Detail from The Canal, Amsterdam, 1889, James McNeill Whistler, The Hunterian, University of Glasgow

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At the Piano


  • 1858/1860: given by Whistler 'in a way' to Francis Seymour Haden, Sr (1818-1910), London;
  • 1860: bought from Whistler by John Phillip (1817-1867), RA, for £30.0.0;
  • probably before 1867: F. S. Haden re-acquired At the Piano;
  • 1897: sold by Haden to Alexander Reid (1854-1928), Glasgow art dealer;
  • 1897, March: sold by Reid to John James Cowan (1846-1936), Edinburgh, for £1200;
  • 1899: sold by Cowan through David Croal Thomson (1855-1930), agent for Agnew, London art dealers (Agnew’s #8985), to Edmund Davis (1861-1939), London, 24 May 1899;
  • 1939: after his death on 20 February 1939, sold at auction, Christie's, London, 7 July 1939 (lot 99), and bought by Knoedler's, London and New York art dealers, for 6100 guineas;
  • 1939: passed to Scott & Fowles, New York dealers;
  • 1940: sold to William T. Semple (1881-1962) and his wife, Anna Louise Taft Semple (1879-1961), Cincinnati;
  • 1962: bequeathed by Mrs Louise Taft Semple to the Taft Museum of Art.
At the Piano, Taft Museum of Art
At the Piano, Taft Museum of Art

On 15 July 1900 Whistler told the Pennells the circumstances of his gift of At the Piano to his brother-in-law Francis Seymour Haden, Sr (1818-1910) and its subsequent exhibition at the Royal Academy:

'It was the second picture I painted. … In "The Piano Picture" my sister, then Mrs Haden, is sitting at the piano, her little girl standing by it, and I gave it to Haden - in a way. Well, you know, it was hanging there but I had no particular satisfaction in that. Haden just then was playing the authority on art and he could never look at it without pointing out its faults - and telling me it would never get into the Academy - that was certain. But after it had been for a while on Haden's walls I did send it to the Academy and it was hung.' 1

It was exhibited at the Royal Academy and bought by John 'Spanish' Phillip, RA, for £30. 2 As Whistler remembered:

'Phillip, the R.A., back from Spain with, well, you know, Spanish notions about things, asked who painted the picture, and they told him a youth no one knew about, who had appeared from no one knew where. Phillip looked up my address in the Catalogue and wrote to me at once to say he would like to buy it, and what was its price? I answered in a letter which I am sure must have been very beautiful. I said that in my youth and inexperience I did not know about these things and would leave to him the question of price. Phillip sent me thirty pounds.' 3

Martin Hopkinson suggests that either Ralph Thomas, Sr (1803-1862) or his partner James Anderson Rose (1819-1890) drew Phillip’s attention to At the Piano, since Thomas and Phillips were friends. 4

The exhibition and sale of At the Piano was cited in the Whistler v Ruskin case as an example of Whistler's successful career, 'to show that reputation has been established for very many years as exhibitor at the Academy.' 5 However, John Phillip seems to have tired of the painting at some point before his death in 1867. While the Pennells recorded that the London dealer David Croal Thomson (1855-1930) 'thought' F. S. Haden bought the painting at the sale of Phillip's collection after Phillip's death in 1867, it does not appear in the auction catalogues of the Phillip's sale, which suggests that Haden probably acquired the painting before that occasion. 6

On 23 March 1897 John James Cowan (1846-1936) wrote from Murrayfield, near Edinburgh, to tell Whistler that he had bought it:

'I hope you will be pleased to hear that I have just acquired two pictures of your's from Reid of Glasgow.

Only today have I got them hung, and I am delighted with them.

They are a portrait of a lady in black seated at a piano, with a girl in a short white skirt standing.

Reid says it is a portrait of a sister of your's?…

Hoping you will approve of my having purchased & owning these pictures.' 7

Whistler definitely approved, and he mocked Edward Guthrie Kennedy (1849-1932) for failing to acquire it: 'You and Thomson both missed it - for Haden sold the Piano … to Reid of Glasgow!' 8 This is explained further when Whistler asked Cowan what he had paid, and Cowan replied:

'I believe Reid spoke of £1200 … for the "Piano" …. He assured me that no separate price for each picture was named to him when he bought them. He gave the sum asked for the two, knowing I think that Kennedy had previously tried to effect a reduction in price. The vendor must have known he was doing wrong for he said "Don't say anything about the pictures before my wife"!' 9

Whistler then went around telling people of the price rise, with a mixture of indignation and pride:

'When you go to this Exhibition you will see, a propos of this question, two pictures of mine, "The Piano Picture", for which 30 gs. was paid, & "The Thames in Ice", for which I was given £10 - For these two pictures Mr. Cowan of Edinburgh, the other day, gave £1600.' 10

Finally Cowan was tempted to sell. He (wisely) kept Whistler up to date:

'It was D. C. Thomson who offered me £1000 St[erlin]g thro' Brown for the Piano Picture.

D. C. Thomson is here now trying to get the picture from me!

He began by offering an advance of £200 & I said I wouldn't think of anything less than £2000, & even that might not induce me to part with it. He has communicated with his client (I don't know who it is, but you will probably). ...

He has given me an offer open until Monday of £1800 Stg, which is tempting from a purely commercial point of view.

From having been in business all my life I suppose I have more commercial spirit than a lover of art ought to have!

But if I let the picture go I shall be awfully sorry to part with it. I have nothing to compare with it, …

I am game to refuse this figure or £2000 Stg if you would rather I did so. Only you would need to send me a wire on Monday morning, as Thomson comes here on that afternoon.' 11

Cowan was indeed an astute business man and on the whole managed to keep Whistler happy by reporting negotiations, and responding (or explaining why he did not respond) to Whistler's advice, as he wrote: 'Many thanks for your telegram. Before getting it I resolved not to take £1800 St[erlin]g, but I have told him I will sell at £2000, & have given him a week to think it over!' 12 Cowan then reported the sale to Whistler's sister-in-law:

'Tell him, that I feel a guilty creature, for I have sold the "Piano" picture! I remember his saying "They sell every blessed thing"!

Mr. Thomson came and tempted me, and I have fallen! I envy the new owner, whoever he is.

I hope Mr Whistler will, in a way, be pleased at its changing hands at this price - £2000 St[erlin]g.' 13

The attorney Edmund Davis purchased the picture for £2800, according to Whistler, or £3000, according to Thomson. 14 On 3 January 1919 D. C. Thomson showed it to Rene Gimpel (1881–1945) and said Davis had repeatedly been offered £20,000 for it, and it was then worth £25,000. 15 According to G. D. Hobson, a director of Sotheby’s, Davis was offered £35,000 for it. 16


At the Piano, Taft Museum of Art
At the Piano, Taft Museum of Art

  • 1859: Atelier of François Bonvin, Paris, 1859 (no catalogue).
  • 1860: 92nd Exhibition of the Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1860 (cat. no. 598) as 'At the Piano'.
  • 1862: [Exhibition], Morgan's Gallery, Berner's Street, London, 1862.
  • 1867: 85th exhibition Salon de 1867, Palais des Champs Elysées, Paris, 1867 (cat. no. 1561) 'Au Piano'.
  • 1898: Exhibition of International Art, International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers, Knightsbridge, London, 1898 (cat. no. 177, repr.) 'At the Piano'.
  • 1899: The Exhibition of the Royal Scottish Academy of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture, MDCCCXCIX. The Seventy-third, Edinburgh, 1899 (cat. no. 143).
  • 1905: 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. 75) as 'The Piano Picture', and as 'At the Piano' in the deluxe edition.
  • 1905: Œuvres de James McNeill Whistler, Palais de l'Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris, 1905 (cat. no. 2 bis) as 'Le Piano'.

1859: The painting had a chequered exhibition career, starting with its rejection by the Paris Salon of 1859. Instead it was exhibited in May in the studio of the artist François Bonvin (1817-1887), 189 rue St-Jacques, together with the rejected paintings of Ignace-Henri-Jean-Théodore Fantin-Latour (1836-1904), Alphonse Legros (1837-1911), and Théodule Augustin Ribot (1823-1891).

According to Fantin-Latour, Jean-Désiré-Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) was 'très frappé' by it when it was shown in Bonvin's studio. As translated by the Pennells, Fantin's story was as follows:

'One day, Whistler brought back from London the Piano Picture, representing his sister and niece. He was refused with Legros, Ribot and myself at the Salon. Bonvin, whom I knew, interested himself in our rejected pictures, and exhibited them in his studio, and invited his friends, of whom Courbet was one, to see them. I recall very well that Courbet was struck with Whistler's picture.' 17

The Pennells added:

'Side by side with it hung Les Deux Soeurs, one of the finest pictures ever painted by Fantin, who also was exhibiting in public for the first time; some studies of still life by Ribot; and Legros' portrait of his father. The whole affair made a scandal. The injustice of the rejection was flagrant, the exhibitors at Bonvin's became famous, and Whistler's picture impressed many artists besides Courbet.' 18

1860: At the Piano was the first picture exhibited by Whistler in England. It was well received at the Royal Academy in 1860 (cat. no. 598). The critic of The Times wrote, with unconscious humour:

'In colour and handling this picture reminds one irresistibly of Velasquez. There is the same powerful effect obtained by the simplest and sombrest colours … The execution is as broad and sketchy as the elements of effect are simple … this gentleman has a future before him, and his next performances should be curiously watched.' 19

This was probably the first time, of many, that Whistler's name was associated with that of Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velázquez (1599-1660).

The Times review was noticed by Robert Edward Lee (1807-1870), who had been Superintendent at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point when Whistler was dismissed from it. Lee wrote to his wife, enclosing, 'a newspaper slip which will give you some information of little Jimmy Whistler. I wish indeed he may Succeed in his Career. He certainly has talent, if he Could acquire application.' 20

Whistler's American patrons, the Winans family, were impressed with the picture and its reception. The London Times review was sent by William Louis Winans (1823-1897) to his brother Thomas de Kay Winans (1820-1878) in Baltimore on 17 May 1860, with the expressed desire that it should be passed on to the papers:

'The Criticism of The Times Critique is perhaps as Correct as can be had & you will see that he Places Jim at the Head of the list in an Exhibition in which there are over a Thousand Paintings & by the Best Modern artists. I have seen Jim's Picture & it strikes me as it Strikes everyone as being devlish [sic] good.' 21

The Daily Telegraph was less favourable, calling it 'an eccentric uncouth, smudgy, phantom-like picture of a lady at a pianoforte, with a ghostly looking child in a white frock looking on', while the Athenaeum critic thought At the Piano 'a sketch', describing it as:

'a sketch, and that of the wildest and roughest kind, yet shows a genuine feeling for colour, form (in spite of a recklessly bold manner of drawing), a splendid power of composition, and lastly design, – which evince a just appreciation for nature that is very rare amongst artists. If the observer will look for a little while at this singular production, he will perceive that it "opens out" just as a stereoscopic view will, – an excellent quality, due to the artist's feeling for atmosphere and judicious gradation of tone.' 22

Admirers of the painting, according to the Pennells, included the writer William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863), the American artist George Henry Boughton (1833-1905), and William Michael Rossetti (1829-1919). 23 Praise by George Frederick Watts (1817-1904) encouraged Alexander Constantine Ionides (1810-1890), father of Lucas (Luke) Alexander Ionides (1837-1924), to commission Portrait of Luke A. Ionides [YMSM 032] and Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge [YMSM 033]. George du Maurier (1834-1896) wrote that John Everett Millais (1829-1896) had praised it, saying, 'I never flatter, but I will say that your picture is the finest piece of colour that has been on the walls of the Royal Academy for years', and, similarly, that Charles Lock Eastlake (1793-1865) thought it 'the finest piece of painting in the Royal Academy.' 24 It was seen in the exhibition and bought for £30.0.0 by John Phillip (1817-1867), who described it as 'your charming picture.' 25

1862: A couple of years later it may have been shown in a small exhibition at a gallery in Berners Street, London, run by Matthew Somerville Morgan (1839-1890), artist and art gallery manager. Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl [YMSM 038], having been rejected at the Royal Academy, was already hanging there and Whistler appears to have envisaged a show involving still-life paintings by Ignace-Henri-Jean-Théodore Fantin-Latour (1836-1904) and a seascape by Edwin Edwards (1823-1879). 26

1867: Fantin-Latour, with his idiosyncratic spelling and punctuation, wrote advising Whistler to send At the Piano to the Paris Salon in 1867: 'Garde pour le salon ton piano et tes navires dans la glace'. 27 Then he elaborated:

'j'ai reçu ta lettre ce matin c'est grave ce que tu me demande - donner un avis ce n'est guère mon fort. ... mon avis autrefois etait que tu devrais exposer d'ancienne chose c'est bon de faire voir les choses par lesquelles on a commencer cela explique bien ce que l'on fait aujourd'hui n'as tu pas toujours le temps de montrer ta symphonie - puis tu aurais deux tableaux de figures ne vaudrait il pas mieux avec ton piano montrer ou une marine ou quelques choses d'une autre genre, tes navires dans la glace ont eu beaucoup de succès chez Martinet! - mais enfin c'est difficille de te donner un conseil c'est très important pour toi, que ces deux expositions.' 28

Translation, with added punctuation, to clarify Fantin's stream-of-consciousness: 'I received your letter this morning [:] what you ask is serious - giving advice is not my strong point. … my opinion previously was that you should exhibit old things[,] it is good to show the things you began with[,] it explains what you are doing now[;] have you not still time to show your symphony - then you would have two pictures with figures[;] would it not be better to show either a seascape or something different with your piano, your ships in the ice were very successful at Martinet's! - but it is difficult to advise you[,] they are very important for you, these two exhibition pieces.'

At the Piano was accepted for the Salon, and well received. Edouard Manet (1832-1883) forwarded to Whistler a letter from the critic Etienne Joseph Théophile Thoré (1807-1869) offering to buy it. Thoré Burger had written:

'Quelle belle peinture: au Piano, no. 1561! ah que je voudrais avoir ça, pour mettre au milieu de mes vieux maîtres.

Vous seriez bien aimable de savoir si le tableau est encore à Whistler et combien il veut le vendre.

Si le prix n'est pas effrayant pour un artiste comme moi, je tâcherai de me donner cette peinture que j'arrangerais très bien avec mon van der Meer de Delft.' 29

Translation: 'What a fine painting: at the Piano, no. 1561! Oh I would very much like to have it, to put in the middle of my old masters. Would you be kind enough to find out whether the painting still belongs to Whistler and how much he will sell it for. If the price is not frightening for an artist like me, I shall try to acquire this painting which I would place very well alongside my van der Meer of Delft.'

Thoré owned several paintings by Jan Vermeer (Van der Meer) (1697-1768): La dame assise and La dame debout jouant de l'épinette (National Gallery, London), La joueuse de guitar (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), and La femme au collier de perles (Kaiser Friedrich Museum, Berlin). In the previous year he had published an article, 'Van der Meer de Delft', as well as a book of the same title. 30

No longer owning the painting, Whistler was unable to sell it but he told Fantin-Latour about Thoré Burger's letter, 'J'ai reçu une lettre charmant de Burger que m'a envoyé Manet. remercie Manet de ma part.' 31 And, in a later letter, Whistler asked Fantin-Latour to tell Manet that he had written to Burger but had received no reply. 32 Whistler also assured his mother, Anna Matilda Whistler (1804-1881), of his continued success: 'you will be glad to hear that the French people have treated me at their Royal Academy splendidly, and there I have a complete success!' 33

1898: Once back in Haden's possession, after the quarrel between Whistler and Haden, the painting was not exhibited for many years, not, in fact until it was bought by J. J. Cowan, as Whistler noted when asked to send works to the ISSPG during his Presidency in 1898:

'You might write at once to Cowan & borrow his "Piano" picture - and the "Thames in Ice" -

Those two have not been seen for a long time - - Cowan was most charming about them when here - and told me he would gladly lend them when I wished - At the moment I did n't think of your having them - indeed I was scarcely well enough to think of any thing.' 34

 Arrangement of paintings at the ISSPG, Library of Congress
Arrangement of paintings at the ISSPG, Library of Congress

Whistler, something of a control freak (!), also sent drawings suggesting the arrangement of his panel. 35

At the ISSPG it was described carefully by the art critic of the Morning Post on 19 May 1898:

' "The Piano Picture", as it is called, is, to quote Mrs. Whistler's favourite expression, an arrangement of a lady in black, a child in white, a piano of richly-coloured wood, a plain red carpet, a wall on which two paintings hang, and a dado of pale green and gold.'

Basically, the press admired it: the Pall Mall Gazette on 16 May 1898 called it 'an interior of glowing warmth' and the London Daily News, on the following day, described it as 'a delightful harmony of white and black and brown'.

1899: Sergei Diaghilev (1872-1929) wrote to Whistler when assembling paintings for the 1st World of Art Exhibition, St Petersburg, to be held in 1899:

'Je regrette de ne pas avoir le tableau de Mr Cowan d'autant plus qu'il m'a déjà envoyé une fois et que l'oeuvre dont il est maintenant question est des plus importantes. Veuillez donc cher Maître nous rendre ce grand service et ecrivez quelques lignes à Mr Cowan. Vous n'avez qu'a faire ça pour que nous ayons une de vos belles toiles.' 36

Translation: 'I am sorry not to have Mr Cowan's picture, all the more because … the work … is one of the most important. Would you therefore dear Master grant me the great service of writing to Mr Cowan. You have only to do that for us to have one of your best canvasses.'

However, At the Piano was already committed to the 73rd Exhibition of the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh, so Cowan wrote, 'I hope this meets with your approval and that you are not disappointed at my inability to send it to Russia?' 37

Nothing daunted, Whistler promptly requested it for another exhibition!

'It would have been well if you could have let the Piano go to Russia, for they are very devoted to me there it appears - but of course if you have promised it elsewhere, why nothing can be done -

Now though I want you very much to let the Venice people have it when they ask you for their next Exhibition - as they are most appreciative.' 38

Later, he remarked: 'nowhere will the pictures you care for meet with greater recognition and care.' 39 However, it did not go to Venice, and it is possible that by this time Cowan was getting a little tired of never seeing his picture. He sold it shortly afterwards.


Even when the picture had long left Whistler's possession, there was still the matter of reproductions. He was concerned at the quality of images and prickly about his rights. When he was asked, in 1898, if the painting could be reproduced in the Studio, he replied to Charles Holme (1848-1923):

'All right - you may reproduce "the Piano", on condition:-

1st. that of course it be only for the edition of the Studio - 2nd that you give me the negative …

It is also clear that in this I have some special intention - (which I suppose you will not be displeased to hear) Wherefore I have written to Mr. Sauter saying that I should like to see his article as it goes on - so that I might perhaps "suggest" - or otherwise.' 40

Not entirely satisfied with the quality of photographs and photogravures, he wrote to William Heinemann (1863-1920), 'The Piano I didn't care much about - but it will do I daresay for reproduction.' 41

The artist also wrote to his lawyer, William Webb (1838-?1924):

'Let us begin with the "Swan" Company - or rather with Mr. Thomson - … The "Swan" business is an affair of money that "wee Thomson", … clearly means to acquire through my work! - Hitherto I have often out of amiability given him permission to have tiny reproductions of pictures of mine, produced in the Art Journal - But at least he asked - Now however you see he takes it all for granted -and boldly proceeds with the Swan Co. having even the amazing calmness to tell them to send me on the proofs for correction! - that he may further benefit by my known fastidiousness with my work! - And this is my first intimation of the affair! … the picture reproduced is the well known one "At the Piano" … And the Swan people are making a … photogravure of it, upon an important scale! I shall send you on a proof at once - & you will see that it could well be bought to frame and hang - I don't know what permission Thomson may have from Mr. Davis who just lately bought the picture, for more than £2000 - probably a good bit more! through Thomson - who had to get his commission after the last owner had taken the £2000! - Though I suppose I have no copyright in the picture.' 42


1: Pennell 1921C [more], pp. 78-79; Pennell 1908 [more], vol. 1, p. 82.

2: Phillip to Whistler, 30 July 1860, GUW #04978.

3: Pennell 1921, op. cit., pp. 78-79; Pennell 1908, op. cit., vol. 1, p. 82.

4: Hopkinson 2009d [more], at p. 261.

5: Whistler to James Anderson Rose (1819-1890), [November 1878], GUW #08784; Mr Whistler, Exam[ine]d by Mr Petheram. High Court of Justice to J.A. Rose, 25 November 1878, GUW #11991 and J. A. Rose, [25-26 November 1878], GUW #11914.

6: Pennell 1921, op. cit., p. 82. Merrill 1992 [more], p. 327. She quotes the Echo of 6 December 1878.

7: GUW #00722.

8: [10 April 1897], GUW #09762.

9: [20/30 April 1898], GUW #02932.

10: Whistler and R. Birnie Philip to W. Webb, [22 May 1898], GUW #06247.

11: 19 May 1899, GUW #00731.

12: 22 May 1899, GUW #00732.

13: Cowan to Rosalind Birnie Philip (1873-1958), 25 May 1899, GUW #00733.

14: Whistler (quoted by Pennell 1908 [more], vol. 1, p. 82); Pennell 1921C [more], p. 79; Thomson quoted by Gimpel 2011 [more], p. 121.

15: Gimpel 2011 [more], p. 121.

16: Hobson 1946 [more], p. 37.

17: Fantin-Latour to C. Deschamps, 12 November 1903; Pennell 1908 [more], vol. 1, p. 75.

18: Pennell 1908, ibid.

19: Anon., 'Exhibition of the Royal Academy (Second notice)', The Times, London, 17 May 1860, p. 11.

20: To M. A. R. Lee, 15 July 1860, GUW #12440.

21: GUW #07085.

22: Athenaeum, 19 May 1860 [more], p. 689. The quotations by Pennell 1908 [more], vol. 1, p. 83, slightly reformulate the original passages from the reviews.

23: Pennell 1908 [more], vol. 1, pp. 82-83.

24: Du Maurier 1951 [more], p. 4.

25: Phillip to Whistler, 30 July 1860, GUW #04978.

26: Whistler to Edwin Edwards, [10/20 June 1862], GUW #09079.

27: Fantin-Latour to Whistler, 12 February 1867, GUW #01083.

28: 21 February 1867, GUW #01084.

29: Thoré Burger to Manet, [15 April/May 1867], GUW #00433; see also Pennell 1908 [more], vol. 1, p. 140.

30: Gazette des beaux-arts, XXI, 1866, pp. 297 et seq. Sandberg speculated that At the Piano could have been inspired by Vermeer's Concert (Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston), but Whistler could hardly have seen this before it was auctioned by Sir Robert Peel's heirs at Christie's, London, 2 April 1860; Sandberg 1964 [more], at p. 503.

31: [May/June 1867], GUW #08047.

32: [June/July 1867], formerly dated [September 1867?], but dating from after the Royal Academy exhibition, GUW #08045.

33: [27 April/May 1867], GUW #06529.

34: Whistler to John Lavery (1856-1941), [22 April 1898], GUW #09941.

35: Arrangement of paintings at the ISSPG [M.1539]; letters to A. Ludovici, [26/30 April 1898] and [April/May 1898], GUW #08075 and #10694. Exhibition of International Art, International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers, Knightsbridge, London, 1898 (cat. no. 177).

36: [December 1898], GUW #00840.

37: Cowan to Whistler, 8 January 1899, GUW #00727. The Exhibition of the Royal Scottish Academy of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture, MDCCCXCIX. The Seventy-third, Edinburgh, 1899 (cat. no. 143).

38: [9] January 1899, GUW #00728.

39: [1/8 February 1899], GUW #00730. See also Filippo Grimani to Whistler, 8 February 1899, GUW #05949.

40: [May/June 1898], GUW #07973.

41: Whistler to W. Heinemann, [27 June 1898], GUW #08495.

42: Whistler to W. Webb, [June/October 1899], GUW #06258.

Last updated: 8th June 2021 by Margaret