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

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Portrait of George W. Vanderbilt

Portrait of George W. Vanderbilt dates from 1897-1898. 1

Portrait of George W. Vanderbilt, National Gallery of Art
Portrait of George W. Vanderbilt, National Gallery of Art

1897: On 18 May 1897 George Washington Vanderbilt (1862-1914) asked Whistler, 'will you consider me a fit subject for a portrait? ... I cannot begin to tell you how much I want an example of your great work.' 2 Whistler replied,

'I think I may frankly say that I would not ask for a more sympathetic subject than yourself, and therefore am greatly pleased at the prospect of painting your portrait -

I expect to return shortly to London - and will let you know directly I have got back to my studio.' 3

It was started in London in June and continued in August. 4 When Vanderbilt was due to return to the USA, Whistler wrote: 'I was ... quite shocked to hear your threat of sudden departure for America! I certainly never looked forward to any such undue haste in the midst of the work we have on the easel!' 5

Vanderbilt returned to Europe on 15 December, and the portrait was sent to Paris where Whistler was 'finishing as fast as I can,' as he told William Heinemann (1863-1920). 6 Whistler then announced that the 'great work' was finished and asked 1000 guineas for it, and a further 1000 guineas when the portrait was delivered 'after we have put the very last little dainty polish upon it.' 7 Vanderbilt agreed to Whistler's terms, saying, 'j'ai un beau portrait.' 8

1898: In Paris in August Vanderbilt sat for the 'last touches' and was 'most enthusiastic about his picture', finally sending a cheque for 'the masterpiece' on 25 August. 9

1899: Whistler complained he could not escape from 'Vanderbilt and complications of portraits "while you wait" ! - - - maddening!' 10

1901: In February Vanderbilt again offered to sit for 'those last touches' but Whistler proposed to give him back his cheque 'until I am well enough to finish his picture!' 11

1902: Vanderbilt sat (or rather stood) again for his portrait in June, and offered to do so in December. 12

1903: The portrait remained unfinished although Vanderbilt asked for further sittings. 13 Whistler died on 17 July, and the painting was in Whistler's studio at his death.


1: YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 481).

2: G. W. Vanderbilt to Whistler, 18 May 1897, GUW #05914.

3: 20 May [1897], GUW #09488.

4: Whistler to Vanderbilt, [1/7 June 1897], GUW #09489; Whistler to R. Birnie Philip, 27 August 1897, GUW #04717.

5: [22/25 August 1897], GUW #09487.

6: Vanderbilt to Whistler, 4 December 1897, GUW #05915; Whistler to D. C. Thomson, 15 December 1897, GUW #08421; and to Heinemann, [16/23 December 1897], GUW #08488.

7: Whistler to Vanderbilt, [28/30 December 1897], GUW #05916.

8: 31 December 1897, GUW #05917.

9: Vanderbilt to Whistler, 10 July 1898, GUW #05919; Whistler to R. Birnie Philip, [13 August 1898], GUW #04737; Vanderbilt to Whistler, 25 August 1898, GUW #05920.

10: Whistler to W. Heinemann, [February/March 1899], GUW #08514.

11: Vanderbilt to Whistler, 17 February 1901, GUW #05925; Whistler to R. Birnie Philip, [8 March 1901], GUW #04797.

12: Whistler to C. L. Freer, [2 June 1902], GUW #11597; Vanderbilt to R. B. Philip, [10/15 December 1902], GUW #05928.

13: Vanderbilt to Whistler, [8 May 1903], GUW #05929.

Last updated: 18th October 2020 by Margaret