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

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  • 1879: probably acquired at Whistler's bankruptcy by Thomas Way (1837-1915), London;
  • By 1892: returned to Whistler;
  • 1903: bought by Charles Lang Freer (1856-1919), Detroit;
  • 1919: bequeathed by C. L. Freer to the Freer Gallery of Art.

Venus was probably one of the paintings acquired by the London printer Thomas Way at Whistler's bankruptcy in 1879 and returned to Whistler in the 1880s. 1 The critic M. C. Salaman saw 'a sketch of a Venus ... the nude figure standing close to the sea with delicate gauze draperies being lifted by the breeze' in Whistler's studio in June 1886. 2 According to the artist Sidney Starr (1857-1925), 'In his Tite Street studio Whistler had shown me some canvases, one of them a Venus in low tones of ivory and gray-blue … and spoke of painting a larger canvas of it soon. He never did. The study hung some years later between the windows of his dining room in Cheyne Walk.' 3

The Pennells (1908) record that it was in Whistler's Paris house in the summer and autumn of 1893 and, also (in 1920), that 'the Venus' was worked on by Whistler in April 1902, but this may have been Venus [YMSM 548]. 4 C. L. Freer noted that the 'Venus' which 'Used to be at Rue du Bac' was in Whistler's London studio in 1902 and he bought it from Whistler in July 1903 for £1000. 5

The History of 'THE SIX PROJECTS'

1868: The Pennells assumed that the 'Six Projects' were 'Whistler's first scheme of decoration' for Frederick Richards Leyland (1832-1892), of Liverpool, and that they were 'most likely referred to' by William Michael Rossetti (1829-1919) in his diary for 28 July 1868:

'Whistler is doing on a largish scale for Leyland the subject of women with flowers, and has made coloured sketches of four or five other subjects of the like class, very promising in point of conception of colour-arrangement.' 6

1878: According to the Pennells, 'the beautiful studies' for the 'Six Projects' were among the 'Bundles of rubbish ... carried off for a few shillings' after Whistler's bankruptcy, at the sale of the White House on 18 September 1879, but from this description it is not entirely clear to what they were referring. 7

1884: The painter Jacques Émile Blanche (1861-1942) described seeing what were probably the 'Six Projects' in Whistler's Tite Street studio. 8

1886: In June 1886 the art critic Malcolm Charles Salaman (1855-1940) noted in Whistler's studio 'sketches of three pictures [Whistler] is going to paint, consisting of various groups of several girls on the seashore' which the Pennells assumed to be the 'Six Projects': Venus [YMSM 082], Symphony in Green and Violet [YMSM 083], Variations in Blue and Green [YMSM 084], Symphony in White and Red [YMSM 085], Symphony in Blue and Pink [YMSM 086], and The White Symphony: Three Girls [YMSM 087]'. 9

1890/1891: For some time Whistler had five of the 'Six Projects' ̶ Venus [YMSM 082], Symphony in Green and Violet [YMSM 083], Variations in Blue and Green [YMSM 084], Symphony in White and Red [YMSM 085], Symphony in Blue and Pink [YMSM 086], The White Symphony: Three Girls [YMSM 087] ̶ hanging in his dining room in Cheyne Walk.

1892: In June 1892 they were cleaned and varnished by Stephen Richards (1844-1900), his picture restorer in London. Whistler then asked David Croal Thomson (1855-1930) to retrieve them from Richards and send them to him in Paris:

'Richards. I want my small pictures that you gave him to clean and varnish - You know the ones I mean - the sketches that used to hang in the dining room, Cheyne Walk - I wrote you about them - Do kindly get them off to me at once.' 10

However, when they arrived the artist wrote to Richards from Paris:

'I have just received the five small paintings on millboard - (sketches of figures & sea) - that you have cleaned & varnished for me. They look pure and brilliant as on the day they were painted! -

But while you were about it, I wish enough you had seen to the condition of their backs - They were put down upon other cardboards some time ago, and they are all loose and bent about now ...

How could you let them leave your place, clean and freshly varnished as they were, unframed!

This is so unlike your usual thoughtfulness and great care! I was horrified! However happily they are unharmed.' 11

1902: One of the series was sold by Thomas Robert Way (1861-1913) to Charles Lang Freer (1856-1919), Detroit, in 1902 (The White Symphony: Three Girls [YMSM 087]) and the other five were sold by Whistler to Freer in July 1903.

It is possible that Whistler intended to enlarge the 'Six Projects' for Frederick Richards Leyland (1832-1892), but only The Three Girls [YMSM 088] was enlarged to a suitable scale, and only a fragment, Girl with Cherry Blossom [YMSM 090], survives.


  • 1904: Oil Paintings, Water Colors, Pastels and Drawings: Memorial Exhibition of the Works of Mr. J. McNeill Whistler, Copley Society, Boston, 1904 (cat. no. 21) as 'Venus'.
  • 1905: Œuvres de James McNeill Whistler, Palais de l'Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris, 1905 (cat. no. 12) as 'No. 2. Venus'.

It was not exhibited in Whistler's lifetime.

Whistler Memorial Exhibition, Boston, 1904, GUL Whistler PH6/21
Whistler Memorial Exhibition, Boston, 1904, GUL Whistler PH6/21

Charles Lang Freer (1856-1919) lent the painting to the Boston exhibition of 1904, where the 'Projects' were exhibited together, as shown in the photograph reproduced above. However, by the terms of C. L. Freer's bequest to the Freer Gallery of Art, the painting cannot now be lent to any other venue.


1: Way 1912 [more], pp. 135-36.

2: Salaman 1886 B [more].

3: Starr 1908 [more].

4: Pennell 1908 [more], vol. 1, p. 149, vol. 2, pp. 26, 138; Pennell, Elizabeth Robins & Joseph, The Life of James McNeill Whistler, 6th edition, revised, Philadelphia, 1920, p. 414.

5: [1902], Diaries, Bk 12, Freer Gallery Archives.

6: Pennell 1908 [more], vol. 1, p. 149; vol. 2 pp. 26, 138. The Pennells incorrectly date the diary 1867.

7: Ibid.

8: Blanche 1905 [more].

9: Salaman 1886 B [more]

10: [6 June 1892], GUW #08337.

11: 12 June 1892, GUW #08114.

Last updated: 2nd November 2020 by Margaret