and ceramics from Japan and China, as well as artifacts from the ancient Near East.

Charles Lang Freer knew exactly what the art gallery that would someday hold his collections should look like. In a meeting with architect Charles Platt at the Plaza Hotel in New York City, Freer jotted down his ideas for a classical, well-proportioned building on a napkin. An Italianate structure with a porticoed courtyard would reflect his ideas about art and aesthetics, including scale, proportion, harmony, and repose. From the day that the Freer Gallery of Art opened to the public in 1923 until the 1970s, live peacocks roamed the courtyard, creating, in effect, a living peacock room to rival the painted masterpiece by James McNeill Whistler.

Whistler Gone Wilde

James McNeill Whistler, 1885, Photogravure attributed to Mortimer Menpes (1859-1938). Signed with the butterfly and inscribed by Whistler, probably in 1899, "To Charles L. Freer—à un de ces jours!" Charles Lang Freer Papers, Freer|Sackler Archives

James McNeill Whistler, 1885, Photogravure attributed to Mortimer Menpes (1859-1938). Signed with the butterfly and inscribed by Whistler, probably in 1899, “To Charles L. Freer—à un de ces jours!” Charles Lang Freer Papers, Freer|Sackler Archives

I can only imagine the sparks that flew when artist James McNeill Whistler met writer Oscar Wilde, a meeting of great minds and superb wits. Both were associated with the Aesthetic movement that blossomed in England in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Wilde, who was twenty years younger than Whistler, fashioned himself as the artist’s disciple. They traveled in the same artistic circles in London, and both had a way with words. In fact, when Whistler delivered a particularly delicious bon mot, Wilde remarked, “I wish I had said that.” “You will, Oscar; you will,” was Whistler’s enviable reply.

Oscar Wilde, 1882, Sarony, (from John Cooper's Oscar Wilde in America)

Oscar Wilde, 1882, Sarony (from John Cooper’s “Oscar Wilde in America”)

Renowned for his works of art, whose decorative, nearly abstract qualities puzzled Victorian viewers accustomed to moralizing narrative, Whistler was a self-proclaimed elitist in spite of his penchant for self-promotion. Wilde, on the other hand, was a popularizer, happily lecturing audiences from London to San Francisco on the quintessentially Aesthetic topic “the House Beautiful.” Whistler ultimately tired of Wilde, who he felt was encroaching on his turf. He publicly detached himself from the writer on the evening of February 20, 1885, at Prince’s Hall, London, when Whistler delivered his Ten O’Clock Lecture. Appearing in full evening dress, Whistler intended the event as a public manifesto, in which he challenged the conventional aesthetics of the day. Breaking with the long tradition of artists creating realist works that imitated nature, Whistler argued that nature could use a little help from the artist:

“Nature contains the elements, in colour and form, of all pictures, as the keyboard contains the notes of all music. But the artist is born to pick, and choose, and group with science, these elements, that the result may be beautiful as the musician gathers his notes. And forms his chords, until he brings forth from chaos glorious harmony.”

While presenting himself as a rare genius, Whistler cast Wilde as an “amateur” and a stalking “Dilettante.” Though Whistler did not use Wilde’s name in his speech, his description of the author was clearly recognizable to the audience.

In his review of the event, Wilde responded with this playful praise for the Ten O’Clock:

“Not merely for its clever nature and amusing jests … but for the pure and perfect beauty of many of its passages … for that he is indeed one of the very greatest masters of painting, in my opinion. And I may add that in this opinion Mr. Whistler entirely concurs.”

More verbal sparring ensued (a kind of war between the aesthetes), and the Whistler-Wilde friendship dissolved entirely. Always one to get the last word, Wilde would later base the murdered artist in his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray after Whistler.

***

With Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest on stage at the nearby Shakespeare Theatre, Lee Glazer, associate curator of American art at the Freer|Sackler, will speak about the complicated relationship between Whistler and Wilde at Harman Hall on Saturday, March 1, at 5:30 pm (rescheduled due to weather). Tickets are free, but reservations are required. More information is available at shakespearetheatre.org.

Angry Birds?

Kenzan style tea bowl with design of crane and flowing water; Japan; late 19th century; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1896.100

Kenzan style tea bowl with design of crane and flowing water; late 19th century;
Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1896.100


Lee Glazer is associate curator of American art at Freer|Sackler.

Hardly. When artists evoked avian melodies, as Thomas Dewing did in The Four Sylvan Soundsthey intended to soothe and refresh, to take the viewer out of “the harness of business” and into a more pleasant, “sylvan” realm. The sounds and scents of nature are mentioned with surprising frequency in Freer’s correspondence with artists and friends. Dewing used the sensory pleasures of a woodland ramble to induce Freer to visit him at his summer studio in Cornish, New Hampshire. “I wish you could be here,” Dewing wrote in June 1894, “taking in this cool fresh air filled with bird notes & scents of flowers.”

Two years later, the artist translated this experience into the visual language of painting, telling Freer he had begun work on a pair of screens representing “the four forest notes—the Hermit Thrush, the sound of running water, the woodpecker, and the wind through the pine trees.” These screens, now on view in Sylvan Sounds: Freer, Dewing, and Japan, incorporate a number of influences, the most direct being the natural beauty of the New England countryside. The figures were inspired by ancient Greek Tanagra figurines, and the theme came from a poem called “Wood Notes” by the American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson. Dewing’s debt to Japanese art is evident in the bifold format of the screens and the simplicity of the unframed panels. The flowers and forest leaves, some painted with a stencil, resemble the elegant, stylized patterns of many screens in Freer’s Japanese collection, along with the multisensory imagery denoting bird songs and rustling grasses.

Rectangular Dish, Japan, stoneware with white slip and iron pigment under white glaze; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1896.53

Rectangular dish; Japan; stoneware with white slip and iron pigment under white glaze;
19th century; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1896.53

Freer had purchased his first two Japanese folding screens early in 1896, just after returning from his first visit to Japan. Later that same year, Dewing began to paint The Four Sylvan Sounds. During the two years that Dewing worked on these panels, Freer acquired sixteen Japanese screens, twelve of which are now in the museum’s collection. After promising his art collection to the Smithsonian Institution in 1906, Freer stipulated that his Japanese screens had to be displayed in a special gallery in a proposed new museum. He envisioned the space as a link between galleries devoted to Dewing and other American artists and those featuring the art of Whistler. This early arrangement underscored Freer’s belief in cross-cultural aesthetic connections between East and West—a principle theme in the current exhibition as well.

Sylvan Sounds: Freer, Dewing, and Japan remains on view through May 18, 2014.

Almost Perfect: Maud Franklin and Whistler’s Wistful Impressions

 

Pink note: The Novelette

Pink note: The Novelette; James McNeill Whistler, early 1880s; watercolor on paper; F1902.158a-c

Maggie Abe, a student at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, spent the summer in the Freer|Sackler’s American art department, where she was the Lunder Consortium for Whistler Studies intern and did research for an ongoing technical and art historical study of Whistler’s watercolors. She will graduate from Colby College in May 2014 with BAs in studio art and biology. The Lunder Consortium for Whistler Studies is supported by the generosity of the Lunder Foundation and comprises the Freer|Sackler, the Colby College Museum of Art, the University of Glasgow, and the Art Institute of Chicago.

Despite accusations of reducing them to arrangements, notes, and harmonies in his paintings, the women whom James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) kept for company were driving influences in his life and art. Although he vocally eschewed narrative in his works to focus on color, his feelings for his female subjects are couched in the subtleties of his compositions. Beneath carefully crafted color harmonies linger the unspoken wishes, unrealized fantasies, and quiet lamentations of a man probably not as aloof as he would have had the public believe.

Whistler’s complicated relationship with his long-term mistress and model Maud Franklin (1857–1941) provides the basis for several sentimental watercolors in the Freer collection. They were together for more than a decade, but because they never married, Maud was excluded from society. These watercolors are tender impressions of how Whistler saw Maud and wished she could be seen by his acquaintances: as his significant other deserving of their respect.

Pink note: The Novelette, Note in Opal: Breakfast, and Bravura in Brown, all painted from 1883–84, are united by a common formula. In all three, Maud is alone, but props such as empty chairs and rumpled bed sheets suggest her companion has only just stepped out. Reading or playing the piano, she is introspectively occupied: a demure woman in an attractive, but not ostentatious space. Unlike Whistler’s earlier oil Arrangement in White and Black, in which Maud’s youth and immodesty are hard to ignore, these watercolors do not put on a show, but rather leave a gentle impression. To Whistler, they were probably bittersweet, allowing him to pretend that his life with Maud was as pleasant and stable as the watercolors suggest. In reality, it was only on paper that she would be received by the homes of proper society.

Notwithstanding their volatile relationship, Whistler painted Maud with great affection in these watercolors. She is repeatedly depicted in rooms with art, the obsession of Whistler’s world. Paintings feature in the décor of all three rooms; indeed, one scholar suggests that the color of Maud’s blouse in Pink note: The Novelette is meant to connect her with the pink-tinged painting on the mantle. As Maud posed for more than 60 of Whistler’s paintings, drawings, and prints, it is hardly surprising that he would associate her with his art. By placing them together in these images, Whistler is acknowledging her influence in the development of his passion.

While such sentiment for a mistress seems to go against the grain of Whistler’s general reputation, it is important to note that these paintings were the products of his standing as an aging artist with an established name. Unlike the earlier days when he lived with his first mistress, Joanna Hiffernan, as a relatively unknown artist with something to prove, 50-year-old Whistler did not feel content living as a rogue on the fringes of society.

Whistler and Maud’s relationship began to suffer in 1879, when the artist went bankrupt and was forced to face reality. When he suddenly proposed to Beatrix Godwin (1857–1896) in 1888—a marriage that would provide him with stability, order, and favorable connections—it may have been that the opportune moment had finally presented itself after years of mounting discomfort.

The Sisters

The Sisters; James McNeill Whistler, 1894-95; lithograph on paper (transfer lithograph); F1903.82

In his marriage to Beatrix, Whistler seems to have attained the harmony that he had been courting in his watercolors. The wistful depictions of Maud in solitude are replaced by accounts of Beatrix and her sisters delighting in domestic bliss, though it would not last long. Hints of Beatrix’s terminal cancer surface in lithographs such as The Sisters—all would be well in this interior if it were not for Beatrix’s languishing posture. She appears weak beside her upright sister, and there is an air of concern polluting the peaceful scene.

The tables turned in Whistler’s art: in the watercolors, he altered Maud to satisfy his desire to change reality, but in later depictions of his ailing wife Beatrix, his art became an outlet for his grief. This time, it was an inescapable sickness that snapped Whistler from his reverie.