There are several small variations on the title, as follows:
'At the Piano' is the preferred title.
A figure composition, in horizontal format, showing a woman with dark hair wearing a black dress, sitting in profile to right, and playing on a grand piano. A girl with shoulder-length blonde hair, wearing a short white dress, leans on the piano at right, facing her mother. On the wall behind them are the lower edges of two gilded picture frames.
The site was the Music Room in the Hadens' house in Sloane Street, London. One of the sitters, Annie Harriet Haden (1848-1937), was quoted in 1908 as saying 'The actual music-room still exists in Sloane Street, though the present owners have enlarged it.' 9
Whistler's etching The Music Room  (reproduced above) dates from about the same time as this painting, and shows the room by lamplight. It shows Deborah Delano Haden (1825-1908) with her husband, Francis Seymour Haden, Sr (1818-1910), as well as his partner, James Reeves Traer (1833-1867), sitting reading.
Another oil, Harmony in Green and Rose: The Music Room [YMSM 034], shows both Deborah and Annie Haden in the music room in Sloane Street.
Whistler's biographers, the Pennells, commented:
'the best known and, in many ways, the finest painting of this period, is The Piano Picture, as Whistler called it. It contains the portrait of his sister At the Piano, and of his niece, the "wonderful little Annie" of the etchings, now Mrs Charles Thynne, who gave him many sittings for it, and to whom, in return, he gave the pencil sketches made on the Rhine journey, which she lent to the London Memorial Exhibition.' 10
Annie Haden also appears in Harmony in Green and Rose: The Music Room [YMSM 034], posing, according to the Pennells, in the same white dress as seen in At the Piano. She is quoted as saying:
'I was very young at the time of the music-room pictures being painted, and beyond the fact of not minding sitting, in spite of the interminable length of time, I do not know that I can say more. It was a distinctly amusing time for me. He was always so delightful and enjoyed the 'no lessons' as much as I did. … We were always good friends, and I have nothing all through those early days but the most delightful remembrance of him.' 11
The links with contemporary work are strong. Léonce Bénédite (1859-1925) was the first to point out the relationship between this painting and Les Deux Soeurs (Les Brodeuses), painted by Ignace-Henri-Jean-Théodore Fantin-Latour (1836-1904) in 1859 (St Louis Art Museum). 12
Major W. L. B. Jenney, whom Arthur Jerome Eddy (1859-1920) describes as a fellow-student of Whistler in Paris, told a story – possibly apocryphal – about Whistler working on a picture which may have been related to this subject: 'His drawing was careless. I remember one of his pictures – a woman seated at the piano, a little child playing on the floor. The piano was so out of drawing that it looked as if it were falling over.' 13
In 1867, Whistler felt strongly that this painting was among early works that were unsatisfactory, having been painted under the influence of Jean-Désiré-Gustave Courbet (1819-1877), or rather of 'Realism', the movement associated with Courbet:
'C'est que ce damné Realisme faisait apel immediate à ma vanité de peintre! et se moquant de toutes les traditions criait tout haut, avec l'assurance de l'ignorance "Vive la Nature!!" … ce cri là a été un grand malheur pour moi! - Où pouvait on trouver un apotre plus pret à accepter cette théorie, si commode pour lui! ce calmant pour toute inquietude! - Quoi? il n'avait plus qu'à ouvrir ses yeux et peindre ce qui se trouvait devant lui! la belle nature ... et bien on allait voir! Et l'on a vu - le piano - La Fille blanche - Les Tamises - les vues de mer … des toiles enfin produit par un polisson qui se gonflait de vanité de pouvoir montrer aux peintres des dons splendides - des qualités qui ne demandaient qu'une education sevère pour faire de leur possesseur un maitre au moment qu'il est - et non un écolier débauché.' 14
Translation: 'That damned Realism made an immediate appeal to my vanity as a painter! and mocking all tradition cried out loud, with all the confidence of ignorance, "Long live Nature!!" ... that cry was a great misfortune for me! - Where could you have found an apostle more ready to accept this theory, so appealing to him! this remedy for all disquiet - What? all he had to do was to open his eyes and paint what was there in front of him! beautiful nature ... and then people went to see it! And they saw - the piano, the White Girl, the Thames pictures - the seascapes … canvases produced by a nobody puffed up with pride at showing off his splendid gifts to other painters - qualities which only required strict education to make their owner the master he really is - not a degenerate student.'
The Pennells also commented on the influence of Courbet – although not in such specific terms – as well as that of Rembrandt Harmens van Rijn (1617-1681):
'To his choice and treatment of subjects, in his pictures as in his etchings, he brought the uncompromising realism of Courbet, painting only the people he knew, as he saw them, and not in clothes borrowed from the classical and mediaeval wardrobes of the fashionable studio. Yet at this stage, there is already the personal touch: Whistler does not efface himself entirely in his youthful devotion to his chosen masters. You feel it in the way a simple head or a figure is placed on the canvas, but especially where there is an opportunity for more elaborate composition. The arrangement of the lines of the pictures on the wall and the mouldings of the dado in At the Piano, the harmonious balance of the spaces of black and white in the dresses of the mother and her little girl, show the sense of design, of pattern, which he brought to perfection in the Mother, Carlyle and Miss Alexander.' 15
In 1887 Theodore Child (1846-1892) cited this painting among Whistler's finest works, and compared it to the work of Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velázquez (1599-1660), writing, 'as a painter, he has signed pictures which suggest the mysterious simplicity of Velasquez'; this praise was not appreciated by the artist because it was said in the context of a critique of Whistler's 'Ten o'clock' Lecture. 16
Bowdoin, in one of the earliest accounts of Whistler's work, associated At the Piano with the art of Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788), Anthony Vandyck (1599-1641) and Rembrandt Harmens van Rijn (1617-1681):
'The charm of the picture lies in the masterly simplicity of the lines of the piano and the pictures on the wall, as contrasted with the flowing lines of the two opposing figures – the mother, gravely seated at the piano, and the little girl absorbed in her listening. The child's figure … has been held to be one of the most perfect creations of modern art.
It is but a portrait, and yet it … renders the composition most satisfactory and makes of it one that is seldom equalled and more rarely excelled.
Let but this picture be placed as a test beside a Gainsborough, a Van Dyck or even a Rembrandt, and it will at once be seen to what a high level the painter of it has attained.' 17
1: 92nd Exhibition of the Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1860 (cat. no. 598).
2: 85th exhibition Salon de 1867, Palais des Champs Elysées, Paris, 1867 (cat. no. 1561).
5: Exhibition of International Art, International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers, Knightsbridge, London, 1898 (cat. no. 177).
7: Œuvres de James McNeill Whistler, Palais de l'Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris, 1905 (cat. no. 2 bis).
15: Pennell 1908 [more], vol. 1, p. 74. The reference is to Whistler's 1870s portraits, Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter's Mother [YMSM 101], Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 2: Portrait of Thomas Carlyle [YMSM 137], and Harmony in Grey and Green: Miss Cicely Alexander [YMSM 129].
Last updated: 8th June 2021 by Margaret