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

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Portrait of Ellen Sturgis Hooper

Portrait of Ellen Sturgis Hooper dates from 1890. 1

It was commissioned on 20 June 1890 by the sitter's father, Edward William Hooper (1839-1901) of Boston, Massachusetts, who offered Whistler 200 guineas for 'A small full length in water color or a head in oil':

'If it will not bore you to make for me a "note" of my oldest daughter - a red haired girl about seventeen years old - it will give me great satisfaction to have you do so ... [we] shall be in London only two weeks more, and my daughter is not very strong so that it will not be possible to have more than ten sittings of about an hour each.

Either my friend Mrs Mason or I will have to go with my daughter at each sitting.' 2

There were some twenty sittings: according to the sitter, Ellen Sturgis Hooper (Mrs John B. Potter) (1872-1974), who described the result as an 'unfinished portrait', she had 'delightful memories of the sittings, which covered about 60 hours, in June and July.' 3 A telegram from Whistler to Ellen Hooper dated 21 June 1890, arranging a sitting, confirms this recollection. 4 A draft of a letter from Whistler's wife, Beatrice Philip (Mrs E. W. Godwin, Mrs J. McN. Whistler) (1857-1896), to the sitter's father, written after 12 July 1890, states that 'he cannot touch the head with any pleasure or safety today - because the paint around it is neither wet or dry' and postpones a sitting from Miss Hooper because 'it would be worse than folly that what is so near its completeness as a beautiful thing.' 5

Portrait of Ellen Sturgis Hooper, Private collection
Portrait of Ellen Sturgis Hooper, Private collection

The portrait appears to have been finished by 23 September 1890 when the sitter's father told Whistler, after he had returned to America, that the portrait had been carefully packed by Frederick Henry Grau (1859-1892). 6 The sitter stated later that in 1890 Whistler had asked her father to leave the painting unvarnished, saying that 'he [Whistler] might come to the States the following summer and might want to put on a few touches.' 7


1: YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 391).

2: GUW #09138.

3: Ellen Potter to F. W. Coburn, 8 April 1946, GUL Rev 1955; and Armstrong 1966 [more].

4: Private collection.

5: [20/30 July 1890], GUW #13259.

6: GUW #02166.

7: Letter to F. W. Coburn, 1946, GUL WPP file.

Last updated: 16th October 2020 by Margaret