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

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Harmony in Blue and Gold




  • 1879: [Exhibition], Mr White's North British Galleries, Glasgow, 1879 (catalogue untraced).
  • 1886: Sixty-third Annual Exhibition, Society of British Artists, London, 1886 (cat. no. 298) as 'Harmony in Blue and Gold'.

It was described in a Glasgow newspaper on 22 January 1879 as 'a young lady, with yellowish drapery leaning over a balcony ... fresh from the easel of this artist.' 1

Sketch of 'Harmony in Blue and Gold', Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.
Sketch of 'Harmony in Blue and Gold', Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.

When it reappeared in London in 1886 (assuming this is the same painting) it was not well received. The Illustrated London News commented unfavourably, and at some length:

'In the present exhibition he is represented by a single picture, Harmony in Blue and Gold (298), in which it may be said that there is little blue and less gold. It is the not very elegant figure of a girl, slightly clad in a scanty robe, leaning against a balustrade, and holding over her head a huge stiff Japanese parasol, which occupies the centre of the canvas, like the dish on which Pantagruel was served by Gargantua. What the artist’s aim may be in this Harmony it is difficult to guess—the figure is not a classical study; the drapery is not realistic; and the parasol not imaginative: but we are assured that it is a Harmony, and with this (Chelsea) assurance we must rest satisfied.' 2

Others defended Whistler. An article by Malcolm Charles Salaman (1855-1940), published under the heading 'Hail, President Whistler!' in the Court and Society Review on 10 June 1886, praised the new look of the Society of British Artists exhibition under their President, Whistler. 3 However, a man signing himself 'A Country Collector' responded with horror, directed specifically at Whistler's 'ill-painted, sooty-faced young woman in "blue and gold" ':

'I call this big daub simply a colossal piece of pyramidal impudence.

… so thin and feeble that I contend there was not much paint wasted on it ... an unfinished rubbishy sketch of a young woman, who, if she is not naked, ought to be, for she would then be more decent. The lady has hung the tail of her long robe over the railings of a pier, and the part of her garment that remains to cover her is transparent ... she holds an immense circular sunshade behind her head, and this forms a sort of aureole of dirty yellow. The parasol is quite the most important part of the damsel's dress. … there is neither colour, nor light, nor texture; there is neither "value", handling, nor harmony in this "Blue and Gold" affair by James Whistler. There is but little blue, and certainly there is no gold: if feeble grey is blue, then there is blue; if muddy, sickly, almost loathsome yellow is "gold", then there is gold; but, even admitting the blue and gold, one fails to notice any particular harmony, the painting is so weak. The figure, I repeat, is more naked than the nude: the colour – what there is of it – is distinctly unpleasant. ... How can they quietly stare at the ill-painted, sooty-faced young woman in "blue and gold" passes me.' 4

As Robins notes, Whistler 'challenged convention' by exhibiting several nude and semi-nude figures at the Society of British Artists in the mid-1880s, partly in response to the growing controversy over the employment of nude models, which was promoted by John Calcott Horsley (1817-1903). 5 Despite the controversy over this nearly-nude figure, Whistler retained an enthusiastic following among younger artists and this particular oil was praised by the Art Journal as 'worthy to rank among his greater productions.' 6


1: Megilp 1879a [more].

2: Illustrated London News, 8 May 1886, pp. 16-17.

3: Ms copy in GUW #11351.

4: 21 June 1886, Court and Society Review, GUW #11352; see also letters, 'A British Artist,' 'The Unknown Quantity' and 'Van Eyck' to the Editor, Court and Society Review, GUW #11353, #11354, #11355; M. C. Salaman to the Editor, GUW #11356.

5: Robins 2007 [more], pp. 58-59.

6: Art Journal July 1886 [more].

Last updated: 15th November 2020 by Margaret