The reclining nude:
Beneath the standing nude there are traces of an earlier painting of a reclining nude, with the head at right, resting on her raised arms and leaning against cushions. The head is seen in profile, turned towards the right shoulder. The head is still just discernible to left of the later nude's right hand, but is more clearly seen in the infrared reflectogram. The two figures overlap over the body and legs. The original canvas must have been larger by at least 10mm on both sides and at the top, because it has lost the cusping (the deformations in the canvas caused by tacking the canvas to its stretcher before painting) on these sides. At the bottom, this margin for attaching the canvas has been brought into the plane of the image, to make the feet appear more grounded. The cutting down at the left went through the head and raised arms of the underlying figure.
The reclining nude is unusual in having the head to right, where most drawings of the nude have the head to left, which is slightly easier for a right handed artist, working from left to right. This was not an easy pose to hold, but it had advantages in showing off the raised breasts and long curve of the body.
A similar pose, with raised arms, is seen in a vigorous sketch of a standing figure, A nude model adjusting her hair, dating from about 1893. 1
The pose, except for the raised arms, could be compared to several reclining nude studies, such as The Arabian [M.1273], where the model's head is at right, and which dates from the early 1890s, and others dating from around 1900, including Ethel Warwick holding an apple [M.1605], which show a model in various poses, but all with the head at left.
It is just possible that La maja desnuda (The naked maja), painted in 1800 by Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828), and now in the Museo del Prado, inspired this pose, although in Goya's famous work, the woman is looking directly at the viewer. 2
The standing nude:
On the standing Study of the nude, corrections or additions were indicated in what appears to be white crayon: her raised right hand is clenched as if holding something, her left arm is by her side, and could have been holding drapery. To right of the figure, standing upright, unsupported, is the outline of a vertical object, which may possibly be a rod, sword, pedestal or torch.
The composition may have been intended to form part of a series of nude figures depicting a mythical, biblical, or other subject, similar to Purple and Gold: Phryne the Superb! - Builder of Temples [YMSM 490] and Eve [YMSM 491].
A full technical examination of this painting was carried out in the School of Culture and Creative Arts Technical Art History laboratory in the Hunterian at Kelvin Hall in February 2020. Professors Joyce H. Townsend and Margaret F. MacDonald examined the paintings under a microscope. A high resolution camera for infra-red reflectography (IRR) was operated by Tess Visser, a PhD student supervised by Professor Christina Young, assisted by Alicia Hughes, Hunterian curatorial assistant; images were also made of the recto in normal, raking, and ultraviolet light, and of the verso.
It was painted on a machine woven canvas, probably British, of a fine weave, densely woven and apparently unprimed. It is a thinly painted monochromatic study in shades of cream and brown for the shadowy and undifferentiated interior over a mid-grey priming made mostly from lead white.
All the paint includes lead white; the background including traces of cool brown umber and red vermilion. The paint is extremely thin, and it does not conceal the plain weave of the canvas. The cool tones of the pale flesh include umber and bone black, relieved only by the pink of her cheeks, applied with red ochre, and a touch of vermilion on her lips, complemented by red ochre and umber on the cap, and her hair, painted with warm and transparent brown ochre rather than umber.
The paint was rubbed down as part of the painting process, in some areas after each brushstroke was added and had dried, creating a soft, blurred image: the weave of the canvas is clearly visible through the paint with magnification, modifying the overall colour and specific details such as the lips, as seen in the image above. Some areas were rubbed more lightly, locally and selectively than others. Shadows, such as the shadow between her breast and that under her cap, were rubbed more heavily than surrounding areas.
The figure, and the suggestion of drapery in her left hand, and of something held in her right hand, as well as the unidentified object at right, are all vaguely outlined with white crayon (a wax- or oil-based crayon, possibly including lithopone or zinc white), as if correcting or suggesting additions to the original, thinly painted figure. These outlines lie beneath the varnish that was applied to the whole image after the canvas had been altered in format, lined to another canvas, and attached to the present, non-original stretcher. Thus they may well be Whistler’s. No other painting by Whistler is known to have been worked on like this. It has been suggested that these rather crude additions were added much later, but given the history of the work, this seems unlikely.
The varnish associated with the change of format is thick and the earlier varnish thinner. Both have become yellow with age, and now suppress the contrast between the pearly flesh and the pink lips.
Professor Townsend comments:
'The canvas is glue lined, and it is not clear whether that was done on Whistler’s instructions or posthumously, to bring the lower tacking margin, which is unpainted, into the picture plane. The edges are unevenly cut, and at the top, the canvas is short of the edge by 5 mm. All these aspects are unusual among lined Whistler oils. None of the cut edges show cusping, implying the canvas has lost 8-10 mm on the sides and top, or else was cut from a larger one. This format does make the unresolved feet look more plausible though.' 3
107.3 x 67.5 x 7.7 cm. The remains of the label of James Bourlet & Sons, London frame-makers and exhibition agents, on the verso, suggests it was framed in London.
2: Prints after the painting were available, for instance, La Maja, by the French reproductive etcher, Charles Albert Waltner (1846-1925).
3: Technical examination, 2020, cited above. In addition, the condition report by Clare Meredith, 21 May 2001, Hunterian files, commented that the canvas had been double-lined and its overall condition was poor; the varnish was applied vertically, had sunk in and discoloured; the paint might have darkened, possibly from the lining process; but the stretcher was in good condition.
Last updated: 9th April 2021 by Margaret