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

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Portrait of Sir Henry Cole

Portrait of Sir Henry Cole dates from 1881-1882. 1

Sir Henry Cole, and a list of pictures, The Hunterian
Sir Henry Cole, and a list of pictures, The Hunterian

1881: According to Thomas Robert Way (1861-1913), in 1881 Whistler saw 'Sir Henry Cole in a cab in evening dress, and was most keen to paint him', and just afterwards made a drawing, Sir Henry Cole, and a list of pictures [M.0839], which is reproduced above (the head and shoulders of Sir Henry are at lower right). 2

The painting may have been started in December 1881 when Whistler wrote to his sister-in-law, '... it is most impossible for me to get up today or tomorrow - for I have the old boy and Mrs Forster without intermission upon my hands.' 3

One day in the winter of 1881-1882, Whistler wrote to Sir Henry's son, Alan Summerly Cole (1846-1934), 'Now come round on Sunday next at about half past two - or three - in short before the light goes - and give the most affectionate message to your father and say he must come too'; A. S. Cole added, 'impossible', and Whistler went on, 'Say also that I am most determined to paint him - and beg that he will set aside next Tuesday for that purpose', and again Cole annotated it, 'impossible.' 4

1882: in his diary A. S. Cole recorded a visit to Whistler's studio on 26 February 1882: 'Found his commencement of my father, good but slight, full length, evening clothes.' 5 When Sir Henry postponed a sitting, Whistler wrote to him, 'I am in great spirits about the picture.' 6 By late March 1882 it was progressing well, On 29 March Whistler wrote to Sir Henry Cole, 'I shall be very much pleased and flattered to see a reproduction of the portrait I am now painting of you, in the work you are about to bring out'; he asked 30 guineas for the copyright, and hoped Cole felt well enough for another sitting. 7

The artist Matthew Robinson Elden (1839-1885) told A. S. Cole 'that he was in the studio when Jimmy was at work on my father's portrait on the 17th [April] and that the last words my father had said to him were "Death waits for no man." ' 8 On 17 April 1882 A. S. Cole recorded the last sitting:

'In spite of his illness, my father to Whistler's, who fretted him by not painting – my father thought that Jimmy had merely touched the light on his shoes – and nothing else – altho' he stood and sat for over an hour and a half (my father died the next day).' 9

According to the artist Sidney Starr (1857-1925),

'The first words Whistler said to me on my first visit to his studio were, "It doesn't smell of paint, does it?" He was painting a portrait of Sir Henry Cole ... a tall dark portrait of a man in a long cloak of dark blue, turned back over the right shoulder, a man with a ruddy face and a white stubby beard. Before he spoke he put a slow decisive stroke on the right cheek-bone and then stood back. The sitting was over, and that was the last stroke he put on that canvas.' 10

Sir Henry Cole died on 18 April 1882. On 2 May 1882 Whistler showed Alan S. Cole the portrait, 'which J. [Whistler] can make into a very good thing.' 11 However, according to the Pennells, Alan S. Cole was later informed that Whistler had destroyed the portrait. 12


1: YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 233).

2: Way 1912 [more], pp. 83-84, drawing repr. f.p. 82; drawing now in the Hunterian, Glasgow.

3: Whistler to H. E. Whistler, [16 December 1881], GUW #06695.

4: [November 1881/April 1882], GUW #09012.

5: GUW #13132, #12986, #03432.

6: [March/April 1882], GUW #09042.

7: GUW #03571.

8: Cole diary, 2 May 1882, excerpt, GUW #13132.

9: Transcriptions of Cole's diary, with minor variations, in GUW #13132, #03432, and #12986, and in Pennell 1908 [more], vol. 1, pp. 302-03, 307.

10: Starr 1908 [more], at p. 532.

11: Cole diary, op. cit.

12: Pennell 1911 A [more], p. 211, repr. f.p. 204.

Last updated: 9th November 2020 by Margaret