Whistler's original title is not known. Later titles are as follows:
'Head of a Peasant Woman', a translation of the earliest known title, is the generally accepted title.
A head and shoulders portrait of a woman, in vertical format. She has dark eyes. Her dark hair, with a central parting, is pulled back behind her ears and bound with a plain white cotton scarf. She is turned slightly to her right, and seen in three-quarter view, but looks directly at the viewer. She wears gold earrings, and a pearl on a dark ribbon hangs round her neck. A white blouse is just visible at her neck under a grey/black dress. The background is very dark.
The identity of the sitter is unknown. Whistler's biographers, the Pennells, described the sitter as a 'model'. 4 Her neat dress and tasteful jewellery suggest that she was not a servant, nor particularly poor, but equally, that she was not a fashionable lady.
The provenance of Head of a Peasant Woman is not comprehensive, in that it came from a relative of Whistler, but it is not mentioned in publications before 1905. Technically the painting, while an attractive and professional work, is not totally consistent with Whistler's known work.
Curiously, however, the painting is close in size to another early portrait on a wood panel, Whistler Smoking [YMSM 009]. The early history of both paintings is unclear: Head of a Peasant Woman was in a French collection by 1905 and Whistler Smoking was in a French collection until 1912. However, the technique is rather different (the self-portrait is signed and is more thickly and freely painted), as is the scale of the head in relation to the panel. The similarity in support and size may well be sheer coincidence but it could indicate a link to Whistler.
1: Œuvres de James McNeill Whistler, Palais de l'Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris, 1905 (cat. no. 3b).
2: Memorial Exhibition of the Works of the late James McNeill Whistler, First President of The International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers, New Gallery, Regent Street, London, 1905 (cat. no. 80).
Last updated: 13th December 2020 by Margaret