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

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Portrait of Dr Isaac Burnet Davenport

According to Isaac Burnet Davenport (1854-1922), he posed for two portraits.

One portrait of Dr Davenport was started by Whistler in France in 1894 but abandoned, and another, Portrait of Dr Isaac Burnet Davenport, was started in 1895, according to an interview with the sitter recorded by the Pennells. 1 It is not, however, absolutely clear if these were on different canvases, and so they have been included as one catalogue entry here.

1894: According to Dr Davenport, about January 1894 Whistler asked if he was interested in 'a little portrait' and suggested he consulted his family before proceeding. 2 Davenport agreed, and Whistler wrote thanking him for his 'graceful proposition' and suggested they discussed it in the studio. 3 Davenport posed at first in a specially selected dull-green suit. Both Whistler's sister-in-law, Rosalind Birnie Philip (1873-1958), and wife, Beatrice Philip (Mrs E. W. Godwin, Mrs J. McN. Whistler) (1857-1896), were consulted about the pose, background and clothes: 'They had me stand with my weight first on one leg, then on the other, or ... on the table', he remembered, 'but' he added, 'Whistler did not always do what was suggested.' 4 Whistler would send a note or telegram summoning the sitter, often at short notice. For instance, on 26 January Whistler suggested 'next Wednesday … at one o'clock' for a sitting, and on 8 February he asked if Dr Davenport could come to the studio on 15 February 'about 1 o'clock as usual.' 5

Portrait of Dr Isaac Burnet Davenport, Hood Museum of Art
Portrait of Dr Isaac Burnet Davenport, Hood Museum of Art

1895: By 1895, it seems that a second portrait was under way. Davenport said later:

'After the first picture had been started (after 4 or 5 sittings) I heard nothing more from him, was not summoned again for another year - When another summons requested me to come to his studio for another series of sittings, I found him before a new, clean, canvas - He said nothing about what had really been done and I've never heard anything more about the first canvas … That year[,] several sittings, [followed by] another rest of one year.' 6

1897: According to Davenport, 'Another series of sittings. Painting sandpapered and polished each time.' 7 A brief note written by Whistler from 110 rue du Bac told Dr Davenport, 'Dont forget the brown coat! - & don't come tomorrow before 11.' 8 However, the portrait in its final form shows him in a black suit.

1898: There was a long delay, during which Whistler, in London, fell ill. On 23 October Rosalind Birnie Philip wrote to Dr Davenport that Whistler was 'very fit', and proposed a two hour sitting for 'your long promised picture' on the following Tuesday or Wednesday. 9 According to Davenport's account, he had a few sittings every year for several years, the last in 1902/1903, and the picture was repeatedly rubbed down. 10

1899: On 4 January Whistler postponed a sitting (his sister-in-law wrote to Dr Davenport, 'he still feels rather unfit for the fine work you are doing together') but suggested the following Monday at 10 a.m. 11 At another time, Whistler cancelled a sitting 'owing to the unexpected and short visit of the Vanderbilts to Paris.' 12

1902-1903: Sittings continued until late in Whistler's life. Miss Birnie Philip, writing on Whistler's behalf from 74 Cheyne Walk, suggested a sitting in London on 'Tuesday at 1:30 ... as the picture does not dry any too quickly in this weather.' 13

1903: On 6 February 1903 Whistler said that Dr Davenport could come whenever possible for sittings and thus the picture would 'in course of a few years become the high polished and finished masterpiece they both have a right to expect.' 14 On 18 February he sent Dr Davenport a telegram asking him to come on the following Friday or Saturday at 2 p.m. 15 Miss Birnie Philip implied that the portrait was still being painted around April 1903. 16 Davenport said, 'In the last sittings he was becoming visibly much weaker .... his brush would drop from his hand ... he would fall asleep'. 17

1904: After Whistler's death, Miss Birnie Philip wrote to the sitter, 'When you look upon it you must always have bright and pleasant thoughts, and not allow the sadness of the last sittings to come into your mind, for Mr. Whistler always disliked illness and its surroundings.' 18

Acting on Whistler's instructions, Miss Birnie Philip, as his executor, had the portrait varnished and sent to the sitter. The art dealer William Stephen Marchant (1868-1925) wrote to Dr Davenport on 28 June 1904, 'we trust it will reach you in good order.' 19


1: Joseph Pennell, 'Copy of notes taken during an interview with Dr I. B. Davenport', n.d., Pennell Collection, Library of Congress.

2: J. Pennell, 'Copy of notes', op. cit.

3: Letter written early in January 1894, in a private collection.

4: J. Pennell, 'Copy of notes', op. cit.

5: Letter in a private collection, and photocopy, GUL WPP files.

6: J. Pennell, 'Copy of notes', op. cit.

7: Ibid.

8: Written on a visiting card with mourning edges, photocopy, GUL WPP files.

9: 23 October 1898, photocopy, GUL WPP file. Several short undated letters requesting Davenport's presence, are in a private collection (2020).

10: J. Pennell, 'Copy of notes', op. cit.

11: R. B. Philip to I. Davenport, 4 January 1899, photocopy, GUL WPP files.

12: R. B. Philip to Dr Davenport, n.d., photocopy GUL WPP file. The Vanderbilts would have been sitting for the Portrait of George W. Vanderbilt [YMSM 481] or Ivoire et or: Portrait de Madame Vanderbilt [YMSM 515].

13: n.d., (March 1902/1903], photocopy, GUL WPP file.

14: R. B. Philip to I. Davenport, photocopy, GUL WPP file.

15: 'Bleu', telegram in a private collection, from Whistler in London, to Davenport, in Paris.

16: Dr W. S. Davenport to I. Davenport, 29 May 1904, photocopy, GUL WPP file.

17: J. Pennell, 'Copy of notes', op. cit.

18: 27 June 1904, photocopy, GUL WPP file.

19: Photocopy, GUL WPP file.

Last updated: 7th March 2020 by Margaret