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

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Study for Three Decorative Panels Representing 'The Landing of Columbus', 'Queen Isabel la Católica of Spain' and 'Queen Elizabeth of England’

A commission for Whistler to decorate a wall panel in Bates Hall, Boston Public Library, was discussed in 1891, further explored in 1892, confirmed in 1894, and cancelled in 1895. Whistler's oil sketch of his proposal, Study for Three Decorative Panels Representing 'The Landing of Columbus', 'Queen Isabel la Católica of Spain' and 'Queen Elizabeth of England', was probably painted between 1892 and 1895. 1

1891: On 2 May 1891 Edward William Hooper (1839-1901) wrote from Boston to Beatrice Philip (Mrs E. W. Godwin, Mrs J. McN. Whistler) (1857-1896) that decorations by John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) and Edwin Austin Abbey (1852-1911) for the Boston Public Library were to be financed by private gifts. He added:

'The building has already been far more costly than it was expected to be, and it has not been easy to get the money to finish it. It has I think great beauty and dignity of design, and I should be delighted to think that some of Mr Whistler's work would be added to its treasures.' 2

Whistler was encouraged by Sargent, Abbey, John Mead Howells (1848-1859), and the architect Charles Follen McKim (1847-1909), to submit plans for the decoration of a panel for Bates Hall. 3 McKim wrote to James R. Osgood on 14 September 1891, following up on earlier discussions:

'I find on my return home that the appropriation asked for by the Trustees of the Library, for an additional million, has not yet been granted. It is possible, however, that they will get the whole amount within the present year, and I would suggest that meanwhile Mr. Whistler submit in writing any proposition which he may have to make in regard to what he would like to do for the Library. If he will do this, we will undertake to lay it before the Trustees. Naturally, we have no authority to order work done, the Trustees of the Library alone having power, but, it goes without saying that we will use any influence which we may possess in Mr. Whistler's favor, should the opportunity occur. Both Mr. Sargent and Mr. Abbey have written regarding Mr. Whistler's claims to consideration in the strongest terms, which, coupled with your own expressions, should be of much use to him. I would further suggest that his letter contain an actual proposition in regard to subject and treatment, also, his views concerning the necessary time to be covered in execution, with a word as to his remuneration therefor. It would certainly be a great thing, not only for Boston, but for the country at large to have one of Mr. Whistler's serious works.' 4

The slight emphasis on 'serious' was hardly tactful!

1892: Sargent – whose support Whistler appreciated, praising his 'rare and noble camaraderie' 5 – wrote, suggesting a meeting in Paris with Samuel Abbott (1846-1931) and McKim:

'Today Abbey & I had been confabulating with McKim & Abbot, the President of the Board of Trustees, on the subject of the necessity of pressing you into this work if you will be coerced. They are very anxious indeed to bring it about, and during the past year they have wrought upon the minds of the people from whom the money must come and are very hopeful of getting a sum.

They feel that the room for you to do is the very holy of holies.

If you have not taken the idea en grippe I feel sure that something might result from a meeting with these two excellent fellows, so I propose that we dine together at Foyots on Saturday.' 6

According to Whitehill, 'it was a charming evening. Whistler, responded, drew sketches on the tablecloth, and his companions marveled. But the tablecloth went into the wash, nothing tangible came of the meetings, and Bates Hall is free from peacocks.' 7

Study for three decorative panels  ... for Boston Public Library, Massachusetts, GUL MS Whistler W1329
Study for three decorative panels ... for Boston Public Library, Massachusetts, GUL MS Whistler W1329

In December, on the verso of a letter, Whistler made a pencil sketch, Study for three decorative panels representing 'The Landing of Columbus', 'Queen Isabel la Catôlica of Spain', and 'Queen Elizabeth of England' for Boston Public Library, Massachusetts [M.1356], reproduced above, which shows roughly the same composition as the oil study. 8

The Boston collector, Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840-1924) was keen to know whether Whistler had been given, or had accepted, such a commission. She wrote to Whistler, 'I am so crazy to have anything so splendid as our great Bates Hall painted by you, that I am too excited to remain in doubt!' 9

Study for Three Decorative Panels Representing 'The Landing of Columbus', 'Queen Isabel la Católica of Spain' and 'Queen Elizabeth of England', Boston Public Library
Study for Three Decorative Panels Representing 'The Landing of Columbus', 'Queen Isabel la Católica of Spain' and 'Queen Elizabeth of England', Boston Public Library

1892/1894: The wood panel on which the oil sketch is painted bears the stamp of Emile Blanchet (1852-1931), 20 rue Saint-Benoît, Paris, on the verso, suggesting it was obtained and possibly painted in Paris, where Whistler was living during this period.

1893: C. S. McKim sent Whistler plans and perspective views of Bates Hall showing the panels to be decorated, being one large panel flanked by two narrow ones. 10

1894: According to Whitehill, in July 1894 the chairman, Samuel Abbott, was empowered by the trustees of the Library to give Whistler a contract to decorate the wall at the north-east end of Bates Hall for $15,000. 11

1895: In the spring the offer was withdrawn, no further money being available. 12 On 7 May (having just received the Trustees' letter of 18 April) Whistler wrote to the trustees, attempting to confirm his original agreement with McKim and Abbott, and stating:

'It has long been my intention to write and state officially, what I, agreed verbally, my acceptance of the proposal to paint the panel offered to me in the Boston Library -

Verbally this was quite understood by Mr McKim, and Mr Abbott - It was thoroughly settled that I should have carte blanche both as to time and subject -

And as far as remuneration went, I made it clear to those gentlemen that I was willing to receive [sic] whatever sum the Authorities in Counsil [sic] should have at their disposal to apportion according to their judgement of the worth or importance of what I might do for them.' 13

He asked McKim to present his letter to the Trustees, claiming,

'This letter then, which I beg you will kindly lay before the Committee, is to say that, while silent - because I could then communicate nothing definite - I have been occupied with the problem I had set myself to solve - and that now I am in a position to state to the Committee decidedly that I do undertake the work - and that I do officially beg to accept their offer.' 14

This was too little, too late. The Trustees replied on 13 June 1895 that there were no further funds available: 'no contract for the fresco having been made, none can be entered into at this time, as the appropriation for decorative purposes is exhausted.' 15 Despite this setback, in September, Stanford White wrote :

'McKim is ready for war to the knife on the Public Library business, ... I beg you not to desert us, and promise that, as soon as the rumpus commences, there will be a song and dance around the Philistines on the Board of Trustees, which will make them sorry they ever tried any such "funny" business.' 16

Whistler also thought there was still some hope of reviving the project, but, on the other hand, he was horrified at I. S. Gardner's suggestion of incorporating Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room [YMSM 178] into the Hall:

'It would be a great affair if they really did get the Peacock Room over to America would n't it! - But how appalling! if they were to put it about in bits! and line it up against the wall! - like an old Brittany bedstead done into a screen! -

Of all terrible things especially to propose that it should be sampled round in scraps in the "Bates Hall"! - Isn't that the huge room or Gallery where I am to do the panel?' 17

1899: Whitehill suggested that:

'As this watercolor and gouache sketch on a wooden panel ... given by Miss Rosalind Birnie-Philip, Whistler's executrix and sister of his second wife, is thought to date from 1899-1900, it would appear that the artist kept the Boston project in mind for many years.' 18


1: YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 396).

2: GUW #02169.

3: Howells to Whistler, 6 November [1891], GUW #02188.

4: GUW #03721.

5: Pennell 1921C [more], p. 34.

6: Sargent to Whistler, [1/20 April 1892], GUW #05386.

7: Whitehill 1956 [more], pp. 149, 158-59.

8: Whistler to W. P. Wylie, 22 December 1892, GUW #07341.

9: [November/ December 1892], GUW #01641.

10: 26 April 1893, GUW #03722.

11: Whitehill 1970 [more], at p. 22.

12: Trustees to Whistler, 18 April 1895, GUW #00350.

13: 7 May 1895, GUW #00351.

14: [May 1895], #03723.

15: GUW #00352.

16: 20 September 1895, GUW #03724.

17: Whistler to B. Whistler, [3 November 1895], GUW #06632.

18: Whitehill 1970, op. cit., p. 24.

Last updated: 4th June 2021 by Margaret