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

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Brown and Gold: Portrait of Lady Eden


William Eden, Whistler's portrait of Lady Eden, from Eden 1933, p. 56
William Eden, Whistler's portrait of Lady Eden, from Eden 1933, p. 56

A pencil drawing of Whistler painting the portrait, and a watercolour sketch of it as it originally appeared, both by Sir William Eden, are reproduced in his memoirs. The watercolour entered the collection of Lord Eden of Winton. 1

According to Archibald Standish Hartrick (1864-1950), the portrait was 'a little masterpiece ... when I saw it before it was altered. Whistler did not paint out the head but scraped it off so that if he lost the case it could not be recovered.' 2

Jules Huret (1863-1915) (quoted by Barbier) reported Whistler in 1895 as saying:

'[J]e me décidai à effacer complètement la toile. Et, comme j'avais un autre portrait de dame a faire, je recommençai brun et or; je mis derrière mon modèle le même rideau d'or; je la fis asseoir sur le même canapé; elle eut une robe brune à peu près pareille à l'autre, le même col de fourrure et le même manchon, et prit la même pose. Ce tableau appartient bien par conséquent désormais à mon nouveau modèle, n'est-ce pas?' 3

Translated this reads: 'I decided to completely efface the work. And, as I had another portrait of a lady to do, I recommenced brown and gold; I placed behind my model the same gold curtain; I sat her on the same sofa; she had a brown robe similar to the other, the same fur collar and the same cuff, and took the same pose. Consequently this painting now represents my new model, doesn't it?'

After painting out the face and figure of Lady Eden, Whistler substituted a portrait of Margaret Curzon Hale, Mrs H. D. Hale (1872-1948) , and also added a pot of flowers on the right.

He went into considerable detail in the draft of a letter to a newspaper:

'I did not confine myself to wiping out the face of the original portrait - I scrubbed out and pomeystoned [sic] off the entire picture - I then repainted entirely, from nature, upon the same panel, ... what might be called a new picture - I placed my furniture, my background, and my accessories etc in the same disposition. I took the same sofa - and, for background, hung behind it, the identical gold coloured curtains, of the former portrait. Another lady took upon the sofa, as far as possible, absolutely the same pose, dressed in analagous [sic] colours - happily possessing a gown of a similar tone of brown - though naturally of a different nuance - Fairer and more golden, decidedly, The large sle[e]ves were of the same fashionable cut - A fur collar of the same sort of note - the muff carefully in the same place - The bottines of the same sort of yellow - the hat also had its feathers, and was posed, upon the sofa, in about the same spot - Now there was one marked difference in the costume of the two ladies, which I pointed out to the Judge - The first wore a jacket, whose furred edge ran accross [sic] the figure, and on the other side, continued beyond the knee, and lay upon the sofa, hanging slightly over in front - In the case of the second lady there was no jacket. The dress was all in one, and the lines of the figure were uninterrupted - Having now arranged my new work, I began, and painted from nature again the entire panel, producing this time the portrait of the second lady as carefully and as faithfully as before I had the portrait of the first lady.' 4
Whistler, Brown and Gold: Portrait of Lady Eden, The Hunterian
Whistler, Brown and Gold: Portrait of Lady Eden, The Hunterian

The painting now (2020) differs from Eden's watercolour, done from memory, in that there are no book-lined shelves in the background, and the figure occupies more room. 5


William Eden, Whistler painting Lady Eden, pencil
William Eden, Whistler painting Lady Eden, pencil

William Eden (1849-1915) described Whistler painting this portrait, and himself sketched Whistler at work. Eden's drawing shows Whistler seated in an armchair, holding a large oval palette in his left hand, medium sized brushes, and with the panel on an easel. 6 This is unusual in that most images of Whistler show him standing at an easel.

It was painted on a single section of mahogany-type wood, about 5 mm thick, bevelled on the verso on all sides. It is lacquered on the verso and may have come from a piece of furniture. It was not, apparently, primed (or the priming may have been rubbed down and no longer be visible). 7

Whistler told his wife, at the time that he replaced the figure of Lady Eden with that of Mrs Hale,:

'Now after all the little picture turned out very much more kindly in behaviour than I at first thought! … You know when I first saw it in the studio, I thought it had a chilled and befuddled look - and I was much discouraged! - I put some of the "Vibert" retouching varnish upon it - but still found it dark and cold - well I brought it away with me in its frame - and by chance again in the evening, looking at it, finding the very slight & thin varnish had all sunk in I took my new silk soft foulard shirt that was lying on the bed, and began gently to rub and polish the picture with it! - Extraordinary! - As I rubbed & polished the colour began as who should say to thaw! - I went on - and at last the picture was one glow of lovely colour! ... Then I had an inspiration - I bolted over to Mrs. Hale - who is still looking very pretty - or will I think for what I want - and told her that she must come to the Court on Wednesday! - (when it meets again & judgement is given) She must be seated on our side - as Lady Eden is on the other! - She must be dressed in the brown costume - just as in the picture - so that there can be no doubt!' 8

Conservation History

Whistler, Brown and Gold: Portrait of Lady Eden, The Hunterian
Whistler, Brown and Gold: Portrait of Lady Eden, The Hunterian

The painting is in the state in which Whistler finally left it: the flowers on the right are gone (though the pot is visible), the face and the background are very faint; in fact the background was probably always unrealised, except for the bookcase on the right. The poor condition of the painting is, according to Whistler himself, due to his repeated scraping down and repainting of the panel.

In October 1899, when Whistler was desperately trying to remove any resemblance to Lady Eden before showing the painting in court, he told his sister-in-law:

'I have been sand papering it down all the afternoon - and ... the more I scrape off, the more the original comes through! and I don't think the whole thing ever looked so like Lady Eden before! dress & all!! - I am quite distraught and dont know whether I shall turn it into the Bate! or Mrs. Jack Gardner!' 9

Dr Joyce H. Townsend considered that the ‘rubbing down with sandpaper’, probably referred to the back of the sofa and the face. The rubbing down on the sofa and background reveals the wood panel underneath. However, the face, as it now appears, does not look reworked, suggesting that the face of Lady Eden was indeed effaced by Whistler. Quite apart from being repainted at different times, the panel was 'possibly wiped with turpentine too, in long sweeping horizontal strokes, that are now the very opaque areas, flatter than the wrinkled paint.' There are areas where 'sweeping brushstrokes of very matt material, likely thinning with turpentine' have been applied. The matte, glossy and wrinkled areas do not correspond to the areas of reported changes to the composition. Finally, she adds,

'[It was] varnished first within a frame that covered the edges by ca 5 mm on all sides, and later overall, both with yellowed natural resin type varnish, giving a yellowed and glossy accumulation of varnish with small-scale wrinkling, hairs and dust trapped within – very disfiguring.' 10

The panel has developed a slight diagonal warp, but has not split. There is no apparent paint loss. The varnish has darkened making an already obscure image harder to see. 11


44.0 x 55.7 x 5.4 cm.


1: Eden 1933 [more] , pp. 54-78, watercolour repr. p. 56, pencil drawing repr. f.p. 78.

2: Hartrick 1939 [more] , p. 114.

3: Barbier 1964 [more] , pp. 229-47.

4: [March 1895], GUW #07462.

5: Eden 1933 [more] , pp. 54-78, watercolour by Sir William Eden repr. p. 56.

6: Eden 1933 [more] pp. 54-78, repr. f.p. 78.

7: Condition report by Clare Meredith, 21 May 2001, Hunterian files.

8: Whistler to B. Whistler, [3 March 1895], GUW #06626.

9: Whistler to R. Birnie Philip, [30 October 1899], GUW #04755.

10: Dr Joyce H. Townsend, Chief Conservation Scientist, Tate Britain, Report of examination, August 2017.

11: Meredith, 21 May 2001, op. cit.

Last updated: 21st November 2020 by Margaret