The sitter suggested to her father, Michael Spartali (1818–1914), that he should buy the picture, but he refused, 'He objected to it as a portrait of his daughter.' 1 Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) took it to his studio so that it might be seen by 'a collector' who was coming to look at his own work.
'Rossetti, always glad to be of service to a friend, sold the picture for Whistler, though this was no easy matter. Whistler agreed to take a hundred pounds, and Rossetti placed the canvas in his own studio, where it would be seen by a rich collector who was coming to look at his work. The collector came, saw the Princesse, liked it, wanted it. There was one objection : Whistler's signature in big letters across the canvas. If Whistler would change the signature he would take the picture. Rossetti, enchanted, hurried to tell Whistler. But Whistler was indignant. The request showed what manner of man such a patron was, one in whose possession he did not care to have any work of his, and that was the end of the bargain. However, Rossetti did sell the Princesse to another collector, who died shortly afterwards, when it was bought by Frederick Leyland, and so led to the decoration of the Peacock Room, one of Whistler's most splendid works.' 2
According to Whistler, 'My picture, the Princesse du Pays de la Porcelaine, was bought at the instigation of Rossetti - if upon his advice - and I received for it one hundred pounds - or fifty - I forget which.' 3
It was shown in the London International Exhibition of 1872 and was bought by Frederick Richards Leyland (1832-1892); it was hanging in the Leylands' London house, 49 Princes Gate, by November 1872, as Whistler reported: 'The Princess is at Queens Gate and hanging in the "Velasquez Room" by the fire place opposite the door so that you can see her from the hall as you go in - She looks charming.' 4
The hanging of the painting developed into a full-blown decorative scheme for the entire room.
'A space was left over the mantel for the Princesse ... The walls were hung with Norwich leather. The shelves were divided by rigid perpendicular lines endlessly repeated, and the panelled ceiling, with its pendant lamps, was heavy and oppressive. Whistler objected that the red border of the rug, and the red flowers in the centre of each panel of the leather, which was painted, not embossed, killed the delicate tones of his picture. Leyland agreed with him. The red border was cut off the rug, and Whistler gilded, or painted, the flowers on the leather with yellow and gold. The result he pronounced horrible; the yellow paint and gilding "swore" at the yellow tone of the leather. Something else must be done, and again Leyland agreed. The something else developed into ... the Peacock Room.' 5
The Pennells, in discussion with Murray Marks (1840-1918), recorded a variation on this story:
'Leyland bought the Princesse before there was any idea of Whistler's decorating the room, and on the floor was a rug, with a red centre and red lines. Whistler objected to the reds when the picture was hung because he said they killed the rose in the painting, and Leyland allowed the centre and the lines to be taken out of the carpet. In the centre of each panel of leather, however, was a red flower, which also offended Whistler, and he painted or gilded all the flowers over with yellow. The result, Whistler pronounced horrible, as the yellow paint or gilding wouldn't work with the yellow of the leather.' 6
Whistler intended that the decorative scheme should harmonise with his painting and the result was a complete reworking of the entire room, which evolved in 1876-1877 into Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room [YMSM 178] . 7
When Leyland died in 1892, Whistler took considerable interest in the sale of Leyland's collection, which was discussed in the Art Journal by Valentine Cameron Prinsep (1836-1904). 8 On 1 May Beatrice Philip (Mrs E. W. Godwin, Mrs J. McN. Whistler) (1857-1896), wrote to Alexander Reid (1854-1928):
'Mr Whistler is anxious to know if you know anything about the Leyland Sale, which, in an article in the number of the arts journal for this month he sees is to shortly take place at Christies.
The article you will see makes a slight mention of the Peacock Room, but nothing about the full length portrait of a woman in Japanese costume which hangs in it.
Now - Mr Whistler thinks you ought to try for that picture, for or at least fight it - for at the present juncture of affairs he does not think it ought to be let go for a small price - He says he is sure you could sell it in Glasgow - for it is the most brilliantly coloured of them all and is very beautiful.' 9
Beatrice Whistler was kept busy writing to one art dealer after another. She wrote in similar terms to Edward Guthrie Kennedy (1849-1932):
'Now - Mr Whistler wants to know if you are going to be in London for the Leyland Sale. In the Art Journal for this month is an article on the collection, written by Leyland's son in law, and although a slight mention is made of the Peacock room, no mention is made of the beautiful portrait of a lady in a Japanese dress which hangs in it - now - why don't you try for this picture Mr Whistler says - It is most brilliant in colour - and it would be sure to have a tremendous success in America - You might send it to Chicago.' 10
On 19 May 1892 Whistler himself wrote to D. C. Thomson of the Goupil Gallery: 'Leyland - What are you going to do about this sale? I certainly think that you ought to try and get the "Princesse des pays de la Porcelaine" - It is a beauty! - and ought to be easy to place - In any case, even if you do not buy - you surely ought to see that the picture is properly competed for.' 11 Thomson replied that they might try for it, and asked Whistler what he thought it was worth; he also checked that photographs were taken of the room and the painting. 12 On 28 May he told Whistler: 'the "Princesse" fetched 420 guineas, there was only another bidder besides ourselves from fifty guineas and ours was the last bid but one,' but, he added, if they had received confirmation of Whistler's citizenship they might have obtained an American buyer. 13 After it had been auctioned – and bought by Reid – Whistler complained to Thomson on 29 May: 'How could you let that splendid picture go for so ridiculous a sum and not either run up the price or secure it yourself?' 14
The Pennells commented:
'The Leyland sale, May 28, 1892, brought the Princesse du Pays de la Porcelaine and smaller works into the auction room, and, though the Princesse fetched only four hundred and twenty guineas, this was four times as much as Whistler had received for it. What would he have said to the five thousand guineas Mr. Freer paid for it within a year of his death?' 15
Beatrice Whistler advised its new owner, Reid, to have it cleaned and to sell it to an American collector such as Potter Palmer (1826-1902) and Bertha Honoré Palmer (1849-1918), or a French one, such as Camille Groult (1837-1907):
'We are very glad you have the Princess. She has fallen into good hands, & now - Mr Whistler says you must ask £2000 guineas for her, and why dont you try the Potter Palmers, the rich Chicago people ...
Mr Whistler would like it to go to America or come here - There is Groult - the great collector here ...
Mr Whistler says - do let Richards do up the Princess and varnish her - ... it would be quite a different thing - if it got rid of the Leyland grime - I hope you will let me see her - before she goes right away.' 16
According to Harrison Smith Morris (1856-1948), manager of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, during their Sixty-third Annual Exhibition in 1893, Whistler's paintings La Princesse du pays de la porcelaine [YMSM 050], Arrangement in Black and Brown: The Fur Jacket [YMSM 181] and Arrangement in Black: La Dame au brodequin jaune - Portrait of Lady Archibald Campbell [YMSM 242], belonging to a syndicate headed by Reid, were valued at $15,000 each, but the Academy was not interested. 17 Instead, Reid sold it to the great Glasgow collector, William Burrell, who was eventually persuaded to sell it to C. L. Freer, so that it could hang again in the 'Peacock Room'.
1865, Paris: As 'La Princesse du Pays de la Porcelaine', this painting was first exhibited at the Salon in Paris in 1865, and hung on the line, according to Théodore Duret (1838-1927). 18 However, the Pennells wrote that it was ill-received by Paul Mantz (1821-1895), Jules Arsène Arnaud Claretie (1840-1913), and other critics:
'It seemed nothing but a study of costume to Paul Mantz, who, in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts, decided to forget it and remember merely the mysterious seduction of The White Girl of two years before. Its eccentricity was only possible if taken in small doses like the homoeopathist's pills, according to Jules Claretie, who ... in L'Artiste, laughed at Manet's Olympia as a jest, a parody.' 19
Paul Mantz indeed decried the work as 'un étude de costume, et non la représentation d'une figure vivante' ('a costume study, and not the representation of a living figure'), 20 Similarly Claire de Charnacé (1830-1912), who considered the model neither beautiful nor a princess, thought it only a pretext for oriental colour and accessories ('n'est qu'un prétexte à études de vêtements, de tapis, de tentures et de paravents, aux couleurs de l'Orient.') 21
Louis Auvray (1810-1890) thought it no more than an attempt to enlarge the image on an Asian pot, 'sans modelé, sans expression, sans mouvement!' ('without modelling, expression or movement!') 22 Aileen Tsui notes that several writers, including Ernest Chesneau (1833-1890), decried the lifeless character of the figure: 'Il pouvait, ce me semble, animer sa princesse, lui donner le souffle et la vie; le pays de la porcelaine n'est pas le pays des Ombres' ('He could have, it seems to me, have animated his princess, given her breath and life; the land of porcelain is not the land of the Shades.') 23 Paul de Saint-Victor (1827-1881), went further, describing the figure as a mediocre head on a bamboo stalk in costume ('une tête quelconque, plantée sur un bambou habillé.') 24 Théophile Gautier, fils (1836-1904) found the figure both attractive and disturbing, a challenging confrontation between East and West. 25 Louis Gallet (1835-1898) also thought her a powerful and arresting figure: 'Cette tête de femme aux cheveux épais, aux lèvres rouges comme du sang, vous arrête au passage à la façon du sphinx antique' ('this woman's head with thick hair, with lips red like blood, stops you in your tracks in the manner of the antique sphinx.') 26
1872: London: It was shown in the International Exhibition as 'The Princess, Variations in Flesh Colour, Gray and Blue' or 'Variations in Flesh Colour, Grey and Blue – "The Princess'. The Times appreciated the colour scheme (which was emphasized by the title) but apparently did not admire Whistler's treatment of the model:
' "The Princess" is a Chinese lady with a fan ... described in the catalogue as "variations in flesh-colour, gray, and blue," and as such she is curious and clever. She also departs boldly from conventionalities of attitude, but also, it seems to us, from the laws of gravity, leaning too far backwards for any possibly equilibrium. Her face conveys nothing beyond its ugliness, and is surmounted by an extremely untidy head of coarse hair. We admire her as a clever and curious study in colour, but as nothing else.' 27
It was bought at that time by Frederick R. Leyland of Liverpool, who agreed to lend it to an exhibition in Brighton, which as Whistler explained to him, would be good for business (Whistler's business):
'I am told that it would be of really great importance that I should be present at the opening of the Brighton Exhibition on Wednesday - as they have given the place of honor to the Princess (loaned by F. R. Leyland ... ) and have generally done much to please - Morris thinks that it would be very unwise in me not to meet the committee on that day - and that it might bring about many things - in the way of "flesh pots," &c.' 28
1892: Years later, long after the artist had fallen out with his patron, Whistler mentioned to David Croal Thomson (1855-1930) the impossibility of borrowing the painting for his retrospective at Goupil's in 1892:
'There is only one picture of mine that I care for among in the Leyland collection - and that is the Portrait of Miss Spartali in Japanese dress - It hangs in the Peacock Room - and is not likely to be taken down - If it ever comes to the hammer - then we will talk about it.' 29
After Leyland's death, Whistler tried to get Thomson to approach Leyland's son-in-law, Valentine Cameron Prinsep (1836-1904), 'with your usual tact', about borrowing this painting for the exhibition at Goupil's. 30 This was impractical, but after the sale of the painting to Alexander Reid, Whistler immediately suggested it should be lent to the Society of Portrait Painters: 'I think it would be excellent in every way - It is sure to make a great hurrah! - for in fact it is scarcely known in London - was never exhibited there.' 31 This, of course, was not true! However, Reid agreed to lend, and Whistler was pleased, even if somewhat miffed at comments in the press:
'They have given her there I hear the place of honour, in the big room - and I suppose she will have no difficulty in holding her own! -
It is rather a bore in a way that those Glasgow papers should be so over wise and minute in all their knowledge - What they send me is, in spite of all ones experience in abuse, much more tiresome in its dilettante connoisseurship of appreciation -
Such nonsense about joyousness and period - The picture takes its place simply with all the others and differs in no way from the portrait of Carlyle excepting in as much as Carlyle himself dear old Gentleman differs from a Young lady in a Japanese dressing gown, in which it was not likely the Chelsea Sage should ever be seen!' 32
1893, Chicago: By October 1892 Whistler was campaigning to obtain a handsome group of paintings for exhibition in Chicago, and Halsey Cooley Ives (1847-1911) wrote 'the most charming and excellent letter' encouraging loans. 33 Edwin Austin Abbey (1852-1911) found Reid had an inflated view of the insurance value of the paintings ('Reid had insured his three for £3000 apiece') but in the end the matter was resolved to everyone's satisfaction. 34 Exhibiting in the American section at the Chicago Exposition, Whistler's paintings were awarded a gold medal, 'the first official honour from his native land' as the Pennells commented. 35 A selection of paintings of the 'best American art' from the Exposition were then sent on to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, including five Whistlers, which were hung prominently: the Director described them as 'the most conspicuous examples of American art exhibited.' 36 Alexander Reid was hopeful that 'after all their promises surely one of the pictures will be sold.' 37 And one was sold, but not this one, and so Whistler thought 'it would be well worth while' to exhibit it in Germany:
'I am assured that there are strong intentions of making Berlin important as art centre - and great chances of selling your pictures there -
They would have best possible places in the American Section - and meet with most distinguished treatment.' 38
But, in the end, Whistler did not exhibit anything in Berlin until 1900.
1896-1901: By 1896 the painting was owned by the Glasgow shipping magnate, William Burrell (1861-1958), and he lent it to the Royal Glasgow Institute of the Fine Arts in 1896 and to a major international exhibition in Glasgow in 1901. The painting had also appeared on a wish list for the first exhibition of the Society of Austrian Artists in Vienna in 1898. 39 Instead it went to the first exhibition of Whistler's own International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers in London.
Whistler insisted on the precise hanging of his group: 'So if I send my portrait you will put it between the Rosa Corder and the Princess - leaving nice margin - and keeping all on line, more than in sketch', and he added a sketch, Arrangement of paintings at the ISSPG [M.1539]. 40
Then, because he was adding etchings by his late wife, Beatrice Philip (Mrs E. W. Godwin, Mrs J. McN. Whistler) (1857-1896), Whistler sent more instructions to Albert Ludovici, Jr (1852-1932) and another sketch, Arrangement of paintings at the ISSPG [M.1540]:
'1. Rose Corder. 2. Princess. 3. Portrait. 4. Piano. 5. Oval. 6. Thames in ice. 7. Philosopher. 8. Nocturne Valparaiso. 9. Petite Souris (girls head with feather boa)[.] 10. "Etchings by Mrs McNeill Whistler".
Or 2 10 7. 8 9.
Yes this / * last way I prefer - and it gives you no trouble - ... Hang all my pictures on the line - excepting the Holloway (Philosopher) just a tiny bit up to make the line pretty - and perhaps the Petite Souris - also slightly - a matter for your eye - And be sure to see to the proper tilting over - so that can be well seen - ... Hang nothing under any of the pictures.' 41
This was barely hung before there was a request from Filippo Grimani (1850-1921), 'Au nom de la Ville de Venise - que vous aimez et qui vous admire', for 'une collection de vos oeuvres, celle, par exemple, qui donnait un attrait si puissant à l'Exposition de Knightsbridge' for the 'Exposition internationale des Beaux-Arts' of 1899. 42 Whistler did mention to Burrell that he was about to get requests for exhibitions in both Russia and Venice, 'for Venice I rely upon you' he wrote, and so Burrell agreed to lend it to Venice but not to St Petersburg. 43
Burrell lent the painting to the International Exhibition in Glasgow in 1901, where a visitor (possibly an American) jotted in his catalogue: 'Splendid quality of Color but affected & repulsive in character, accorded the place of Honor'. 44
After Whistler's death, it was exhibited in pride of place at the end of one of the galleries in the Boston Whistler Memorial Exhibition in 1904, as well as in Paris in the following year.
The wanderings of the Princesse have now ceased: by the terms of C. L. Freer's bequest to the Freer Gallery of Art the painting cannot be lent.
2: Ibid., vol. 1, pp. 124-25.
8: Prinsep, Val, 'The Private Art Collections of London. The Late Mr Frederick Leyland's [Collection] in Prince's Gate. First Paper - Rossetti and his Friend,' The Art Journal, new series, no. 647, May 1892, pp. 129-34.
20: Mantz, Paul, 'Salon de 1865 Suite', Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 1 July 1865, p. 7. This and the following 1865 reviews are quoted in Goebel 1988 [more], p. 723-26, and analysed in Tsui, Aileen, 'Whistler's La Princesse du pays de la porcelaine: Painting Re-Oriented', Nineteenth Century Art Worldwide, Vol. 9, Autumn 2010, online.
21: 'C. de Sault' (Mme de Charnacé), 'Salon de 1865,' Le Temps, Paris, 6 June 1865.
22: Auvray, Louis, Le Salon de 1865, Paris: A. Levy Fils, 1865.
23: Chesneau, Ernest, 'Beaux Arts: Salon de 1865: III: Les excentriques,' Le Constitutionnel, 16 May 1865, p. 2. Tsui 2010, op. cit.
24: Saint-Victor, Paul de, 'Salon de 1865: Quatrième Article (1),' La Presse, 28 May 1865, p. 3.
25: Gautier, Théophile, fils, 'Salon de 1865 1er article,' Le Monde Illustré, Paris, 6 May 1865, p. 283.
26: Gallet, Louis, Le Salon de 1865, Peinture, Sculpture, Paris: Le Bailly, 1865, p. 28.
27: 'The International Exhibition', The Times, London, 14 May 1872, p. 6.
36: Yount, Sylvia, 'Whistler and Philadelphia', in Exhibition catalogue Atlanta, After Whistler, 2003 [more], pp. 50-63, at pp. 55-56; fig. 45, p. 56, shows the Whistler paintings in the exhibition (photograph in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts Archives, Philadelphia).
42: Translated: 'In the name of the City of Venice - which you love and which admires you', requests 'a collection of your works, the one, for example, which was so great an attraction at the Exhibition in Knightsbridge.' Grimani to Whistler, 17 December 1898, GUW #05944.
44: International Exhibition, Glasgow Art Galleries, Glasgow, 1901 (cat. no. 505), annotated catalogue in The Menschel Library (b1001715_072), Metropolitan Museum of Art website at https://libmma.contentdm.oclc.org.
Last updated: 22nd December 2020 by Margaret