According to Whistler, Gerald Potter bought the painting for £150 'or less.' 1 On 24 March 1865 Whistler was told, presumably by the purchaser, that he could bring 'the White Maid', if it was finished, and hang it 'in state' on Monday. 2 This letter may have been written by Gerald Potter (1829-1908), or his eldest son, John Charles Potter (1854-1920), and it suggests that the painting was sold before the Royal Academy exhibition opened on 1 May 1865, and before A. C. Swinburne wrote the poem inspired by it, which was reproduced in the RA catalogue. 3 On 25 November Whistler's mother mentioned how much Whistler's step-brother George William Whistler (1822-1869) admired Potter's 'little White Girl'. 4
By 1888 both Gerald Potter and his son J. C. Potter were in communication with Whistler regarding Whistler's requests for loans of the painting. Eventually the Potters were prepared to consider selling it. Although it was exhibited in Munich in 1892, negotiations to buy it for the Neue Pinakothek failed; it appears there was a breakdown in communications between the owner, who wanted a high price, and the gallery. After the misunderstandings had been cleared up, the committee had already spent all its funds, so that the painting could not be purchased for the Munich Pinakothek. 5
It 'made a great sensation' when it was exhibited in Glasgow in 1893, but did not find a buyer. Whistler told D. C. Thomson, ' I want nothing to remain in England - Scotland is another thing', but Thomson reported that in Glasgow, 'One bold man offered to exchange a lot of rubbish for the White Girl - an Alma Tadema amongst them, but we declined.' 6 Alexander Reid (1854-1928) in Glasgow was prepared to offer £400 and said that he 'wouldn't mind possessing' it, but Whistler said the owner 'wants a jolly good price', and reported later that 'your 400. wasn't in it.' 7 However, he wrote indignantly to Thomson about the expedition to the north:
'I hear that things are "very bad" in Glasgow! How did you get on? And why do you always drag about these pictures of Potters?? Why? Why? Why!!!
It annoys me very much to think that works of that distinction should be hawked in this persistent way from one end of the land to the other!' 8
It was sold through Goupil's to the artist and collector A. H. Studd in late December 1893. 9 Whistler wrote complimenting the new owner on 21 January:
'... how really pleased I am to know that "the little White Girl" is at last safe from the further uncertainties & rudenesses of the "market", in the sympathetic care of a confrère! … I wish you would promise me that, if ever you were to be persuaded to leave it away from your own family, you would never present it to any Gallery in England.' 10
A dream owner, from Whistler's point of view, Studd explained that 'The price they asked for the Little White Girl was 1200£ … I offered £1400 for the two … the amount to be paid partly this year & partly next', and said that he had been prepared to sell it to the National Gallery at that price, and that he was prepared to lend it whenever and wherever Whistler required it. 11 Armed with this information, Whistler wrote several letters complaining about the boom in sales of his paintings, which failed to result in 'a beneficial result to myself!'
'You heard, did you, that Gerald Potter sold the "Little White Girl", and his "Nocturne Blue & Silver" in a lump for fourteen hundred pounds? He gave me for the two, £200, or less - so that he has made a clean sweep of twelve hundred pounds out of me.' 12
On 4 April 1900 Studd told Whistler he had offers of £2500 for it, which he refused, and the Pennells said Studd had refused an offer of £6000. 13 According to Hobson, Charles Lang Freer (1856-1919) of Detroit was prepared to pay £250,000 for Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl [YMSM 052], Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Cremorne Lights [YMSM 115], and Nocturne: Black and Gold - The Fire Wheel [YMSM 169] but Studd would not sell. 14 Despite Whistler's stated objections to having any of his work in an English collection, it was bequeathed by Studd to the National Gallery, London, in 1919.
1865: THE ROYAL ACADEMY
The poet Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909) was inspired by Whistler's picture to compose a verse ballad, Before the Mirror, to complement the picture. It was a response, not a description, as Whistler wrote, 'a rare and graceful tribute from the poet to the painter - a noble recognition of work by the production of a nobler one!' 15 Swinburne wrote it specifically for the occasion of the RA exhibition, checked it with Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), and sent it to Whistler:
'Here are the verses, written the first thing after breakfast & brought off at once. I could not do anything prettier, but if you don't find any serviceable as an Academy-Catalogue motto & don't care to get all this printed under the picture, tell me at once that I may try my hand at it to-morrow again. Gabriel praises them highly, & I think myself the idea is pretty: I know it was entirely & only suggested to me by the picture, & where I found at once the metaphor of the rose & the notion of sad & glad mystery in the face languidly contemplative of its own phantom & all other things seen by their phantoms. I wanted to work this out more fully & clearly, & insert the reflection of the picture & the room; but Gabriel says it is full long for its purpose already, & there is nothing I can supplant.' 16
The text is as follows:
'I. (1) White rose in red rose-garden Is not so white; Snow-drops that plead for pardon And pine for fright Because the hard east blows Over their maiden rose rows Grow not as this face grows from pale to bright.
(2) Behind the veil, forbidden, Shut up from sight, Love, is there sorrow hidden, Is there delight? Is joy thy dower or grief, White rose of weary leaf, Late rose whose life is brief, whose loves are light?
(3) Soft snows that hard winds harden Till each flake bite Fill all the flowerless garden Whose flowers took flight [p. 2] Long since when summer ceased And men rose up from feast And warm west wind grew east, & warm day night.
II. 1) Come snow, come wind or thunder High up in air, I watch my face, & wonder At my bright hair; Nought else exalts nor grieves The rose at heart, that heaves With love of her own leaves & lips that pair.
2) She knows not lips that kissed her She knows not where. Art thou the ghost, my sister, White sister there, Am I the ghost, who knows? My hand, a fallen rose, Lies snow-white on woven white snows, & takes no care. /
3) I cannot tell what pleasures Or what pains were, What pale new loves and treasures New years will bear; What beam will fall, what shower, What grief or joy for dower; But one thing knows the flower; the flower is fair. ...
Glad, but not for flushed with gladness, Since joys go by; Sad, but not bent with sadness, Since sorrows die; Faint in the gleaming glass She sees all past things pass, And all sweet life that was lie down & lie.
There glowing ghosts of flowers Draw down, draw nigh: And wings of swift dead hours Take flight & fly: She sees by formless gleams, She hears across cold streams, Dead mouths of many dreams that sing & sigh.
Face fallen & white throat lifted, With sleepless eye, She sees old loves that drifted,She knew not why, Old loves & faded fears Float down a shore that hears /
The flowing of all men's tears beneath the sky.' 17
The verses were printed on gold paper and stuck over the patterns carved on the picture frame. 18 An extract was published in the Royal Academy catalogue in 1865. Philippe Burty (1830-1890) commented, 'Les quatorze vers du poète, écrits sur la bordure même, ne sont là que comme l'ètiquette collée sur les costumes dans le magazine d'un théatre.' 19 Swinburne's poem, in a shortened version, was published with his Poems and Ballads in 1866, with a dedication to Whistler.
Curiously, an old acquaintance, R. W. McLeod Fullarton (1835-1896), wrote to Whistler after seeing the painting, 'a picture fitted to give so much pleasure to the few and so little to the many!' and enclosed his own homage to the painting, starting 'O fair ill-favour, where in ambush lie Beauties untold, ineffable!' 20
The Royal Academy exhibition opened on 1 May 1865. 'Old Battersea Bridge' hung in the Middle Room; a Japanese subject, 'The golden screen' appropriately hung in the East Room; and the portrait of Jo, 'The little white girl', hung with 'The Scarf' (another Asian subject) in the North Room. Reviews included Tom Taylor’s second report in the Times on 8 May. Taylor associated Whistler with a ‘school’ – the Pre-Raphaelites – and 'young painters' like Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) and Edward Coley Burne-Jones (1833-1898) (who actually had no works at the RA at the time):
' Mr. Whistler is the man at once of highest genius and most daring eccentricity in this school. He is equally capable of exquisite things or of gross impertinences, and this exhibition contains instances of both; of the former, in the 'Little White Girl', of the latter, in his two sketches of Japanese and Chinese fabrics and screens, accompanied by slight caricatures of maidens in the flowery land, mere plays of colour, … ugly in form and unfinished in execution.' 21
Taylor cited Belinda by Valentine Cameron Prinsep (1836-1904), Wynfield's Last Days of Elizabeth, Pettie's 'clever and dramatic' Drumhead Court Martial, Gentle Spring by Anthony Frederick Augustus Sandys (1829-1904), and Stanhope's Beauty and the Beast, thus associating Whistler with the aesthetic, historicising subjects of the Pre-Raphaelite circle: 'Of its strength and weakness, its patience and slovenliness, its keen sense of beauty, and its frequent indifference to it, the pictures of Mr. Sandys and Mr. Whistler ... supply excellent illustration.' However, Taylor considered the Little White Girl, though 'slightly finished ... slovenly as many will call it' was 'likely to impress itself deeply on minds finely attuned to the delicate harmonics of colour and the subtlest suggestions of form.' 22
The Anglo-centric sense of superiority of the Victorian press is apparent in an otherwise flattering review in the Saturday Review. Asserting that Whistler, having assimilated ‘the eminent beauty and the naïf inventiveness in design’ of Japanese art, ‘seems now impelled to endeavour to reproduce it in England’, the critic asserted that ‘Beautiful as are the studies he has thus designed ... and useful as such practice may be in technical points, it is of course when the artist chooses his subject from English life that he can not only astonish, but arrest us.’ 23
When the painting was shown in the International Exhibition, the critic of The Times commented:
'[It] has written round its frame some very beautiful, but not very lucid verses by Mr. Swinburne, addressed to the picture, which is of a woman clad in white and very truthfully painted muslin. Her arm is laid along a mantle-piece, she looks into a glass and we see the reflection of her plain features. There may seem to some an uncouthness in the monotony of colour and in the attitude, but nevertheless the picture is one ... which means more than it says, though not so much perhaps as the poet has said for it. Thought and passion are under the surface of the plain features, giving them an undefinable attraction, if not a charm, and the departure of the artist from conventionalities of colour and attitude is, at least in our eyes, bold and successful.' 24
Octave Maus (1856-1919) invited Whistler to exhibit in the Exposition internationale de peinture et de sculpture, Société des XX, Brussels, 1884 and the artist asked, through Charles William Deschamps (1848-1908) if Potter would lend the 'little White Girl', adding, 'He would have it back in plenty of time for the Season.' 25 However, none of Potter's works were ever exhibited with Les XX.
Claude Oscar Monet (1840-1926) wrote to Théodore Duret (1838-1927) that he hoped Whistler would lend 'la petite fille blanche' to the Exposition internationale de peinture et desculpture, Galerie Georges Petit, Paris, 1887. 26 However it was not among the fifty works contributed by Whistler. He then asked Potter to lend it for the Salon in 1888 and to Munich in the following year:
'Dont you see my dear Potter when a picture is purchased by the Louvre or the National Gallery, all can come and see it on the walls, but when a painting is bought by a private gentleman, it is, so to speak, withdrawn from circulation and, for public fame, is missing from the story of his reputation.' 27
Unfortunately, this plea came too late for the Salon, and the picture went neither to Paris nor Munich at that time.
1892: LONDON AND MUNICH.
It was listed as a desirable loan for Whistler's retrospective at Goupil's in 1892, and John Charles Potter (1854-1920), son of the owner Gerald Potter (1829-1908), was willing to lend, although Goupil's manager, David Croal Thomson (1855-1930) thought the portrait 'not so interesting' as other works. 28 Whistler replied indignantly, 'The uninteresting portrait you speak of is "The Little White Girl - Symphony in White No. 2" ' and told Thomson to 'accept everything'; reinforcing his request, Whistler wrote again, 'The portrait is the famous Little White Girl - Richards must clean and varnish at once.' 29 On 19 March Thomson wrote to Beatrice Philip (Mrs E. W. Godwin, Mrs J. McN. Whistler) (1857-1896) describing the hanging of the show:
'The smaller gallery has mostly the smaller pictures & the effect of this salon is a contrast to the other, more gay perhaps & more easily understanded [sic] of the people, - equally triumphant in its result. The Japanese Screen is here & the Music Room & the Little White Girl & many of the wondrous nocturnes & one's [sic] feels glad to live & be able to enjoy such beautiful things.' 30
On 21 April J. C. Potter agreed to the picture 'going to Paris & Munich' but communication problems prevented it being shown in Paris, and meanwhile Whistler was concerned to obtain a better photograph for inclusion in the Goupil Album. 31 Although it was shown in Munich, in the autumn of 1892, delicate negotiations to buy it for the Neue Pinakothek failed. 32
Attempts to borrow it for the World's Columbian Exposition, Department of Fine Arts, Chicago, 1893 failed. 33
It was requested for exhibition in the Große Kunst-Ausstellung des Kunst-Vereins in der Kunsthalle Hamburg, Hamburg, 1894 but then it appears the destination was changed to Antwerp. 34 Whistler sent a sketch of the proposed hang of his panel, Paintings for exhibition in Antwerp [M.1427]. 35 The 'Little Girl in White' hung in the American section of the international exhibition in Antwerp, but was withdrawn from competition and exhibited 'Hors concours' because exhibits were supposed to have been painted after 1885. 36
It was more successful in the following year, when it went on to Venice and won the seventh prize of 2500 lire. 37 Whistler was careful to spread the word:
'They have put it wrongly in the English papers - The seventh prize is not, as one would gather from the press, a question of degree - It is the 7th on the list -
There were ten prizes - not eight - and out of these ten the condition under which they could be awarded varied greatly. - Some were for Italians only - some for Venetians only - Several that were international could only be given for works that had never been exhibited before.' 38
Anders Leonard Zorn (1860-1920) visited Whistler's studio in 1896 to discuss potential loans to the Allmänna konst- och industriutställningen in Stockholm in the following year. The splendidly named Eugène Napoleon Nicolas Bernadotte (1865-1947), Prince of Sweden and Norway, wrote that he hoped they could borrow 'votre "Dame en blanc" ', which he had seen in the studio. 39 The artist, having omitted to reply to Prince Eugène, nevertheless thanked Arthur Studd for agreeing to lend: 'Now this is really very nice and kind of you ... I am so glad you have done this about the Copenhagen Exhibition'. 40 However, the painting went to Stockholm rather than Den Internationale Kunstudstilling i København in the Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen, 1897.
It was, on the whole, well received, in Stockholm. 'Partout et toujours, Whisthler [sic] est le maître supérieur, et d’autant plus ici qu’il expose la Jeune fille en blanc, une de ses plus belles oeuvres', wrote Julien Leclerq, while a Chicago journalist described Whistler as 'the most original' of the American exhibitors and the ‘Girl in White’ as 'admirable, even if it is an old painting and said to have been refused by the Paris salon many years ago' (which was not true!). 41
1899: By June 1897, Studd was in Tahiti admiring 'Women who walk like Goddesses - splendidly proportioned youths sitting in the moonlight, crowned with garlands' making further loans tricky. 42 Nevertheless Whistler put 'Symphonie in white No III The little White Girl' [sic] on what was probably a wish list for the 2. Ausstellung der Vereinigung Bildender Künstler Österreichs, Vienna, 1899. 43 E. G. Kennedy also requested it, for the Grolier Club in New York in 1899, and asked Whistler to put in a good word for him, but Whistler, despite a wish to show it in America, was loathe to pressurise Studd, 'I hesitate to ask him, for he has so continually through kind feeling, left blank its place on his walls.' 44
In April 1900 Whistler wrote from Paris to request the loan of 'our little White Girl in this great & beautiful Exposition! ... It will be very gratifying to me if you will do this - for the picture has never been seen in Paris.' 45 It was repaired, touched up, and, said the artist, 'the picture is hanging in the American Section - and looking its very best!' 46 Whistler's paintings were awarded a gold medal and Théodore Duret (1838-1927), describing Whistler's group as an oasis among the 'énorme déballage d'horreurs', wrote 'il y aura maintenant autant de médaillés de l'Exposition de 1900 en Amérique, qu'il y avait autrefois de colonels.' ('there will now be as many medals from the Exhibition of 1900 in America, as there were once colonels.') 47 A little spat arose in the press because Marion Henry Alexander Spielmann (1858-1948) suggested in the Daily Chronicle that the medal was awarded 'under false pretenses' but this was soon settled peacefully. 48
James Guthrie (1859-1930), after sending Edward Arthur Walton (1860-1922) to see Studd, reported that Studd was prepared to lend that 'lovely picture' to the Royal Scottish Academy, subject to Whistler's approval. The artist agreed. The Academicians greatly admired Whistler's work, and shortly afterwards, Whistler was unanimously elected an Honorary Member. 49
1904: The photographs reproduced above show it on exhibition in Boston, in the memorial exhibition after Whistler's death.
9: Whistler to D. C. Thomson, 20 [January 1894], GUW #08283; 'at least a thousand guineas', Whistler to E. G. Kennedy, 4 February 1894, GUW #09715. In a draft letter to A. Graves Whistler wrote 'The Little White Girl, for which Mr Potter gave me 150 - or 100, I forget which - he has just sold for a thousand', [12/15 December 1893], GUW #01834; Whistler asked Thomson for the exact price, [22/23 January and 25 January 1894], GUW #08276 and #08275.
12: Whistler to H. E. Whistler, [1/10 February 1894], GUW #06728; see also Whistler to E. G. Kennedy, 4 February 1894, GUW #09715; Whistler to D. C. Thomson, 12 February , GUW #08285; and Whistler to A. Reid, 14 February 1894, GUW #13374.
20: 14 May 1865, GUW #11005. The full text reads: 'O fair ill-favour, where in ambush lie Beauties untold, ineffable! Oh rare To find what others find not, nor to share Our admiration with the vulgar eye, Which when it sees her, what can it descry? The faulty feature, not the faultless air, The leaden casket not the jewel fair, That Croesus' wealth would not avail to buy. Sweet unapparent beauty, known to none! Like the invisible odour that the rose Hides in her virgin breast, till that the sun With golden finger bids her heart [unclose?] Else unrevealed; to one touch only, one, She opens, and her fragrance overflows.'
21: Anon., [Taylor, Thomas], 'The Exhibition of the Royal Academy' (Second Notice), The Times, London, 8 May 1865, p. 8.
22: Anon., [Taylor, Thomas], 'The Exhibition of the Royal Academy. Fourth Notice, The Times, London, 24 May 1865, p. 6.
23: Anon., ‘The Royal Academy Exhibition (Third Notice)’, Saturday Review, vol. 19, 3 June 1865, pp. 665-67.
31: J. C. Potter to Whistler, GUW #05007; see also W. Marchant to Whistler, 29 April 1892, GUW #05733; J. C. Potter to Whistler, 1 May 1892, GUW #05008; Whistler to D. C. Thomson, 2 May 1892 and [6 May 1892], GUW #08205, GUW #08200.
38: Whistler to D. C. Thomson, [17 September 1895], GUW #08370; see also Morning Post, 1 September 1895; Whistler to E. G. Kennedy, [12 September 1895], GUW #07258; Whistler to J. Pennell, [20/27 September 1895], GUW #07832.
39: Zorn to Whistler, 2 December 1896, GUW #01057; C. A. Ossbahr to Whistler, 23 and 25 April 1896, GUW #01055 and #01056 (the writer was called 'C. R. Orshabe' in these transcripts). I am deeply obliged to Dr Eva-Charlotta Mebius, Department of English Literature, University College London, for providing information on this exhibition (email dated 29 November 2020).
41: Julien Leclerq, 'La peinture a l’exposition de Stockholm', La Chronique des Arts et de la Curisoité, 16 October 1897, p. 310; 'Scandinavia’s Fair', The Chicago Daily Inter Ocean, 5 September 1897, p. 35. Quoted in Stone, Elizabeth Doe, ‘American Art at the 1897 Stockholm Exhibition’, Konsthistorisk tidskrift/Journal of Art History, 2020; DOI: 10.1080/00233609.2020.1848913. She also cites general approval of Whistler's work expressed in 'Konstutställningen. Internationell konst', Dagens Nyheter, 6 September 1897, p. 3. The painting was reproduced in Från Konsthallen. Afbildningar af 120 konstverk från 1897-års internationella konstutställning i Stockholm. Jemte biografiska notiser om de i arbetet företrädda konstnärerna, Nordin & Josephsons Förlag, Stockholm, 1897.
Last updated: 7th June 2021 by Margaret