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

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Violet and Blue: Among the Rollers


  • 1894: sold by Whistler, possibly directly to Martin Brimmer (1829-1896), Boston;
  • 1896: passed by family descent to the Wadsworth family, Geneseo;
  • 2006: sold at auction, Cottone Auctions, Mount Morris, 7 July 2006 (lot 127), and bought by the Detroit Institute of Arts, Museum Purchase, Robert H. Tannahill Foundation, for $1 million.

In October 1893 Whistler sent 'Blue & Violet, - Among the Rollers' to David Croal Thomson (1855-1930), asking 200 guineas for it. 1 Thomson decided to try to sell it in Glasgow. He wrote to the artist:

'The "Violet & Blue' Among the rollers" has come to hand. It is superb; & we are taking it to Glasgow when we go at the end of the week. The quality of the colour is without exaggeration perfectly wonderful & heart-warming. We shall make a dead set amongst the Scottish folk with it.' 2

Having failed to sell it in Glasgow, Thomson proposed to raise the price of £180 to £200. 3 Whistler then made various stipulations about the possible sale:

'What are you asking for it? - I said Two hundred - net - for me -

I should think after this you would sell it - and mind you stipulate as Mr Whistler's condition to any one, a line in writing agreeing to let him have the picture once in every two years for inspection, that he may see to its state (whether well cared for, or neglected and requiring cleaning etc - ) and for purposes of Exhibition -

This last of course you could say I should not [at] all abuse - though I like my things seen abroad - and to begin with, I should certainly insist upon sending it to the Salon this next Spring - and doubtless meanwhile to the coming Grafton -

As to the keeping in order - this naturally ought to be a source of great satisfaction to the owner.' 4

Thomson promptly attempted to clarify the price:

'Will you kindly say exactly what is the cost price to us of the 'Violet & Blue'. You have said it was £180. If this is not correct please say what is.

As you know we may ask what we like & we very carefully explained this in the last note.

We have very little chance of selling it at the present even at £180 to you for the buyers are too shy.

We ask £300 - but £315. from outsiders - from buyers £250- (this was expressly set forth) & we would take £200 if we had the chance. But that is all on the definite understanding declared in your letter that £180 is the highest price you ask from us for it.' 5

In January and March 1892, Whistler offered Violet and Silver: A Deep Sea [YMSM 411] and Dark Blue and Silver [YMSM 412] to the New York dealer, Edward Guthrie Kennedy (1849-1932), with 'a smaller panel, and a beauty' (Violet and Blue: Among the Rollers) at 250 guineas. 6 He also offered it to Algernon Graves, London dealer, for £400, to set against his debts. 7 On 22 July 1894 Whistler informed Kennedy:

'The third sea piece has sold - You remember the little one, "Among the Rollers", on panel, that hung in the Champs de Mars as pendant to Lady Eden's tiny portrait [Brown and Gold: Portrait of Lady Eden [YMSM 408]] - It is bought for £210.' 8

The first owners were Martin Brimmer and his wife. He was one of the first trustees of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and its president from 1870 to 1895. The panel was lent by Mrs Martin Brimmer (née Mary Ann Timmins) to the Boston Whistler memorial exhibition as 'Study of the Sea from a boat' and was 'on loan in Boston Museum' in 1904, according to C. L. Freer's annotated copy of the 1904 Boston Memorial Exhibition catalogue. 9 In a copy of the same Boston catalogue, originally owned by Frank Gair Macomber, the title was given as 'The Sea', the size and support as 7 ½ x 11", and it was described as 'Dark green sea with gray & blue sky', valued at $2500. 10

Part of the Brimmer collection was bequeathed to the Museum of Fine Arts and Mrs Brimmer's estate was distributed among a number of indirect heirs. According to her executors, Welch & Forbes of Boston, who were trustees of her estate, a 'Small marine by Whistler' was included in an undated list among 'Articles borrowed by the Museum from other heirs' of Mrs Brimmer. Its location was not known for many years although it had remained in the family. 11


  • 1893: [Exhibition], Boussod, Valadon & Cie., of the Goupil Gallery, London, at Wellington Studios, Glasgow, 1893 (catalogue untraced).
  • 1894: Fair Women, Grafton Galleries, London, 1894 (cat. no. 70) as 'Violet and Blue – Among the Rollers'.
  • 1894: Exposition Nationale des Beaux-Arts, Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, Champ de Mars, Paris, 1894 (cat. no. 1183).
  • 1904: Oil Paintings, Water Colors, Pastels and Drawings: Memorial Exhibition of the Works of Mr. J. McNeill Whistler, Copley Society, Boston, 1904 (cat. no. 13) as 'Study of the Sea from a boat'.

According to the Glasgow Herald, 'a small seascape, the deep blue-green water holding patches of white foam' was exhibited in Glasgow in 1893 by Boussod, Valadon & Cie. A few weeks later it was in London, described by the Herald's London correspondent as 'a small sea-scape; swaying foam-topped billows of the open sea under a clear wind-swept sky.' 12 According to the St James's Gazette , 'a fine sea-piece ... one of his earlier period ... a panel painting of cabinet size, a stormy sea of deep (lapis-lazuli) blue, full of clever work and of beautiful colour' was on show at the Goupil Gallery in 1893. 13 On 11 December the firm replied (at Whistler's request) that the 'sea-piece' had been 'painted in Brittany a few weeks ago.' 14

The Art Journal described the three sea-pieces exhibited at the Grafton Galleries in 1894 incorrectly as having been painted the previous autumn on the coast of Normandy, and praised 'Violet and Blue - Among the Rollers', 'the colour ... being a veritable tour de force.' 15 The three seascapes were Violet and Silver: A Deep Sea [YMSM 411], Dark Blue and Silver [YMSM 412] and Violet and Blue: Among the Rollers.

Gustave Geffroy (1855-1926) was probably correct in saying all three (which he saw in Paris in the same year) were painted in the summer on the coast of Brittany and he described all three as paintings of ships in high seas, under a cloudy sky. 16

It was listed by Whistler as 'Among the rollers', among pictures to be sent to Antwerp for exhibition in 1894, but was not sent. 17

It was lent by Mrs Martin Brimmer (née Mary Ann Timmins) to the Boston memorial show, and was 'on loan in Boston Museum' in 1904, according to C. L. Freer's annotated copy of the 1904 Boston Memorial Exhibition catalogue. 18


1: 16 October 1893, GUW #08249.

2: 23 October 1893, GUW #05790.

3: 15 November & 13 December 1893, GUW #05791.

4: [10 December 1893], GUW #08287.

5: 13 December 1893, GUW #05796.

6: 22 January 1894, GUW #09714; 1 March 1894, GUW #07232.

7: [12/15 December 1893], GUW #01834.

8: GUW #09718.

9: Freer Gallery of Art Archives.

10: Boston Public Library.

11: MacDonald 2007 [more].

12: Glasgow Herald, Glasgow, 9 November 1893 and 'Our London Correspondent', Glasgow Herald, 18 December 1893, p. 7.

13: St James's Gazette , London, 6 December 1893.

14: St James's Gazette, London, 12 December 1893.

15: Art Journal March 1894 [more], at p. 89.

16: Geffroy 1895 [more] at pp. 140-41.

17: Draft letter to a newspaper, [1/8 March 1894], GUW #07457.

18: Freer Gallery of Art Archives.

Last updated: 12th November 2020 by Margaret