Several possible titles have been suggested, with 'Variations' and 'Harmony' alternating:
The 1878 title was mocked gently in a number of newspapers. One art critic wrote, 'Whistler has in the gallery two "arrangements", one "variation", one "harmony", and three "nocturnes." We do not know whether Mr Whistler ever intends to paint sonatas, overtures, or symphonies, but we hope he does not.' 9 The preferred title 'Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony' is based on the 1878 rather than the 1892 exhibition title.
In this catalogue raisonné Whistler's title or the first published title is retained, wherever possible. Whistler’s use of “flesh colour” to describe colour, as here, could imply a racist presumption that skin tone is defined as 'white' or Caucasian. In this case the 'flesh-pink' of the models' skin is echoed in a kimono and blossoms. It was not the first painting to be (at least temporarily) defined by this term: La Princesse du pays de la porcelaine [YMSM 050] was shown as ''The Princess, Variations in Flesh Colour and Blue' in 1872 and 'Arrangement in flesh colour and gray – La Princesse des pays de la Porcelaine' in 1875.
A figure composition in vertical format. On a balcony overlooking the river are four women. At left, a woman in a pink kimono-like robe reclines on the floor, leaning on her elbow at right and holding a fan above her head. In front of her is a black tray bearing tea things. To her right is a standing woman seen from the back, dressed in a black robe embroidered with a small flower pattern; she is holding on to the balcony railing and looking to right, over the river. In front and to right of her is a seated woman in a pale blue jacket or robe, open to reveal a white dress embroidered with flowers, who is playing a lute. Half hidden to right, behind this musician, is a dark-haired seated woman facing front. Behind these two is a pillar and, at the upper edge and upper right corner, there are slatted blinds. There are flowers in the foreground and a cartouche with a butterfly monogram in the lower left corner. On the far side of the river are factories, a spoil heap and chimneys.
The view of Battersea Reach, on the river Thames, London, from Whistler's house in Lindsey Row (now Cheyne Walk), Chelsea, as seen in many of Whistler's paintings of the 1860s and 1870s (Grey and Silver: Old Battersea Reach [YMSM 046], Chelsea in Ice [YMSM 053], Grey and Silver: Chelsea Wharf [YMSM 054], Battersea Reach from Lindsey Houses [YMSM 055], Study of Draped Figures [YMSM 058], Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony [YMSM 056], and Sketch for 'The Balcony' [YMSM 057]. It is likewise seen in several nocturnes including Nocturne in Blue and Silver [YMSM 113], Nocturne [YMSM 114], Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Battersea Reach [YMSM 119], and Nocturne: Battersea [YMSM 120].
It appears that Whistler may have used wooden dolls as models, as well as live models. The American artist Clifford Isaac Addams (1876-1942) (Whistler's apprentice) told Elizabeth Robins Pennell (1855-1936):
'A furniture restorer of note in Westminster told ... me one day when I chanced to mention Whistler "Oh I knew Mr. Whistler well … Why, sir once upon a time I had in my shop some exquisite little Jap dolls in various attitudes. Well dressed little things they were too! Mr. Whistler bought them and I thought no more of the matter. Till suddenly (that had been winter time) in the spring a friend ... said William have you seen your dolls in the Academy? I didn't know what he meant. But the long and the short of it is that Mr. Whistler painted those dolls most exactly and there they were in the Academy and I was dumfounded!" ' 10
A woodcut by Suzuki Haronobu (1725-1770) was cited by Sandberg as a possible source for the composition of this painting. 11 The subject and some details are similar although the elements are differently arranged, so that this is unlikely to be the source of the composition.
A woodcut by Torrii Kiyonaga (1752-1815), A Party viewing the Moon on the Sumida River, reproduced above, could have suggested elements in Whistler's composition, such as the figure of the girl playing music. 12 Indeed the whole mood of Kiyonaga's series is closely akin to this painting. The range of colour, interaction of figures, and the use of details like blossoms and patterns on materials show how thoroughly Whistler was influenced.
A woodcut from Kiyonaga's Twelve Months in the South of 1784, Minami Juni-ko (The Fourth Month), may also be related to Whistler's painting. Minami Juni-ko shows a relaxed group of standing and seated women in elaborate kimonos on a balcony overlooking the sea, and is comparable to The Balcony in overall composition, and in details such as the tea-making equipment and the rich and varied patterns. Although the print was once in the collection of Beatrice Philip (Mrs E. W. Godwin, Mrs J. McN. Whistler) (1857-1896), it is not certain that Whistler was aware of it before his marriage in 1888 (see also Symphony in White and Red [YMSM 085]). 13
1: 102nd Exhibition of the Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1870 (cat. no. 468).
2: II Summer Exhibition, Grosvenor Gallery, London, 1878 (cat. no. 54).
4: Inscribed photograph, G. A. Lucas collection, Baltimore Museum of Art.
6: Exposition Universelle, Champs de Mars, Paris, 1889 (British section, cat. no. 166).
7: Nocturnes, Marines & Chevalet Pieces, Goupil Gallery, London, 1892 (cat. no. 40).
9: Anon., '[Grosvenor Gallery] Second Notice', Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 14 May 1878, p. 6.
10: Letter dated 26 January 1912, LC PC.
12: See also Autumn Moon on the Sumida river, British Museum Print Room, BM 1910-2-12-437.
Last updated: 8th June 2021 by Margaret