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

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Annabel Lee


Several possible titles have been suggested, although it is not absolutely certain that they all refer to the same painting:

  • 'the little Blue Girl' (1869/1870, Whistler). 1
  • 'The girl in blue on the seashore' (1871, A. M. Whistler). 2
  • 'Annabel Lee' (1874, William Graham (1841-1910). 3
  • 'Annabel Lee' (1980, YMSM). 4

Annabel Lee is now accepted as the definitive title, although it does not seem to have been used by Whistler.

The title is that of the poem by Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849). Annabel Lee was a child who lived 'In a kingdom by the sea.' Poe, like Whistler, had been a (failed) West Point cadet. 5

The text of Poe's poem is as follows:

'Annabel Lee

It was many and many a year ago, In a kingdom by the sea,That a maiden there lived whom you may know By the name of Annabel Lee; And this maiden she lived with no other thought Than to love and be loved by me.

I was a child and she was a child, In this kingdom by the sea, But we loved with a love that was more than love - I and my Annabel Lee - With a love that the wingéd seraphs of Heaven Coveted her and me.

And this was the reason that, long ago, In this kingdom by the sea, A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling My beautiful Annabel Lee; So that her highborn kinsmen came And bore her away from me, To shut her up in a sepulchre In this kingdom by the sea.

The angels, not half so happy in Heaven, Went envying her and me - Yes! - that was the reason (as all men know, In this kingdom by the sea) That the wind came out of the cloud by night, Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.

But our love it was stronger by far than the love Of those who were older than we - Of many far wiser than we - And neither the angels in Heaven above Nor the demons down under the sea Can ever dissever my soul from the soul Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;

For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams Of the beautiful Annabel Lee; And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes Of the beautiful Annabel Lee; And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side Of my darling - my darling - my life and my bride, In her sepulchre there by the sea - In her tomb by the sounding sea.'

Whistler's long-standing enthusiasm for Poe's writing was shared by his friends in Paris in the 1890s, and in particular by the symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898) and his circle. In 1889 Mallarmé presented Whistler with a copy of his translation of Les Poèmes d'Edgar Poe (Brussels 1888) including 'Annabel Lee'. 6

NOTE: Niobe or Annabel Lee:

Annabel Lee, 1885/1887,  Freer Gallery of Art
Annabel Lee, 1885/1887, Freer Gallery of Art

A pastel by Whistler now known as Annabel Lee [M.1077], shows a woman in classical robes, seen from the back, standing by railings looking out over the sea. Dating from 1885/1887, it was called 'Niobe' by Thomas Robert Way (1861-1913) until 1905. Then, according to Way, it 'was shown at the Memorial Exhibition under the title 'Annabelle Lee,' a title which he [Whistler] only gave it late in his life.' 7 Accordingly, it was renamed 'Annabel Lee' when it was bought from T. R. Way's father, Thomas Way (1837-1915) by Charles Lang Freer (1856-1919) in 1905. 8 It is now known as Annabel Lee [M.1077], but it has, as Getscher pointed out, only a tenuous relationship to the composition of the oil. 9


Annabel Lee, The Hunterian, GLAHA 46377
Annabel Lee, The Hunterian, GLAHA 46377

A figure subject in vertical format. A young woman with wavy reddish-brown hair stands in front of a railing, with her arms extended on the rail at either side. She faces the viewer, her head slightly bent forward. Her weight rests on her right leg, and her left leg crosses over in front of it. She wears diaphanous robes gathered in at the neck, and a long thin mauve scarf is draped around her arms. The robe is creamy white with shades of grey and green. Behind the railing is a stretch of turquoise sea; the sky appears lilac at the horizon, with pale shades of cream, orange and greenish blue clouds above.


Maggie (fl. 1871). The original model, a girl called Maggie, was mentioned in a letter from Whistler's mother to her sister, Kate Palmer, on 3 November 1871:

'A lovely study ordered two years ago by a wealthy MP. was promised in August. A beautiful young girl of 15 had posed for it, she was a novice & soon wearied standing, & pleaded illness, then her brother in play with her as she was at home hurt her seriously, & she had convulsions . . . if the youthful Maggie had not failed Jemie as a model for "The girl in blue on the sea shore" which I trust he may yet finish for Mr. Grahame [sic] he would have had no time for my Portrait.' 10


Annabel Lee is described as the first of many 'Blue Girls', although, as it now appears, it is totally different in dress and colour from the later studies in blue, The Blue Girl: Portrait of Miss Elinor Leyland [YMSM 111], The Blue Girl: Maud Franklin [YMSM 112], Arrangement in Blue and Green [YMSM 193] , The Blue Girl: Portrait of Connie Gilchrist [YMSM 207], possibly Harmony in Coral and Blue: Miss Finch [YMSM 237] and Harmony in Blue and Violet: Miss Finch [YMSM 239], Scherzo in Blue: The Blue Girl [YMSM 226], and finally Blue and Coral: The Little Blue Bonnet [YMSM 500].


1: [1869/1870], GUW #01792.

2: A. M. Whistler to C. Palmer, 3-4 November 1871, GUW #10071.

3: W. Graham to Whistler, 4 April 1874, GUW#01782.

4: YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 79).

5: Kobbé, Gustave, 'Whistler at West Point,' The Chap Book, vol. 8, no. 11, 15 April 1898, pp. 439-42.

6: Inscribed copy, GUL; poem ed. Griswold, Willis & Lowell 1853 [more].

7: Way 1912 [more], p. 98.

8: Way's list of works for sale was annotated 'Annabel Lee' by C. L. Freer, FGA.

9: Getscher 1991 [more], pp. 132.

10: A. M. Whistler to C. Palmer, 3-4 November 1871, GUW #10071.

Last updated: 1st November 2020 by Margaret