Tag Archives: James McNeill Whistler

Revisiting Whistler’s Neighborhood: The House with the Copper Door

Cheyne Walk Looking East from Cheyne Row; James Hedderly; photograph; ca. 1870; Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea

Cheyne Walk Looking East from Cheyne Row; James Hedderly; photograph; ca. 1870; Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea

Last fall, the Freer|Sackler’s curator of American art, Lee Glazer, traveled to London with artist Darren Waterston to speak at the Chelsea Arts Club, the headquarters of the Whistler Society. Simon Wartnaby, the society’s president, had invited them to give a lecture on Filthy Lucre, Waterston’s reimagining of Whistler’s Peacock Room in a state of sumptuous decay. In the dinner that followed, Wartnaby mentioned that he had recently seen photographs of Whistler’s funeral. The images prompted him to explore the history of the house at 74 Cheyne Walk, the last of four homes along the river Thames that Whistler occupied over the course of four decades. Below, Wartnaby reveals the house’s little-known history.

74 Cheyne Walk on the day of Whistler’s funeral. Library of Congress, Pennell-Whistler Collection

74 Cheyne Walk on the day of Whistler’s funeral. Library of Congress, Pennell-Whistler Collection

Landlord-Tenant Drama

Known as “the house with the copper door,” the building at 74 Cheyne Walk was designed by architect Charles Robert Ashbee (1863–1942) for himself and his new wife. In fact, Ashbee designed several homes on the fashionable street. The Ashbees lived in no. 74 in 1897 and 1898; Whistler moved there in 1902 and remained in the home until his death the next year.

A synthesis of the Arts and Crafts and Queen Anne styles, Ashbee’s designs were eccentric, but this home was said to be especially so. Joseph and Elizabeth Robins Pennell, Whistler’s official biographers, reported that Whistler found the home strange and underwhelming. According to the Pennells in their 1921 book The Whistler Journal, the artist reported that 74 Cheyne Walk was “a successful example of the disastrous effect of art upon the British middle classes. When I look at the copper front door and all the little odd decorative touches throughout the house, I ask myself what I am doing there, anyhow? But the studio is fine, I have decorated it for myself, gone back to the old scheme of grey.”

Architect Charles Robert Ashbee. Image courtesy oscar-graf.com

Architect Charles Robert Ashbee. Image courtesy oscar-graf.com

The Pennells also provided their own description of the house, whose design they believed to be flawed. The couple described the home’s pitfalls, revealing that the layout proved tricky for an older Whistler to navigate:

It was a ridiculous place anyway, the studio on the ground floor, which was damp, the dining and bed rooms at the top where he had to climb to eat and to sleep until the Doctor stopped him. After that he slept in a front room on a level with the street . . . only one window in it, with panes so small you could hardly look out of it more like a prison cell than a bedroom. The whole affair was tragic.

In addition to its design flaws, the house was next door to a construction site. The noise sent Whistler into a rage. Even worse, the home being built next door was also designed by Ashbee, who had neglected to mention the project when he and his wife rented their home to Whistler. In typical Whistler fashion, he confronted the couple, arguing and protesting by refusing to pay his rent. At the advice of his doctor, Whistler even left the home for a short time. His frail health ended up being a saving grace: the Ashbees only refrained from evicting him because he was ill. Still, the Pennells claimed that the construction next to 74 Cheyne Walk “had a great deal to do with shortening his life.”

Whistler’s Later Work

Several photos of 74 Cheyne Walk were published in 1903, though it is unclear exactly when they were taken. These pictures show the interior of the home and convey what it may have looked like during Whistler’s residency.

The house’s studio space was a redeeming feature. Previously, Whistler had had a studio separate from his residence, in London Mews. Having a studio in his home ­­not only saved him money but also a commute—not unimportant since Whistler had become quite frail by this time.

In the studio at no. 74, Whistler worked on and stored a number of paintings before he died. One was a portrait of George Washington Vanderbilt. Whistler had painted most of the portrait in 1897, adding finishing touches in 1898. However, he never handed the work over to Vanderbilt, insisting it still wasn’t exactly right, and he brought the portrait with him when he moved to 74 Cheyne Walk. The painting was found in Whistler’s studio after his death in 1903. By that time, Vanderbilt had given up on ever receiving the portrait and commissioned one from John Singer Sargent to take its place. The two men remained close, however: Vanderbilt happened to be in London when Whistler died and was a pallbearer at the funeral.

Whistler did begin a painting of Charles Lang Freer in the Cheyne Walk studio. And in the last year of his life, Whistler took great joy in painting Richard Canfield, a rather notorious American casino owner who became a connoisseur of Whistler’s art, amassing a great number of his works in a short period of time.

The Neighborhood

To Whistler, the location and the context of 74 Cheyne Walk, rather than the house itself, held the most significance. Chelsea was a hip, up-and-coming neighborhood in London, and Cheyne Walk was the street to live on. Other notable nineteenth-century figures who resided there included Henry James, Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and George Eliot.

A map of London from 1868. Cheyne Walk is visible just along the river.

A map of London from 1868. Cheyne Walk is visible just along the river.

Chelsea served as the subject matter, setting, and inspiration for many of Whistler’s artworks. 74 Cheyne Walk wasn’t just his last house: it was the last in his series of homes in Chelsea, and it marked the end of Whistler’s four-decade-long presence in the area. During the Second World War, the building was destroyed, following serious damage by a land mine.

Visit Whistler’s Neighborhood to see a gallery of his artwork and photographs of different locations in Chelsea, as well as a map that puts these visuals in context.

 

This quotations cited in this post are from Pennell and Pennell’s The Whistler Journal, published in 1921. The National Gallery of Art’s website as well as Daniel Sutherland’s Whistler: A Life For Art’s Sake also informed this post.
Simon Wartnaby is an architectural and art historian and president of the Whistler Society in London.

Revisiting Whistler’s Neighborhood: Freer and Whistler’s Final Days Together

Portrait of Whistler; Thomas Robert Way, 1895; lithograph on paper, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1901.188

Portrait of Whistler; Thomas Robert Way, 1895; lithograph on paper, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1901.188

“A gentler, nobler, purer soul never entered heaven if such a place exists. His art and his life are one!”
—Charles Lang Freer to his business partner, Frank Hecker, July 18, 1903, one day after Whistler’s death

 

The Freer|Sackler’s grand reopening on October 14 has prompted reflection upon the relationship between the Freer Gallery of Art’s founder, Charles Lang Freer, and his favorite American artist, James McNeill Whistler. Whistler and Freer were not the typical artist-patron duo. They were close friends who genuinely cared for each other, their relationship extending beyond their shared belief in Whistler’s artistic genius. Freer’s loyalty and respect for Whistler is displayed not only in his glowing comments and enthusiastic collecting, but through his actions in the final days of Whistler’s life and the time just after the artist’s death.

Whistler’s Final Days

Freer and Whistler met in 1890, but it was only in the last few years of the artist’s life that they spent a lot of time together, meeting throughout Europe and especially in London, Whistler’s adopted home. At the time, Whistler lived at 74 Cheyne Walk with his two sisters-in-law, Rosalind and Ethel; he had grown close to his late wife’s family following her death in 1896. Whistler made Rosalind his executrix and sole heir. She worked hard to care for him and, later, to preserve his art historical legacy.

Freer was also a source of support and friendship. Whistler was put on bed rest following a heart attack he had on a 1902 trip to Holland that he and Freer took together. In the aftermath of this incident, Freer was extremely attentive to Whistler’s health and full of praise for the artist:

“Of course, I must stand by the illness regardless of earlier plans. So in the future my movements will depend entirely upon his condition. He is very weak and still brave as a lion. A most extraordinary man!!”
—Freer to Hecker, June 27, 1902

Despite his high praise of Whistler and attentiveness to his condition, Freer was reluctant to recognize how seriously ill Whistler was in the spring of 1903, just months before his death. Freer even talked of sitting for an unfinished portrait that Whistler had begun the year before, when he was in better health:

“Shall you be in Chelsea after June 15th? and if you are in the mood would you be willing to resume work on my Portrait?”
—Freer to Whistler, March 30, 1903

This portrait of Freer remained unfinished at the time of Whistler’s death. Portrait of Charles Lang Freer; James McNeill Whistler, 1902–3; oil on wood panel, 86 x 65.5 cm; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1903.301

This portrait of Freer remained unfinished at the time of Whistler’s death. Portrait of Charles Lang Freer; James McNeill Whistler, 1902–3; oil on wood panel, 86 x 65.5 cm; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1903.301

By the summer of 1903, Freer was visiting Whistler daily, making a daily trek from his hotel in Grosvenor Square to Whistler’s home in Chelsea. Freer took his ailing friend on carriage rides and sometimes journeyed with him across the river to Battersea Park. The Thames was a fitting setting for Whistler’s final excursions, as the river and its landmarks were ever-present in his life and in his art.

If Freer ever failed to visit, Whistler would call upon him to make sure he would be coming again soon. Whistler sent a number of telegraphs to Freer at the end of his life, each expressing his desire to see his friend daily. Their correspondence illustrates how strong and sweet their friendship had become, intensified, no doubt, by an awareness of mortality. Their letters and telegrams are full of mutual respect and appreciation: an ideal artist-patron relationship. It is clear that Whistler cherished and relied on these visits from Freer and that Freer was always happy to come and see him.

A telegram Whistler sent to Freer to ensure he would be visiting later that day. It reads: “Delighted to see you this afternoon at about four." Charles Lang Freer Papers; Freer|Sackler Archives

A telegram Whistler sent to Freer to ensure he would be visiting later that day. It reads: “Delighted to see you this afternoon at about four.” Charles Lang Freer Papers; Freer|Sackler Archives

On July 16, 1903, Freer and Whistler drove their carriage through St. James and Hyde parks. After the ride, Whistler seemed refreshed; he played dominoes with Ethel and Rosalind before dinner. The next day, Friday, July 17, Freer arrived to pick Whistler up for another ride when he learned that Whistler had collapsed from a fatal blood clot in the brain five minutes prior to his arrival.

The Funeral

After Whistler’s death, Freer worked closely with the artist’s family to make arrangements for the funeral. He even served as a pallbearer. The funeral procession began at Whistler’s house and progressed up the street to St. Luke’s Chelsea Old Church, where the artist’s mother, Anna, had worshiped. Whistler was buried next to his wife, Beatrice, at Chiswick St. Nicholas, a churchyard about four miles away from Cheyne Walk.

Whistler completed a painting of Chelsea Old Church about nine years before his funeral was held at this same location. "Harmony in Brown and Gold: Old Chelsea Church"; James McNeill Whistler, 1884; oil on wood panel, 8.9 x 14.8 cm; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1902.152a–b

Whistler completed a painting of Chelsea Old Church about nine years before his funeral was held at this same location. “Harmony in Brown and Gold: Old Chelsea Church”; James McNeill Whistler, 1884; oil on wood panel, 8.9 x 14.8 cm; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1902.152a–b

Hundreds of people gathered to memorialize the artist who had become as well-known for his antagonistic feelings toward the British art establishment as he was for his enigmatic portraits and depictions of the Thames. The hordes of people created a spectacle that surely would have entertained Whistler, who delighted in publicity. The following are some highlights from the funeral photographs, now part of the Pennell-Whistler Collection at the Library of Congress.

The hearse travels to Chiswick to lay Whistler to rest on July 22, 1903.

The funeral procession moves towards St. Luke’s Chelsea Old Church.

Charles Lang Freer, James Guthrie, John Lavery, Edwin Abbey, Theodore Duret, and George Vanderbilt serve as pallbearers and carry Whistler’s casket down Cheyne Walk. Guthrie was an Irish painter, Lavery a Scottish one, and Abbey an American. Duret was a noted French critic. Vanderbilt, whose family had amassed a fortune in railroads and other business ventures, was American as well. Although he spent his entire professional life in London, Whistler had not a single English artist, critic, or collector in his funeral entourage.

People gather in Chiswick’s St. Nicholas churchyard, where Whistler is laid to rest beside his late wife, Trixie.

 

 

 

 

The day after Whistler died, Freer had concluded a letter to Frank Hecker by noting: “Need I say that in all things of perfect refinement of beauty the greatest masters are now all gone—at least all known masters.” Freer not only understood Whistler’s pursuit of beauty in his artwork and in his life, but truly believed that Whistler’s art had achieved this “perfect refinement of beauty.” Whistler was all-consumed by thoughts of his legacy in the later years of his life, and Freer’s assessment of him as the last known “greatest master” is one that Whistler surely would have embraced. Freer’s postscript to Whistler’s death was a fitting final tribute from patron to artist, and from one friend to another.

Stay tuned for part two of this exploration of Whistler’s neighborhood.

 

Daniel E. Sutherland’s biography Whistler: A Life for Art’s Sake informed this post.

The Mystery of the Missing Frame

The mystery frame. Frame for Whistler’s "Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen"; designed by James McNeill Whistler; 1864; gold leaf on wood and gesso, 76.1 x 93.3 cm; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1905.329

The mystery frame. Frame for Whistler’s “Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen”; designed by James McNeill Whistler; 1864; gold leaf on wood and gesso, 76.1 x 93.3 cm; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1905.329

It was three hours into my internship at the Freer|Sackler, and I already had a mystery to solve: a Whistler frame. No, artist James McNeill Whistler hadn’t been framed for a crime—though that would’ve been an interesting topic to study. This mystery involves a frame around one of his paintings at the Freer Gallery of Art.

The Mystery

Whistler painted Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen in 1864. This was a time in his career when he was first incorporating Japanese elements into his paintings. He was also designing specially decorated frames for these works.

When museum founder Charles Lang Freer purchased The Golden Screen many years later, in 1904, it was surrounded by what Freer’s secretary described as “the old frame.” That frame was sacrificed for the protection of the painting during the shipping process. Freer had a new frame made for the painting: a relatively simple, reeded design that is still known as a “Whistler frame” because the artist adopted it for his work in the 1880s and 1890s.

In 1905, Freer acquired Whistler’s Portrait Sketch of a Lady. It was enclosed in a frame that clearly did not belong with the work: a so-called Oriental Cassetta frame, the type that Whistler had used in the mid-1860s for his Japanese costume paintings (more on that later).

In short, two Whistler paintings in the Freer collection ended up in frames that, as time went on, didn’t seem quite right. They were swapped in the 1980s, mostly because the Oriental Cassetta frame and The Golden Screen seemed to be an excellent—but perhaps not perfect—match. The opening of the frame, for instance, is not exactly the right size relative to the dimensions of that painting.

Linda Merrill, former curator of American art at the Freer|Sackler, wondered if the frame currently on The Golden Screen had actually been original to another Whistler painting, Symphony in White No. 2: The Little White Girl, now at the Tate. Freer|Sackler staff had long understood that the frame swap in the 1980s may not have resulted in a perfect fit for either The Golden Screen or Portrait Sketch of a Lady, but the involvement of The Little White Girl was a new development.

Like The Golden Screen, The Little White Girl has had several frames at various points in its history. The frame original to The Little White Girl survives only in a period photograph and shares visible stylistic similarities with the frame currently around The Golden Screen. Both were both created in 1864, and the frame of The Little White Girl was believed to have gone missing. But maybe it actually just found a new home around The Golden Screen. My task was to figure out if this was the case.

"The Golden Screen" with the mystery frame. "Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen"; James McNeill Whistler; 1864; oil on wood panel, 50.1 x 68.5 cm; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1904.75a

“The Golden Screen” with the mystery frame. “Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen”; James McNeill Whistler; 1864; oil on wood panel, 50.1 x 68.5 cm; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1904.75a

 

The Investigation

To start solving this mystery, it’s helpful to have some context for the frame in question. The Oriental Cassetta style includes Asian motifs, thus allowing the subject matter of the painting to extend onto the frame, the two acting as a complementary pair. In 1864, Whistler designed four such frames to accompany his Japanese paintings, as documented by frame historian Sarah Parkerson: the one currently on Purple and Rose: The Lang Leizen of the Six Marks at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the one on the Freer’s La Princesse du pays de la porcelain, the one original to The Little White Girl, and the one currently around The Golden Screen.

Whistler frequently reframed his work, especially when he adopted his signature gilded and reeded style of framing in the 1880s. By the 1890s, he began to standardize his framing practices, seeking unity and simplicity when his works were exhibited together. He sought to control everything about how his paintings were exhibited and placed great importance on his frames, especially when organizing a big retrospective in 1892. He often requested permission from collectors to reframe works from earlier in his career. This is what happened with The Little White Girl.

This information provided a promising start, but I needed to keep digging to determine whether The Little White Girl‘s original frame ended up around The Golden Screen. So, I focused on the visual evidence. The most convincing evidence that the paintings had two distinct frames are the subtle differences between the frames’ ornament. This evidence, however, is based on visual comparison, which is limited by the fact that the original frame for The Little White Girl is missing and the photograph that exists is dated, low-quality, and black and white.

“The Golden Screen” and “The Little White Girl” in their Oriental Cassetta frames.

Carved, round designs, or roundels, are present in all of Whistler’s Oriental Cassetta frames. However, there’s variation in how they appear. The surface decoration of The Golden Screen frame pictured above includes eight roundels, one on each side and one in every corner. The designs on the sides include ivy or paulownia leaves in Japanese mon designs; each corner features a different roundel with palm leaves.

In the frame around The Little White Girl in the black-and-white photo, there are only six roundels, one at each corner and on two of the sides. Additionally, the design of the roundels in this frame features small rosettes with fringe, distinct from the ivy or palm leaves. Even with a low-quality image of the frame, these differences from The Golden Screen frame are clear. These differences confirm that the frame original to The Little White Girl is not the one currently on The Golden Screen.

The red circles indicate the location of the roundels on each frame.

Future Investigative Work

Though I confirmed that the frame currently around The Golden Screen was not original to The Little White Girl, my research on this topic is not over. It’s still uncertain if the frame you see today around The Golden Screen is indeed the original, and I’d love to confirm what painting Whistler intended this frame to accompany. I never thought I’d be as interested in what’s around the artwork as in the artwork itself, but my time at the Freer|Sackler shifted my focus. Visit the Freer|Sackler during reopening weekend this October 14–15 to see Whistler’s La Princesse du pays de la porcelain proudly sporting one of his four 1864 Oriental Cassetta frames, and see if your focus shifts to the frame, too.

Sarah Parkerson’s dissertation on Whistler’s framing practices, “Variations in Gold: The Stylistic Development of the Picture Frames Used by James McNeill Whistler,” is a resource that was of enormous help to my research and this blog post.

Grey and Gold

Grey and Gold—High Tide at Pourville

Grey and Gold—High Tide at Pourville

James McNeill Whistler stayed in Pourville-sur-Mer, a former French fishing village, for several months in 1899, composing a number of works. He completed many of the paintings in September or October, after most vacationers would have returned home. Grey and Gold: High Tide at Pourville exudes the off-season melancholy Whistler described in an 1896 letter to his sister-in-law: “A seaside place after the season is like a theatre in the daytime—there is an uncanny sort of loneliness about it.”

A Journey into Whistler’s Drawings

Entré sur la Grande Promenade à Baden; James McNeill Whistler, 1858

Entré sur la Grande Promenade à Baden; James McNeill Whistler, 1858

More than 150 years ago, a twenty-four-year-old James McNeill Whistler set off on a summertime journey. He and his friend Ernest Delannoy—both young, aspiring artists—embarked on a road trip through the French and German countryside. Their goal was to visit Amsterdam and pay homage to the revered Dutch painter and etcher Rembrandt van Rijn.

Whistler and Delannoy never made it to Amsterdam; they ran out of money and were forced to return to Paris. But the sojourn gave Whistler an opportunity to observe new scenery and subjects and to develop his artistic style. Throughout the trip, the artist kept a notebook, a visual diary of sorts, which he filled with pencil sketches detailing scenes, people, and places along the way. He produced scores of drawings, some of which he later developed as etchings for his so-called French Set.

This summer, I too traveled in pursuit of art. My journey took me from Colby College in Maine to Washington, DC, for an internship at the Freer|Sackler. When I arrived in June, just a few weeks after graduating with a degree in art history, I began surveying the collection of Whistler’s drawings in media other than watercolor and pastel. The majority of the drawings I looked at were from Whistler’s 1858 trip.

I had extensive background knowledge from my previous experience studying Whistler’s work at the Colby College Museum of Art, a fellow member of the Lunder Consortium for Whistler Studies. This project, however, gave me the new opportunity of handling the works. Emily Jacobson, the museum’s paper conservator, showed me how to handle the art. She then let me work on my own with a headband magnifier and flashlight to conduct what was essentially a forensic examination of each sheet.

Examining Whistler's drawings

Examining Whistler’s drawings

We were trying to determine if Whistler favored particular types of paper for a given medium or if he mixed it up, using, for instance, watercolor blocks for pencil drawings. As I examined each drawing, I paid particular attention to the paper, noting its texture and whether it was “hot press” (run through hot rollers to make it super smooth), “cold press” (run through cold rollers, leaving little bumps and grooves); or “rough” (air-dried, leaving lots of texture). I checked for watermarks; measured the paper’s height, width, and thickness; and inspected the edges for remains of adhesive or fabric. Along the way, I noticed distinct similarities among the sketches, such as the thin, off-white woven paper, the graphite markings on the edges, and the occasional appearance of sewing holes—evidence that papers were ripped or cut out of a sketchbook.

One sketch in particular stood out to me: Promenade à Baden, which depicts a group of fashionable people standing near a portico facing a hill. The drawing is on two pieces of paper glued together side by side. The edges are uneven, and the two pieces do not properly align, making the bottom wider than the top. A vertical fold down the middle of the drawing contains three sewing holes, and like the other sketches from Whistler’s 1858 trip, Promenade à Baden has graphite markings on the edges.

Promenade à Baden; James McNeill Whistler, 1858

Promenade à Baden; James McNeill Whistler, 1858

Even though Whistler probably never meant it to be a finished work, Promenade à Baden fascinated me because it reveals some of the artist’s process. Not only does this sketch provide us with a snapshot of Whistler’s journey, but it also demonstrates how he experimented with cropping and cutting his drawings. The graphite along the edges was probably how he marked where the paper should be trimmed. Additional cut marks near the edges suggest that he considered cropping the drawing even more before ultimately deciding against it. One thin sheet of paper tells us a story of a young, broke artist who, to further his artistic development, drew on anything he could and made the most of each sheet of paper.

Whistler’s Portraits: Ripper, Vampire, or Sickert?

Walter Sickert; James McNeill Whistler, 1895; lithograph on paper; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1905.108

Walter Sickert; James McNeill Whistler, 1895; lithograph on paper; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1905.108

Beyond the famous portrait of his mother, James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) depicted dozens of people in his personal and public life. A search for “Whistler portrait” on Open F|S returns 299 hits, with subjects ranging from Annie, his niece, to art-world notables. We’ll examine a few fascinating figures who sat before Whistler’s canvas.

Was Whistler gazing at a serial killer when he sketched this portrait of Walter Sickert in 1895? Though the Jack the Ripper murders took place well over a century ago, a few authors recently claimed to have identified the culprit. They say that around when he was studying art with Whistler, Sickert (1860–1942) also was terrorizing London, committing the murders attributed to the legendary Ripper.

Scholars tend to dismiss these theories. We do know, though, that Whistler and Sickert had a turbulent relationship—which one author says left the latter unhinged. Sickert first met Whistler in 1882 and worked with him for several years, serving as the senior artist’s assistant. The two men each completed a portrait of five-year-old Stephen Manuel, Whistler’s distant relative, in 1885. Even then, contention seemed to exist between the artists. Sickert wrote to Whistler, a notorious perfectionist, that he needed to stop tinkering with the portrait; “The picture is finished,” Sickert admonished. Years later, he stated that “Whistler’s portrait was bad” compared to his usual work—and that Whistler had painted much too slowly for the child, “who was wearied with the number of sittings.”

Meanwhile, Whistler seems to have dismissed Sickert’s interpretation. After earning praise for his portrait at the Society of British Artists’ exhibition in November 1885, Whistler wrote to his sister-in-law (and Stephen’s aunt) that his version “certainly seems to be the favourite in all the papers—haven’t you seen?”

Left to right: Whistler's and Sickert's portraits of young Stephen Manuel.

Left to right: Whistler’s and Sickert’s portraits of young Stephen Manuel.

The “friendship” fully imploded in 1896, after Whistler found Sickert socializing with a man who was suing him. Sickert came by Whistler’s home to explain, leaving a calling card behind. Furious, the older artist scrawled the name of a famous traitor on the card and sent it back.

Sickert had already started moving away from Whistler stylistically, embracing the impressionist style of Edgar Degas, with whom he had studied in Paris. But while Degas delighted in ballerinas, Sickert was drawn to more sinister subjects. He often depicted prostitutes and was famously inspired by the murder of one, naming four of his female nudes after the Camden Town Murder of 1907. And he was fascinated by Jack the Ripper; he even completed a dark, shadowy oil of the killer’s bedroom.

But why do some writers allege that Sickert was Jack the Ripper? American crime writer Patricia Cornwell, who is perhaps best known for these claims, in part ties her reasoning to Whistler. The murders occurred in 1888, the same year that Whistler married Beatrice Godwin. Sickert “loathed” women, Cornwell asserts in her book Portrait of a Killer, as much as he “idolized, envied, and hated” Whistler. She adds: “For Walter Sickert to imagine Whistler in love and enjoying a sexual relationship with a woman might well have been the catalyst that made Sickert one of the most dangerous and confounding killers of all time.”

Then again, as Jonathan Jones of the Guardian points out, we could also make a compelling argument that Sickert was Dracula, “that other renowned Victorian monster.” Zoom into the lithograph, and look into Sickert’s eyes. Do you see a murderer, a vampire, or simply a British artist?

Princess: Unleashed

The Princess from the Land of Porcelain (La Princesse du pays de la porcelaine); James McNeill Whistler, 1863–65; oil on canvas; F1903.91a–b

The Princess from the Land of Porcelain (La Princesse du pays de la porcelaine); James McNeill Whistler, 1863–65; oil on canvas; F1903.91a–b

For the first time since 1904, The Princess from the Land of Porcelain has left the Peacock Room. James McNeill Whistler’s painting of Anglo-Greek beauty Christina Spartali dressed in a Japanese kimono has hung over the mantelpiece in the Peacock Room for more than a century. Now it is on display in the Sackler as part of the exhibition The Lost Symphony: Whistler and the Perfection of Art.

The painting has presided over the Peacock Room for so long that it may come as a surprise to learn it was not originally a site-specific work. It was an exhibition picture, painted in 1864 and displayed at the Paris Salon the following year. Critics at the time generally liked the work, but they described it as a “pastiche chinoise” since parts of it seemed to imitate the decorations found on Chinese porcelain.

British shipping magnate Frederick Leyland acquired the painting around 1872. When he moved to a new home in 1875, he hung it over the mantel in the dining room, which had been redecorated by the architect Thomas Jeckyll to showcase Leyland’s extensive collection of blue-and-white Chinese pots. Leyland asked Whistler to offer suggestions about the color scheme of the woodwork. As the artist began to make a few modest changes, he realized Jeckyll’s designs clashed with his princess. Whistler was soon carried away with covering the walls, shutters, and ceiling with peacock motifs. The result was the beautiful Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room—and the end of his friendship with Leyland.

View of the northeast corner of the Peacock Room.

View of the northeast corner of the Peacock Room.

After Leyland died in 1892, his art collections were sold at auction. William Burrell, a collector from Glasgow, Scotland, bought La Princesse at that time. He sold it to Charles Lang Freer in 1903, shortly after Whistler’s death. The following year, Freer loaned the painting to Whistler’s memorial retrospective held in Boston, where the princess hung in a place of honor at the end of a long gallery. Later that spring Freer acquired the entire Peacock Room from Blanche Watney, who had purchased Leyland’s house, and he shipped the room to his own residence in Detroit in the summer of 1904. He once again hung La Princesse over the mantelpiece, where it remained when the Peacock Room was installed in the Freer Gallery of Art in 1920.

While the Freer Gallery is temporarily closed for renovation, La Princesse is liberated from her high perch. Enjoy this opportunity to take a closeup look at Whistler’s work before the princess once again returns to her lofty position, perhaps to gaze down on us for another hundred years.

#MuseumSelfie Day!

Hutomo Wicaksono, audiovisual and media specialist, gets framed in The Lost Symphony.

Hutomo Wicaksono, audiovisual and media specialist, gets framed in The Lost Symphony.

Every year, there comes a day when the humble selfie is deemed museum-worthy. That’s right: It’s #MuseumSelfie Day, the annual call for museum-goers to capture themselves enjoying their favorite cultural institutions. In your case, of course, that would be the Freer|Sackler!

This year, you can up your self-portrait game by taking one in our new exhibition The Lost Symphony: Whistler and the Perfection of Art, on view alongside Peacock Room REMIX. Without touching the art (that’s still a no-no, as are selfie sticks), pose in front of a reproduction of the frame that James McNeill Whistler once intended for The Three Girls, an unrealized masterpiece. Snap, share, and prove that you too are a true work of art.

A Painting That Doesn’t Exist

Three Female Figures, James McNeill Whistler, 1869–74, pen on brown paper with white heightening, Colby College Museum of Art, The Lunder Collection, 007.2009

Crouching Figure: Study for The White Symphony: Three Girls, James McNeill Whistler, 1869–70, black and white chalk on brown paper, Freer Gallery of Art, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1902.139

Draped Figure at a Railing, James McNeill Whistler, 1868–70, black and white crayon on brown paper, Freer Gallery of Art, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1905.130

Draped Female Figure, James McNeill Whistler, 1870–73, black and white chalk and pastel on brown paper, Freer Gallery of Art, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1905.133

Draped Figure Standing, James McNeill Whistler, 1870–73, black and white chalk and pastel on brown paper, Freer Gallery of Art, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1905.136

Woman with Parasol, James McNeill Whistler, 1870–73, black and white chalk on brown paper, Freer Gallery of Art, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1905.138

The White Symphony: Three Girls, ca. 1868, oil on millboard mounted on wood panel, Freer Gallery of Art, F1902.138

The White Symphony: Three Girls, James McNeill Whistler, ca. 1868, oil on millboard mounted on wood panel, Freer Gallery of Art, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1902.138

Girl with Cherry Blossom, James McNeill Whistler, 1868–78, oil on canvas, The Courtauld Art Gallery, London. Private Collection (on loan to The Courtauld Gallery)

The Gold Scab: Eruption in Frilthy Lucre, James McNeill Whistler, 1879, oil on canvas, frame designed and decorated by the artist, ca. 1872–73, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Gift of Mrs. Alma de Bretteville Spreckels through the Patrons of Art and Music, 1977.11

Opening Saturday, The Lost Symphony: Whistler and the Perfection of Art is an exhibition about a painting that doesn’t exist. The saga began in 1867, when American artist James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) received a commission from a promising new patron, the nouveau riche shipping magnate Frederick Richards Leyland (1832–1892). Leyland paid the artist to create a “symphony in white,” meant to be the fourth in a series of works in which Whistler experimented with idealized color and form. For ten years, Whistler painted and repainted the painting, which he titled The Three Girls—but he was never satisfied with it. As his mother would explain to Leyland, her son had tried too hard to make the painting “the perfection of art” and was thwarted by his own lofty ideals.

By 1876, Whistler was involved in another large project for Leyland: the redecoration of his patron’s dining room, eventually titled Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room. If Whistler had completed The Three Girls, it would have hung there, opposite his Princesse du pays de la porcelaine (Princess from the Land of Porcelain). But when painter and patron quarreled over the extent of Whistler’s work on the Peacock Room, Whistler destroyed the still-unfinished canvas of The Three Girls. In its place, he painted a mural of two fighting peacocks on the south wall of Leyland’s dining room, later known as “Art and Money; or, the Story of the Room.” As a final affront to Leyland, Whistler repurposed the frame that would have surrounded The Three Girls for another work, The Gold Scab: Eruption in Frithly Lucre (The Creditor), which depicts Leyland morphing into a monstrous peacock.

As suggested by Whistler’s sketches and related paintings above, The Three Girls would have been a remarkable work. Fortunately, Whistler left a significant paper trail that allowed our two guest curators, Linda Merrill and Robyn Asleson, to reconstruct the story of the fugitive painting. A rescued fragment of the original canvas, numerous figure studies and preparatory sketches, and the frame that Whistler originally intended to enclose it are among the tantalizing clues that hint at the masterpiece that might have been.

Part of Peacock Room REMIX, The Lost Symphony is the second in a series of exhibitions staged alongside contemporary painter Darren Waterston’s Filthy Lucre, an immersive installation that reimagines Whistler’s Peacock Room as a resplendent ruin, a visualization of the consequences of creative and monetary excess. The works on view in The Lost Symphony allow us to imagine another ending to the story and trace Whistler’s path to aesthetic mastery. Yet, the destruction of the never-completed picture and the afterlife of its repurposed frame also illuminate Whistler’s less-rarified preoccupation with patronage, payment, and professional reputation—the very themes at the heart of Filthy Lucre.

Evolutionary: Whistler, Darwin, and the Peacock Room

Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room

Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room

James McNeill Whistler’s Peacock Room (1876–77) triggered a famous clash between the artist and his patron, Frederick Leyland. In the 1870s, though, peacocks were ruffling feathers all over Britain, prompted in part by Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859). Critics of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection pointed out that male birds’ showy plumage makes them easy targets for predators. If evolution by natural selection was valid, how could such a hindrance as a peacock’s train possibly have arisen, much less persisted?

This conundrum troubled Darwin, who confided to a fellow naturalist, “The sight of a feather in a peacock’s tail, whenever I gaze at it, makes me sick!” But by 1871, he had developed a corollary theory of sexual selection, which explained that conspicuous variations in males make them irresistible, improving reproductive rates and offsetting any potential handicap or hazard. The peacock’s train thus evolved from generations of peahens selecting ever-more-gorgeous mates.

Particularly shocking to Victorians was Darwin’s suggestion that the appreciation of beauty is not a uniquely human quality. Debates over the origins and purpose of beauty played out among scientists, artists, and the public throughout the 1870s.

Scholars have long noted Whistler’s multiple sources of inspiration in the Peacock Room: Japanese peacock imagery; Western traditions associating the bird with beauty, luxury, and excess; and the vogue for peacocks and their feathers among Whistler’s fellow avant-garde artists. I believe that we can also look at the room through a Darwinian lens. For instance, the peacocks on the shutters play with and against Darwin’s assertion that male peafowl display their trains to attract females—or fight each other for the same purpose. The birds on the flanking shutters “display” with no hens in sight; in the central shutter, two males sit side by side, contemplating the beauty of the full moon. The shutters celebrate aesthetic delight without any reference to reproduction—indeed, without any possibility of it.

Peacock Room shutters

Peacocks do confront each other on the room’s south wall, in the mural Art and Money, pictured at top. But here, the angry bird (a caricature of Leyland, Whistler’s parsimonious patron) fights for his money, not a mate. The scene becomes ironic only in light of Darwin’s evolutionist explanation for clashes between peacocks. Behavior that Darwin attributed to the reproductive drive is here misdirected toward maintaining personal wealth. The Leyland-peacock hoards rather than disseminates, stifling rather than multiplying the (pro)creative power of art.