The Paintings of James McNeill Whistler

YMSM 021
Head of a Peasant Woman

Head of a Peasant Woman

Artist: James McNeill Whistler
Date: 1855/1858
Collection: The Hunterian, University of Glasgow
Accession Number: GLAHA 46394
Medium: oil
Support: wood
Size: 25.9 x 18.0 cm (10 1/4 x 7")
Signature: none
Inscription: none
Frame: modern

Date

It has been suggested that the Head of a Peasant Woman dates from between 1855 and 1858, when Whistler was a student in Paris. 1

Head of a Peasant Woman, The Hunterian
Head of a Peasant Woman, The Hunterian

However, there is some doubt about the artist, and therefore about the date, except that it must date from before its first known exhibition in 1905.

Images

Head of a Peasant Woman, The Hunterian
Head of a Peasant Woman, The Hunterian

Whistler Smoking, Private collection
Whistler Smoking, Private collection

La Mère Gérard (1), Colby College Museum of Art
La Mère Gérard (1), Colby College Museum of Art

Subject

Titles

Whistler's original title is not known. Later titles are as follows:

'Head of a Peasant Woman', a translation of the earliest known title, is the generally accepted title.

Description

Head of a Peasant Woman, The Hunterian
Head of a Peasant Woman, The Hunterian

A head and shoulders portrait of a woman, in vertical format. She has dark eyes. Her dark hair, with a central parting, is pulled back behind her ears and bound with a plain white cotton scarf. She is turned slightly to her right, and seen in three-quarter view, but looks directly at the viewer. She wears gold earrings, and a pearl on a dark ribbon hangs round her neck. A white blouse is just visible at her neck under a grey/black dress. The background is very dark.

Sitter

The identity of the sitter is unknown. Whistler's biographers, the Pennells, described the sitter as a 'model'. 5 Her neat dress and tasteful jewellery suggest that she was not a servant, nor particularly poor, but equally, that she was not a fashionable lady.

Comments

The provenance of Head of a Peasant Woman is not comprehensive, in that it came from a relative of Whistler, but it is not mentioned in publications before 1905. Technically the painting, while an attractive and professional work, is not totally consistent with Whistler's known work.

Whistler Smoking, Private collection
Whistler Smoking, Private collection

Curiously, however, the painting is close in size to another early portrait on a wood panel, Whistler Smoking y009. The early history of both paintings is unclear: Head of a Peasant Woman was in a French collection by 1905 and Whistler Smoking was in a French collection until 1912. However, the technique is rather different (the self-portrait is signed and is more thickly and freely painted), as is the scale of the head in relation to the panel. The similarity in support and size may well be sheer coincidence but it could indicate a link to Whistler.

Technique

Composition

Head of a Peasant Woman, The Hunterian
Head of a Peasant Woman, The Hunterian

La Mère Gérard (1), Colby College Museum of Art
La Mère Gérard (1), Colby College Museum of Art

Although the realistic approach is comparable to Whistler's other portraits of the late 1850s, particularly La Mère Gérard (1) y026, it is painted far more thinly and carefully than other portraits, such as Whistler Smoking y009, Portrait of Whistler with Hat y023, and Head of an Old Man Smoking y025. Portrait of Major G. W. Whistler (2) y029 comes closest in technique and in precision, but it is not as thinly painted and is probably not by Whistler!

Technically Head of a Peasant Woman is also comparable to some of Whistler's late panels, such as Gold and Orange: The Neighbours y423 in its level of finish and treatment of paint.

It is not totally consistent with Whistler's known work but it is true that his early work can vary quite considerably in technique.

Technique

Head of a Peasant Woman, The Hunterian
Head of a Peasant Woman, The Hunterian

Traces of a graphite pencil outline can be seen around and on the head, where the paint is almost as thin as watercolour. It is on a 4-5 mm thick wooden panel, with a slight bevel on the verso, which has a vertical grain. This was prepared with a grey/buff ground, possibly over a white ground. 6

The light grey priming consists of lead white, chalk and bone black, in oil. The background has a light/mid blue underpainting in lead white and synthetic ultramarine in oil, absent from the dress. The black paint includes bone black and natural umber in lead white. According to Professor Joyce H. Townsend, the materials are consistent with Whistler’s materials. 7

There are signs of abrasions and possible reworking around the head, probably by the artist.

Conservation History

There are abrasions, which may be the result of cleaning. It was varnished by Harry Woolford, Edinburgh, in 1967, and has rather a thick and slightly discoloured glossy varnish. It is, however, structurally sound. 8

Frame

Modern, 37.7 x 30.2 x 3.5 cm.

There is a stamp on the verso, reading 'DOUANE / EXPORTATION / CENTRALE'; this may date from the painting's exhibitions in 1905. There is also an exhibition label on the verso, 'POTTIER, EMBALLEUR … 11, Rue Grillon, PARIS'.

History

Provenance

The early provenance is uncertain. It could have been passed by family descent from Whistler's half-brother, William McNeill Whistler (1836-1900) to Beatrice Winans (Comtesse de Béarn) (1884-1907). There is no record of it before 1905 when she lent it to the Whistler Memorial Exhibition. The Comtesse died shortly after the birth of her son, and the painting could well have passed to her sister, who was known as an important collector.

Exhibitions

It was not, as far as is known, exhibited in Whistler's lifetime.

Head of a Peasant Woman, The Hunterian
Head of a Peasant Woman, The Hunterian

La Mère Gérard (1), Colby College Museum of Art
La Mère Gérard (1), Colby College Museum of Art

At its first known exhibition, at the Whistler Memorial exhibition in London in 1905, it was compared to La Mère Gérard (1) y026, but showed, wrote the Sheffield Daily Telegraph on 23 February 1905, 'a little more decision.'

Bibliography

Catalogues Raisonnés

Authored by Whistler

Catalogues 1855-1905

Newspapers 1855-1905

Journals 1855-1905

Monographs

Books on Whistler

Books, General

Catalogues 1906-Present

COLLECTION:

EXHIBITION:

Journals 1906-Present

Websites

Unpublished

Other


Notes:

1: YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 21).

2: Œuvres de James McNeill Whistler, Palais de l'Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris, 1905 (cat. no. 3b).

3: Memorial Exhibition of the Works of the late James McNeill Whistler, First President of The International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers, New Gallery, Regent Street, London, 1905 (cat. no. 80).

4: YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 21).

5: Pennell 1908 [more], vol. 1, pp. 73-74.

6: Condition report by Clare Meredith, 8 May 2001, Hunterian files.

7: Technical analysis carried out at the Natural History Museum EM Unit, London, for Professor J. H. Townsend, and report by J. H. Townsend, July 2017, GU WPP. She notes that the priming and underpainting have considerable lead soap formation, which makes these layers more transparent and makes the dark paint on top look less detailed and more transparent too.

8: Meredith, 8 May 2001, op. cit.