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

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Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl

Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl was probably started in 1861, signed in 1862, repaired and probably reworked in 1872. 1

1861: From 18 November 1861 to 10 March 1862, Whistler hired an easel from P. Hardy-Alan (fl. 1860-1903), 1 rue Childebert, près St-Germain-des-Prés. 2 In December 1861, Whistler also bought a 2.15 × 1.09 metre stretcher and had it fitted to a canvas in his studio in the Boulevard Pigalle ('1 chassis à Clefs, de 2 met.15 - 1m.09 … & Tenture chez lui Bd. Pigale, plus pièce mis à Tabl.'). 3 These were probably for Symphony in White, No. I: The White Girl.

1862: The Pennells state that '[Joanna Hiffernan] was with him in France in 1861-2, going to Paris in the winter to give him sittings for the big White Girl, which he had begun and was painting in a studio he took for the purpose in the Boulevard des Batignolles, and hung, it is said, all in white.' 4 Ignace-Henri-Jean-Théodore Fantin-Latour (1836-1904) also remembered Whistler as working on 'sa Fille Blanche à Paris Boulevard des Batignolles' in 1862. 5

On 8 January 1862, according to Miss Chapman, 'Jimmy Whistler came to call on us at the Hotel du bon Lafontaine. He was then working in Paris and painting the big "White girl"!' 6

Whistler's mother, Anna Matilda Whistler (1804-1881), writing in February 1862, reported that Whistler, after returning from Brittany, 'had begun a new painting in Paris, & was hard at work' but had to return to London on the death of a friend. 7 Whistler told George du Maurier (1834-1896) that he had been working on the painting all winter from eight every the morning, and that it was nearly finished. He described it as showing the figure 'standing against a window which filters the light through a transparent white muslin curtain – but the figure receives a strong light from the right and therefore the picture barring the red hair is one gorgeous mass of brilliant white.' 8

By 22 February Whistler was back in Paris, and was visited at 18 Boulevard Pigalle by the American art dealer George Aloysius Lucas (1824-1909). Lucas saw the artist at intervals until 1 April 1862 when he noted in his diary, 'To see Whistler who packed his picture of the "femme Blanche".' 9

Whistler's mother congratulated him on completing his work, 'how pleased I am to hear that you finished the two in time to present at the Royal Academy. Your mother is satisfied even if they are not hung this year.' 10 The painting was rejected by the Royal Academy. Fantin-Latour was stunned to hear of its rejection, and wrote to Edwin Edwards (1823-1879): 'Je ne sais pourquoi l'on a refusé le tableau de Whistler, il y avait de grandes qualités. Je l'ai vu travaillant et l'ai suivi pendant tous les progrès. Whistler m'a montré un coté que je ne lui connaissais pas, la persistance, le volonté.' 11

It was shown instead at a recently opened gallery at 14 Berners Street, which was run by Matthew Somerville Morgan (1839-1890).

According to the Pennells, 'He fell ill before the end of the winter. Miss Chapman says he was poisoned by the white lead he used in the picture. Her brother, a doctor, recommended a journey to the Pyrenees.' 12 In the Basses Pyrenees, Whistler stayed in Guéthary, whence in November 1862 he wrote to Fantin-Latour that he ought to return to London to 'finir … la Fille blanche pour le salon à Paris.' 13 In December, Whistler and the painting were in London, but Whistler still planned to 'carry the White Girl to the Salon.' 14

1863: On Monday 16 March Whistler told G. A. Lucas that he was 'touching the painting up a little' for the Salon, and likewise, on 20 March, told James Anderson Rose (1819-1890), 'I am finishing The White Girl for the Salon in Paris and it ought to go off on Monday - so that I should be painting at it until late in the evening.' 15 But instead he showed the painting in The Artists' and Amateur's Conversazione at Willis's Rooms in St James Square on Thursday, 26 March. He proposed to take the canvas to Paris on the following Sunday, and had asked if he could unpack and frame it in Fantin-Latour's studio: 'J'apporte "La Fille Blanche" - ! puis-je dérouler ma toile et l'encadrer dans ton atelier, que nous puissions la voir ensemble avant de l'envoyer au Salon?' 16 On 1 May Fantin-Latour reported that it had been rejected at the Salon; instead, it was shown in the Salon des Refusés. 17

1864: P. Hardy-Alan (fl. 1860-1903) retained the picture in Paris until at least February 1864 as surety for certain of Whistler's debts, although these, according to Whistler, were 'une bagatelle' that he would settle easily when he came to Paris. 18

1866: The painting was finally bought by Whistler's half-brother, George William Whistler (1822-1869), who paid him £250 in two instalments but did not actually receive it. 19

1867: Instead, 'The White Girl' was exhibited in the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1867. G. A. Lucas had trouble organising the return of Whistler's pictures to London but finally arranged it on 3 December. 20

1868: G. W. Whistler wrote from St Petersburg to Whistler: 'I hope you will find time before next Spring to finish my picture - for if we remain I shall wish it here, & if not I shall want it in the States next year.' 21

1869: G. W. Whistler died in Brighton, England, on 24 December 1869.

Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, wash on  Albumen print, GUL PH4/4
Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, wash on Albumen print, GUL PH4/4

1872: The picture had been damaged, and from March to April Whistler worked on 'my White Girl', but failed to complete repairs in time to send it to an International Exhibition in London. 22 G. W. Whistler's family returned to Baltimore in the autumn.

Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

1875: By August Whistler had attended to the frame and the picture was finally sent to America. 23 G. W. Whistler's widow died on 25 September 1875, and rights of ownership passed to their son, Thomas Delano Whistler (1857-1921).


1: YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 38).

2: 'Hardy-Alan … Tient tous les articles de peinture, atelier de toiles et restauration de tableaux, locations de chevalets et mannequins', bill, 28 August 1862, GUW #02026.

3: Ibid., GUW #02026. Whistler leased the studio from November 1861 to 15 April 1862 (D. Louncke to Whistler, 14 November and 30 December 1861, GUW #02638 and #02640).

4: Pennell 1908 [more], vol. 1, p. 95.

5: Fantin-Latour to Deschamps, 12 November 1903, GUL MS Whistler BP III f 254.

6: Miss Chapman was probably Rose or Eliza, one of the sisters of Alfred Chapman (1839-1917) and George R. Chapman (b. 1834). Extracts from her diary, E. R. and J. Pennell Collection, Library of Congress.

7: A. M. Whistler to J. H. Gamble, 19 February 1862, GUW #06518. He had to return to London briefly after the death of Ralph Thomas, Sr (1803-1862).

8: [February 1862], Du Maurier 1951 [more], p. 105.

9: Diaries, Lucas Collection, Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore; quoted by Randall 1979 [more], pp. 130, 132.

10: A. M. Whistler to J. Whistler, 12 May 1862, GUW #06519.

11: 15 May 1862, Musée de Grenoble. Free translation: 'I do not know why they refused Whistler's painting, it had great qualities. I saw it when he was working on it and followed its progress. Whistler showed me a side that I did not know before, the persistence, the will.'

12: Pennell 1908 [more], vol. 1, p. 95.

13: Translated, 'to finish the white Girl for the salon in Paris', [12/19 November 1862], GUW #07952.

14: Whistler to G. A. Lucas, [19 December 1862], GUW #09189.

15: Whistler to G. A. Lucas, 16 March [1863], GUW #10693; Whistler to J. A. Rose, [20 March 1863], GUW #08985.

16: Whistler to H. Fantin-Latour, 23 March [1863], GUW #11456. Translation: 'I am bringing "The White Girl" - ! may I unroll my canvas and frame it in your studio, so that we may see it together before sending it to the Salon?'

17: Fantin-Latour to Whistler, 1 May 1863, GUW #01079. Ouvrage de peinture, sculpture, gravure, lithographie et architecture, refusés par le Jury de 1863, et exposés, par décision de S.M. l'Empereur, au salon annexi, Salon des Refusés, Palais des Champs-Elysées, Paris, 1863 (cat. no. 596).

18: Whistler to Fantin-Latour, 3 February 1864, GUW #08036.

19: G. W. Whistler to Whistler, 25 November (Russian dating, St Petersburg, 7 December) 1866, GUW #06679.

20: Diaries, Lucas Collection, Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore; quoted by Randall 1979 [more], p. 255.

21: 25 August (St Petersburg, 6 September) 1868, GUW #06684.

22: A. S. Cole diary, 27 March and 15 April 1872, GUW #13132; Whistler to A. S. Cole, [14 and 25 April 1872], GUW #09021 and #09011.

23: Whistler to Mrs F. R. Leyland, [20 August/4 September 1875], GUW #08052.

Last updated: 23rd April 2021 by Margaret