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

Composition

Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, reproduction, 1879?
Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, reproduction, 1879?
Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, wash on  Albumen print, GUL Whistler PH4/4
Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, wash on Albumen print, GUL Whistler PH4/4
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

Whistler worked on 'The White Girl' at intervals from 1861 until 1875. It is apparent that even after G. W. Whistler had paid for the picture in 1866, Whistler was reluctant to part with it. There is evidence to show that Whistler worked on the picture, for one reason or another, until it was sent to America in 1875.

In February 1862, Whistler described the picture to George du Maurier as showing the woman '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.' 1 The light does indeed come from the right but it is not particularly 'strong'; thus the description may reflect an early stage of the composition.

Jules Antoine Castagnary (1830-1888) in 1863 described the carpet as 'tapis blanc à peine nuancé de bleu' (white a little modified with blue). 2 On the other hand, Paul Mantz suggested that there was too much blue in the carpet on which the model stood, but in 1867 he revised his opinion, saying that he found the touches of blue charming. 3

Mantz's comments on the painting in 1863 compared to those of 1867 suggests that changes might have taken place between these dates. In 1863 Mantz described the model as a charming apparition, though not pretty, but by 1867 he found her face 'd'une laideur insupportable.' 4 He also (by 1867) thought that the face was painted with too coarse a brush (he may have meant with rough brushstrokes) but in its present state it appears smoothly painted: it is likely that this particular change took place in the early 1870s. 5 In 1863 Mantz also described the flower as having no petals, but he may simply not have seen them since the picture was hung quite high up. Castagnary also mentioned that the model held 'une fleur blanche effeuillée', which implies some petals had fallen. 6

Echoing Mantz's description of the model as a charming apparition, other reviewers in 1863 described her as 'a spirit, a medium', and the painting as a poetic vision. Fernand Desnoyers went so far as to write that the model had a tormented (but charming) expression. 7 Castagnary described the model in 1863 as 'la narine émue, l'œil dilaté, les cheveux tombants', suggesting a much more passionate appearance than the 'vacant stare' described by one critic in 1867. 8

Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, photograph, 1860s
Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, photograph, 1860s

An early photograph of the painting by Elliott & Fry, signed on the mount by Whistler about 1870, is in the Avery Collection, New York Public Library, and is reproduced above. This photograph, which may have been used as a source for the 1879 engraving by Timothy Cole (1852-1931), differs from Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl as it is today in the area of the face and hands. It shows a thinner face and smaller mouth, larger eyes with a more wistful expression, while the hair to the left of the head is more abundant and curly. In addition the cuffs at the wrists are striped, and the hand holding the lily is more slender, not foreshortened, with the thumb hidden from view.

Apparently by 1867 there were aspects of the painting that disturbed the artist, for he wrote to Fantin-Latour deploring the influence of Jean-Désiré-Gustave Courbet (1819-1877), and citing several paictures, including this, for self-criticism:

'Courbet! et son influence a été dégoutant! … 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!!" la nature! Mon cher 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! ... il n'avait plus qu'à ouvrir ses yeux et peindre ce qui se trouvait devant lui! ... Et l'on a vu ... La Fille blanche - … 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.'

Translated: 'Courbet! and his influence was odious! … 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!!" nature! My dear fellow, 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! ... All he had to do was to open his eyes and paint what was there in front of him! … And then people went to see it! And they saw … the White Girl, … 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.' 9

As already mentioned, Paul Mantz criticised the painting in 1867, saying 'la tête est d'une laideur insupportable'. 10 At some time after this, Whistler apparently repainted the face and hands. X-rays of the face and hands show that these areas have been heavily reworked and also reveal that the canvas was once damaged underneath the right eye. Whistler had the picture in his hands until 1875, but it seems likely that the repair and repainting occurred in the spring of 1872 when Whistler described it as an 'unlucky painting' to Alan Summerly Cole (1846-1934), and was working on the picture in the misplaced hope of sending it to the International Exhibition of 1872. 11 As a result of the alterations made to them, the hand and face are smooth and shiny.

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

A second, uninscribed, photograph in Glasgow University Library shows the picture in what may be yet another state: this is difficult to establish because at an unknown date Whistler worked over the photograph with watercolour, making the neck appear longer, the eyes and mouth larger, and adding more hair. It is possible that the Glasgow photograph represents a stage in the repainting of the 'White Girl' in 1872. 12

Technique

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

The canvas is very coarse, although the grain can only be seen on the thinner, more dryly painted, areas of the skirt. The skirt was originally about 100 mm shorter, and extended about 75 mm further on the right, to the edge of the canvas. The hand was originally placed further down. The bearskin was originally smaller and has been extended over the carpet on the left. There has also been some streaky reworking of her foot, and the outline of her cuff on the left. 13

The whole painting shows a variety of techniques and is painted fairly thickly, particularly on the left at the hem of the skirt, and in the shadows on the curtain. The pattern on the curtain is painted neatly with a small square brush, 7 mm wide, the strokes standing out like a mosaic. The broader shadows are painted with a wider square brush, 9 mm, in flatter, wildly crisscrossing strokes. Small round brushes, only 4 mm wide, were used on the blue carpet and the rug, with dots of blue carried from the carpet into the animal's head. A palette knife also appears to have been used, on the flowers on the carpet.

Malcolm Charles Salaman (1855-1940), in response to a letter to the Court and Society Review, wrote commending Whistler's 'modelling':

'In the first place, it is that subtlety of modelling which is so noteworthy a feature in all Mr. Whistler's great works … , which have established his reputation at home and abroad, from the famous 'White Girl' to the pictures of the present time.' 14

Conservation History

The picture was damaged in 1872. Whistler explained to Alan Summerly Cole (1846-1934), 'The White Girl cannot leave the Studio tomorrow … But the picture is now all right', adding, 'If I could possibly have forseen the delay that has been brought about by repairing this picture, I should certainly never have made a proposal that has I fear caused you all so very much trouble.' 15 But the picture was clearly not 'all right', and he wrote, apologising, 'I find at the end of this days [sic] work that I can scarcely hope to have my White Girl ready for Saturday ... I am very sorry that it should not this year be exhibited but I am afraid that it is impossible.' 16 He had to exhibit Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl [YMSM 052] instead.

Frame

  • 1862: original frame not located.
  • 1863: framed in Paris; it is not known if this was the same frame that had been used in the previous year, nor if it was the one decorated by Whistler twelve years later.
  • 1872/1875: Flat Whistler oil-gilded frame in corner-sawn oak, English, 213 x 107.9 cm (83 7/8 x 42 1/2"); decorated in 1875 by Whistler with painted bamboo motif in the narrow outside frieze, seigaiha (waves) pattern in the wider frieze with a butterfly signature on the upper right side; now on the painting. 17
Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, frame detail
Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, frame detail

Whistler did not decorate or sign the frame until the early or mid-1870s. This could have been in 1872 when Whistler planned to exhibit it in London, but more likely in the autumn of 1875 before sending the picture to America. At that time he told Frances Leyland (1834-1910), 'the White Girl's frame has not been neglected - I suppose that she will leave for her future home early this next week.' 18

Whistler Memorial Exhibition, Boston, 1904, photograph, GUL Whistler PH6/14
Whistler Memorial Exhibition, Boston, 1904, photograph, GUL Whistler PH6/14

This photograph shows the framed picture prominently displayed at the Whistler Memorial Exhibition in Boston in 1904.

Notes:

1: Du Maurier 1951 [more], p. 105.

2: Castagnary 1863a[more], at pp. 179-80.

3: Mantz 1863 C [more], in vol. 15, at pp. 60-61; Mantz 1867 C [more], at p. 230. Curiously, in neither review did he mention that she was standing on a bear-skin.

4: Mantz 1863 C [more]; Mantz 1867 C [more].

5: These points were discussed in a letter from William P. Campbell, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC., to M. F. MacDonald, 8 May 1975, GUL WPP file.

6: Mantz 1863 C [more], at pp. 60-61; Castagnary 1863a[more], at pp. 179-80; Tuckerman 1867 [more].

7: Chesneau 1863 [more], at p. 1, under the additional heading 'IV. Salon annexe des ouvrages d'art refusés par le Jury'; Desnoyers 1863 [more], at p. 8, 108 [check]; see also Thoré, 'Salon de 1863,' in Salons de Thoré-Burger de 1861 a 1868; Duret 1914 [more]

8: Castagnary 1863a[more], at pp. 179-80.

9: [July/September 1867], originally dated [September 1867?], GUW #08045.

10: Mantz 1867, op. cit., at p. 230.

11: Whistler to A. S. Cole, [25 April 1872], GUW #09011.

12: GUL Whistler PH 4/4.

13: See a full discussion of Whistler's technique in MacDonald, Margaret F., Joanna Dunn, and Joyce H. Townsend, 'Painting Joanna Hiffernan', in Margaret F. MacDonald (ed.), The Woman in White: Joanna Hiffernan and James McNeill Whistler, New Haven and Washington, 2020, pp. 33-45.

14: [9 July 1886], GUW #11359.

15: [14 April 1872], GUW #09021.

16: [25 April 1872], GUW #09011. An entry in A. S. Cole's diary for 25 April 1872 notes 'White Girl not forthcoming,' and as this is the last reference to the painting in 1872, it seems likely that this is the date of the letter (25 April was a Thursday). See also Whistler's related letters, GUW #09021, GUW #09020.

17: Dr S. L. Parkerson Day, Report on frames, 2017; Parkerson 2007 [more]. See also 'A Bounty of Frames: From Wood to Canvas: Attached Frames and Artists' Choices', National Gallery of Art website at http://www.nga.gov/feature/frames/canvas.shtm.

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

Last updated: 23rd April 2021 by Margaret