It was given by Whistler to a close friend, the artist Ernest Delannoy, in Paris, possibly in August 1859. 1 After his death it was sold at auction at the Hôtel des Ventes to 'Valentin' - possibly the father of the child who modelled for Whistler's etching, Bibi Valentin  in 1859. 2 Valentin in turn sold it through George A. Lucas to the dealer and collector S. P. Avery. Their diaries concurrently record the sale for 17 July 1872. Lucas wrote: 'At Valentins - paid 1000 fs for Whistler etchings & picture', and furthermore, he wrote on 26 November, 'carried Whistler head to Goupil to be photographed.' 3
It was one of the first sales of a painting by Whistler in which the artist was not personally involved. 4 Whistler had clearly forgotten about this portrait when it came up for sale in 1872. He wrote to Ignace-Henri-Jean-Théodore Fantin-Latour (1836-1904):
'Maintenant je voudrais bien savoir quel est le portrait de moi que tu dis Valentin a vendu à cet étranger? … Je me demande si ce n'était qu'une pointe seche que j'avais fait dans le temps et dont j'aurais peutêtre donné une épreuve à Valentin, ou bien si c'était la tête grandeur nature peinte, tu te la rappele que j'avais donné a Erneste - En ce dernier cas Valentin n'avait nul droit de la vendre - cela appartenait à Erneste et à sa mort devrait me revenir.'
Translation: 'Now I would much like to know what is the portrait of me that you say Valentin has sold to this stranger? … I wonder if it was only a drypoint that I had done a long time ago and of which perhaps I gave a proof to Valentin, or if it was the life-size painting of a head, you remember that I gave to Erneste - In the latter case Valentin had no right to sell it - it belonged to Erneste and on his death should be returned to me.' 5
Although it is not always clear when G. A. Lucas was referring to a portrait head of Whistler by Fantin-Latour, which he had also bought for Avery, it appears from Lucas's diaries that both 'Whistler heads' were left at the packers on 22 February 1873 and probably despatched to America on 28 March. 6 Avery repeatedly showed the portrait at exhibitions in New York, even offering it for sale in 1873. 7 The catalogue of the Charity Art Exhibition in Baltimore, 1876, noted the owner as 'Thos. Whistler', but, despite this, the painting seems to have stayed in Avery's collection. 8 Eventually – well after the artist's death – the Whistler self-portrait was sold by Avery to C. L. Freer for $6500 in March 1906.
When it was shown in the monthly exhibition of the Union League Club in 1881, an art critic described it as 'a small head of the artist painted by himself, which brings sharply out the "de-rangement in black and white" which passes with him for hair." 9 This is rather odd since Whistler's white lock of hair is not obvious in this painting, although it is conspicuous in later self-portraits, such as Arrangement in Grey: Portrait of the Painter [YMSM 122].
By the terms of C. L. Freer's bequest to the Freer Gallery of Art, the painting cannot be lent.
2: Noted by C. A. Howell, GUL MS Whistler LB 11.
9: Anon., 'The Union League', unidentified newspaper, New York, [10 April 1881] (press cutting, GUL Whistler PC 4, p. 61).
Last updated: 4th December 2020 by Margaret