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

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The Three Girls


  • 1867: started in 1867 and abandoned in the later 1870s.
  • 1879: possibly destroyed at the time of Whistler's bankruptcy.

On 7 May 1879 Whistler was declared bankrupt, and his possessions, including The Three Girls [YMSM 088], were put in the hands of Messrs Waddell & Co., trustees of Whistler's bankrupt estate. 1 On 25 August 1879 Charles Augustus Howell (1840?-1890) asked Whistler to 'state "distinctly and in writing" what you will give in work if I secure for you ... The three girls', from Whistler's bankrupt estate. 2

Matthew Robinson Elden (1839-1885) told Whistler that a clerk had taken several paintings to Sotheby's, 'The clerk who fetched them having orders to take all canvasses & to leave the frames &c to you - this is perhaps good as regards the greek girls, it may fetch less - to buy in - all frames &c have been sent to the Doctors.' 3 However it certainly was not sold at Sotheby's.

Writing from Venice on 22 March 1880 to his sister-in-law Helen E. Whistler, Whistler expressed surprise at hearing of the disappearance of The Three Girls [YMSM 088], saying that on one of the last days in the White House he remembered painting 'a rough copy, or commencement of a copy of the 3 girls', [the copy is Pink and Grey: Three Figures [YMSM 089]], and that he was reliably informed the original 'Three Girls' had been cut from its stretcher for the trustees, and that he recalled moving it himself from the home of his brother, Dr William Whistler in Wimpole Street, to the White House, where it was to be sold together with other pictures and effects on 18 September 1879. His somewhat complicated letter reads as follows:

'… I don't quite know what to say about the Waddell matter ... you say which of the three pictures are the two to be shown - and then you only speak of "the 3 girls, and the Boy or Girl in blue" ... by all means show the Three Girls ... Now I dont quite understand how you have these at all, for I certainly believed that I had moved both the 3 girls ... back from Wimpole Street to the White House and left them there for the sale - They were not at the sale I know from what both Way and Elden have written[.] Were they then sent back? - If so, and only with Waddell's permission ... what more can he have to say about it at all - On the other hand I understood Elden long ago to say that the 3 girls were cut off their stretcher and carried away by the trustees' people - And here is his last letter just received ... According to him you see that the 3 Girls ... etc - were carried off by auctioneers - and have been since missing ... then how on earth can the missing 3 girls turn up at the Doctor's? Now … on one of the last days in the White House I painted a rough copy, or commencement of a copy, of the 3 girls - on the same size canvas ... Now if this be the 3 girls you have - then ... most certainly do they belong to no one but myself - as they were done after the settlement of my affairs - Willie can like a good fellow just run round the corner to Lewis by 9 ... However do send for Elden who knows all about it - Way also ... Doubtless Leyland is at the bottom of the affair - but I don't see how, the sale being over, the[y] can try to recommence matters ... Again if the original 3 girls be in your possession, then say that Waddell may have them if Lewis thinks so.' 4

In a further convoluted letter from Venice, Whistler urged his sister-in-law to discover the whereabouts of The Three Girls:

'The 3 girls may be in pawn or otherwise disposed of Howell, or kept by him for future transaction! - Why might he not purpose by and bye showing the original as a copy "painted you know expressly for me by Whistler many years ago old chap!" ... and meanwhile induce the Waddells to believe that the copy he knows you to have is the original "3 girls" now missing! - How capital it would be if we could trace this little purloining business back to Leyland !! ... Wouldn't it be well if Willie were to call on Waddell by appointment some morning and simply say to him ... I know perfectly what you are looking for Mr. Waddell, and I have not got them! ... I wished to ... tell you how outraged my brother is at the mysterious and altogether unaccountable disappearance of the 3 girls ... he is determined, not only for the satisfaction of all concerned but for himself, to discover the pictures" ... Then he can take him to Wimpole Street and show him the three Girls ... tell him that this is a rough copy made from the original when that was given to the Creditors - made when everything that I did was to be my own according to Waddell's assurance ... explain that this with the other rags and destroyed canvases were left in the studio and brought finally to you by his direction or permission ... these are not the pictures he is after - that I am after also ... Let Elden go with Willie - he can tell him about my doing the copy - and also all that John had said about the departure of the 3 girls ... from the White House upon an Auctioneers order - The man in pos[s]ession (Watson) could also tell the story.' 5

A further letter from Elden clarified the sequence of events and added a further complication!

'Just a word about the lost pictures - Waddells it turns out had received them as being valueless & I suppose with the intention of returning them to you ... and at the meeting on Thursday last Way & Leyland - the only Trustees present [-] the canvasses in dispute were unrolled & Leyland on seeing the 3 girls said ... that is my picture and I shall fight for it ... Way sent for me and his position is that these things must be put up for sale - that whatever dispute [be]tween Leyland & Whistler at the meeting for liquidation - Leyland became an ordinary creditor - and cant take advantage of his position of Trustee to settle trifles to his own advantage[,] the picture too not being the one commissioned by him - so the matter stands for the moment.' 6

Thomas Way (1837-1915) brought Whistler’s brother William McNeill Whistler (1836-1900) up to date:

'We have had our final meeting and nothing more is to be said about the 3 Girls or the pictures at yours about which bye [sic] the way Mr Leyland was good enough to take my word that they were of no commercial value & did not belong to the Estate. I think you will be surprised at Mr Lewis's proceeding.

Everything was arranged as well as I could wish - My offer for the canvasses &c accepted - the two with you to be left unmolested and the question of Mr Leylands claim to be referred to the decision of Lewis. We were on our legs ready to go - when in came the Clerk from him - with the decision that Mr Leyland's claim was indefensable [sic] and that the picture must be delivered to him forthwith!' 7

It is not clear if Leyland did then receive a canvas of The Three Girls or not, and there are no further suggestions as to what happened to the original canvas, nor any record of its subsequent history, although it is likely that Girl with Cherry Blossom [YMSM 090] once formed a part of it.


As the painting was never completed, it was also never exhibited.


1: The London Bankruptcy Court, GUW #11711.

2: GUW #02187.

3: [February 1880], GUW #01049.

4: GUW #06688.

5: Whistler to H. E. Whistler, [March 1880], GUW #06689.

6: 12 April [1880], GUW #01048.

7: 15 April 1880, GUW #06081.

Last updated: 1st June 2020 by Margaret