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

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Ivoire et or: Portrait de Madame Vanderbilt

Ivoire et or: Portrait de Madame Vanderbilt mainly dates from 1899, but may have been worked on further, up to its first exhibition in 1902.

1898: The portrait was commissioned by the sitter's husband, George Washington Vanderbilt (1862-1914), who wrote to Whistler:

'I am hoping you will feel like doing the small oval of my wife I spoke about last summer, and will get it well started this January. We expect to be in Paris one month, and then go to Florence and Rome for another month.' 1

1899: Mrs Vanderbilt posed in Paris in June, and on return to the USA she wrote to Whistler, 'I cannot begin to tell you how much I enjoyed the hours passed with you. I will always remember them with delight, and cher Maître, I will be most happy to continue them at the first opportunity.' 2

1901: In March Whistler proposed to return Vanderbilt's cheque for Portrait of George W. Vanderbilt [YMSM 481], although he thought he 'might perhaps manage Mrs. Vanderbilt - and that would simplify the position, as nothing is advanced upon that.' 3 In February 1901 Vanderbilt wrote to Whistler that his wife was ready to sit for her portrait again, in April or May in Paris. 4

1902: However, no more sittings took place, because Whistler decided the picture was fit for exhibition, and, as he told Richard Albert Canfield (1855-1914), 'I am sending the portrait of Mrs Vanderbilt to the Champ de Mars - But this is a secret - confided to you only - It is to be a surprise to them on their arrival!' 5 It was exhibited at the Douzième Exposition, Ouvrages de Peintures, Sculpture, Dessin, Gravure, Architecture et Objets d'Art, Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, Grand Palais, Paris, 1902 (cat. no. 1193).

In November 1902 Pennell asked Whistler why he did not exhibit the portrait at the RSPP that year:

'[Whistler] said that when Vanderbilt saw it at the Salon, he seemed to think it was not quite finished, "That is, that I might like to have one or two more sittings from Mrs. Vanderbilt - simply an excuse for not having the picture go to other exhibitions." ' 6


1: Vanderbilt to Whistler, [1/14 December 1898], GUW #05918.

2: E. S. Vanderbilt to Whistler, 29 June 1899, GUW #05913.

3: Whistler to R. Birnie Philip, 8 March 1901, GUW #04797.

4: 17 February 1901, GUW #05925.

5: [19 March 1902], GUW #03049.

6: Pennell 1921C [more], pp. 264-65.

Last updated: 18th October 2020 by Margaret