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

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Portrait of a Boy

Portrait of a Boy probably dates from November or December 1879. 1

Soon after Whistler's arrival in Venice, according to the American artist William Graham (1841-1910), a West Point Colonel from Buffalo, asked Whistler to paint his son. Graham offered Whistler the use of his studio, and prepared a canvas and a table palette. The Colonel brought his son at 8 a.m. next day and Graham had an 'old embroidered chair' for him to sit on. According to Graham, 'the boy kept 'the pose well enough, about as any boy might, seated with his head leaning against the embroidery behind him, his arms glued to those of the chair.' 2

When they eventually took a rest of a quarter of an hour the boy was given breakfast. Finally Whistler said 'There, I think that will do!' and told Graham that such a portrait should cost £300, but he doubted the Colonel's ability to pay it, so he asked Graham to discuss it with the Colonel. However, the Colonel said he had meant Whistler to make only a drawing in return for a favourable letter written by the Colonel to the Buffalo papers, and left 'without the sketch! or even seeing the portrait.' So in the afternoon, again according to Graham, Whistler's 'boatman' (a gondolier) took away the oil sketch. 3

Whistler sent his 'boatman' round to Graham, 'I send Francesco for the various traps you so kindly let me lumber up your studio with - paint box portfolio plates etc etc - in short all the objects relating to the redoubtable Colonel's blunder!' 4 When he sent this letter and his own reminiscences to Charles Lang Freer (1856-1919) in 1908, Graham wrote:

"One would hardly suppose in reading the jaunty little note asking me to consign to his boatman the 'traps' he had left with me, and alluding to the 'redoubtable Colonel' that there was quite an incident behind it involving much that was dear to him, to say nothing of an order for a portrait and his reputation." 5


1: YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 211).

2: Reminiscences sent to C. L. Freer, 3 March 1908, Freer Gallery Archives.

3: Ibid.

4: [January/October 1880], GUW #13497.

5: Graham to Freer, 9 January 1908, Freer Gallery Archive; copy, GUL Whistler LB 4/17.

Last updated: 10th November 2019 by Margaret