It is not entirely clear what happened to this painting at the time of Whistler's bankruptcy in 1879. On 22 March 1880 Whistler wrote from Venice to his sister-in-law Nellie that he had made a copy of The Three Girls [YMSM 088] after 7 May 1879, when he was officially declared bankrupt:
'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 - this was sent over to Pellegrini's, and from there, John took it finally I suppose to Wimpole Street - 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.' 1
In a further letter, Whistler suggested that his brother, William McNeill Whistler (1836-1900), should take James Waddell (1838-1892), the official Receiver for Whistler's bankrupt estate, to Dr Whistler's house in 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 ... Let Elden go with Willie - he can tell him about my doing the copy.' 2
According to Matthew Robinson Elden (1839-1885), writing to Whistler about certain 'lost pictures' on 12 April 1880,
'Waddells ... had reserved them as being valueless & I suppose with the intention of returning them to you ... 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 at once - Oh that is my picture and I shall fight for it - nothing was settled and the meeting adjourned - Way sent for me and his position is that these things must be put up for sale - that whatever dispute 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.' 3
This appears to refer to the copy, Pink and Grey: Three Figures [YMSM 089], and not to The Three Girls [YMSM 088], which was commissioned by Leyland. Although it seems that Leyland at first satisfied Whistler's solicitor, George Henry Lewis (1833-1911), that this version (which was actually a copy) of The Three Girls belonged to him, his ownership was disputed, and there is no evidence that he ever received it. Way reported:
'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.' 4
One 'J. E. Hine' is listed in the bankruptcy papers as having bought 'canvasses & unfinished paintings' on 31 May 1879 for £5.0.0 but it is not known how many there were or what happened to them. 5
It is possible that the copy was actually left in the White House, which went to auction on 18 September 1879. Certainly this was the memory of the purchaser of the house, the art critic Henry Quilter (1851-1907), who wrote, years later,
'on the occasion of [Whistler's] bankruptcy, about eleven years since, I bought his house in Tite-street, the work in question was one of a batch of clearly experimental canvases which he left after the sale upon the premises, and which I had, unless my memory deceives me, to request him to remove.' 6
If this was correct, Pink and Grey: Three Figures [YMSM 089] may have been moved from the White House in 1880 during Whistler's absence in Venice, possibly by Messrs Dowdeswell, who certainly became involved in the attempted sale of the picture some years later.
It is not clear how the painting got to Liverpool (unless through the hands of F. R. Leyland), but it was bought by the Liverpool collector, Alfred Chapman, against the artist's advice. Whistler was, he said, 'Astonished & mortified to learn that you purchased notwithstanding my warning years ago.' 7 By October 1886 it was on display at the Art Gallery in Liverpool. 8 Five years later, in 1891, Chapman attempted to sell the painting through Messrs Dowdeswell, and Whistler wrote urgently, urging Chapman to 'wire Dowdeswell [to] deliver over the whole thing to me today & I will paint you some other picture worthy of hanging beside your real masterpieces - your own portrait or wifes if you like.' 9 Whistler failed in his attempt to retrieve the painting, as he told Edward Guthrie Kennedy (1849-1932):
'Now if you will turn to the Bible of Art, you will see, at page 288 to 292, "Auto-Biographical", the whole explanation of the shady place given to the three girls - for which Mr Chapman wanted 1000 pounds - As usual I behaved with great generosity - I went to him and offered to paint his portrait, full length - or that of his wife - and make him a present of it, if he would give me that canvas that I might destroy it! But he would listen to nothing - and I told him that if he persisted in attempting to sell it, I would prevent him -
He saw nothing but the 1000 - and so I effectively put an end to the whole business by the letter which apparently [you] have never read - No doubt he and his brother are great admirers of mine, for he always waited until I was hard up, and bought his pictures for nothing and is now seeing his way to sell them for large sums.' 10
The letter to which Whistler referred had been written to the Morning Post in 1891, describing the painting as 'a work long ago barely begun, and thrown aside for destruction ... I think it not only just to myself to make this statement, but right that the public should be warned against the possible purchase of a picture in no way representative, and, in its actual condition, absolutely worthless.' 11 Whistler followed up with a letter to the Pall Mall Gazette:
'The dealers business is to buy and sell - and in the course of such traffic, these same busy picture bodies, without consulting me, put upon the market a painting that I, the author intended to efface - and, thanks to your courtesy, I have been enabled to say so effectually in your journal.
All along have I carefully destroyed plates, torn up proofs, and burned canvases, that the truth of the word quoted shall prevail, and that the future collector shall be spared the mortification of cataloging his pet mistakes.
To destroy is to remain.' 12
Whistler's letter was backed up by no other than the art critic Harry Quilter. On 5 August 1891 Quilter wrote to Edward Tyas Cook (1857-1919), journalist, editor of the Pall Mall Gazette:
'Will you kindly allow me to add my testimony to that of the Modern Velasquez in the matter of a picture by him, which he declares to be worthless "in its present state", but which, nevertheless, an enterprising firm ... are endeavouring to sell in Bond-street? I have the best reason to know that in this instance Mr Whistler's opinion is not only correct, but was formed many years ago; since, when on the occasion of his bankruptcy, about eleven years since, I bought his house in Tite-street, the work in question was one of a batch of clearly experimental canvases which he left after the sale upon the premises, and which I had, unless my memory deceives me, to request him to remove. The artist is quite right ... in resenting the public display, with a price attached "in the way of trade" of a fanciful sketch, which he did not consider sufficiently satisfactory to finish or exhibit; and it might be well if more artists would plainly express their opinion as to the permissibility of "enterprising firms" submitting for sale works of this character, which have presumably been purchased "for a song", as genuine specimens of the art produced by them.
... I write [this] simply as a matter of justice to an artist, who, whatever may be his deficiencies of temper and character, is at least too capable and sincere to exhibit for sale as satisfactory and creditable work which is on the face of it a "rejected essay".' 13
Not surprisingly, the painting was withdrawn from sale, and interestingly it seems that Whistler and Chapman remained on friendly terms, although privately Whistler considered him an idiot, as he told his wife, 'Chapman is an ass - and an obstinate one - He will hear nothing - wants a thousand pounds for the picture - Of course what I must now do is to paint the new one, thats all - and therefore I had better for the present let the old story die out.' 14 But what he meant by 'the new one' is not known.
Some years later, on 6 January 1900 Whistler warned John James Cowan (1846-1936), Edinburgh, not to buy 'a large canvass [sic] of three figures' from Chapman, and Cowan obediently let the opportunity pass. 15 Finally, after Whistler's death, Chapman offered the painting for sale at Gleanzer Galleries, New York, where it was shown in December 1904, and priced at £5000. 16 It did not sell, and in the following year Chapman lent it to the Whistler Memorial Exhibition in London (cat. no. 399). It was then sold by him to Messrs Agnew, London art dealers (their a/c #1633 and 0333), who sold it to the Princesse Edmond de Polignac in June 1905. On her death in 1943 the picture was stored by her executors at the National Gallery in London until it went to auction at Christie's, 28 July 1950 (lot 140), and was bought again by Agnew's, for 700 guineas. The painting was finally bought for the nation on 1 August 1950, with the aid of contributions from the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers, and from Francis Howard, in memory of the Society's first president, James McNeill Whistler.
The print dealer Thomas M. McLean (b. ca 1832) told Whistler on 22 October 1886, 'Your large picture three nude figures with parasol & one girl leaning down over a flower, the L'pool Art Gallery have.' 17 It was probably lent by Alfred Chapman (1839-1917), who attempted to sell it through Messrs Dowdeswell in London a few years later. It was, according to one visitor to the Dowdeswells' gallery, 'not on public exhibition, but was in one of their private rooms', and, wrote the very unimpressed writer, Wallace L. Crowdy (fl. 1885-1911), 'so far from Messrs. Dowdeswell showing it as a "completed work," they distinctly spoke of it as unfinished; nor can I imagine any one acquainted with Mr. Whistler's works speaking of any of them as "completed"!' 18
After several indignant letters from Whistler to the press, it was, not surprisingly, withdrawn from sale and show, and was not exhibited again in Whistler's lifetime. 19
16: New York Times, 18 December 1904, press cutting with note by C. L. Freer, Freer Gallery Archives.
19: Whistler, J. McN., letter to the Editor, The Morning Post, 27 July 1891; reprinted in Whistler 1892 [more], p. 288; GUW #13566 and #05842; and to E. T. Taylor, published Pall Mall Gazette, 1 August 1891, GUW #04391, reprinted in Whistler 1892, ibid, pp. 291-92.
Last updated: 25th November 2020 by Margaret