The Paintings of James McNeill Whistler

YMSM 037
The Coast of Brittany

The Coast of Brittany

Artist: James McNeill Whistler
Date: 1861
Collection: Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT
Accession Number: 1925.393
Medium: oil
Support: canvas
Size: 87.3 x 115.6 cm (34 3/8 x 45 1/2")
Signature: 'Whistler'
Inscription: '1861'
Frame: Grau-style, possibly American, after 1904

Date

The Coast of Brittany is signed and dated '1861'. It dates from the autumn of 1861. 1

In early June 1861 Whistler fell 'dreadfully ill with Rheumatic fever.' 2 He was nursed by his half-sister, Deborah Delano Haden (1825-1908), and family, in Sloane Street, London, advised by the family doctor, James Reeves Traer (1833-1867). By 25 July Whistler was much better and told his mother, Anna Matilda Whistler (1804-1881), that he planned to recuperate by the sea; she replied. 'I hope yr old friend "Sea Side" will soon establish the cure.' 3

It is not clear if he left immediately, but in mid-October George du Maurier (1834-1896) mentioned that 'Jimmy' was on the Côtes-du-Nord. 4 According to Whistler's mother he convalesced on the coast of Brittany, 'sea bathing recovering his health' for nearly three months. 5 This would have been perfectly reasonable in September 1861 but unwise in November! He may have returned via London, or travelled directly to Paris. He was certainly back in Paris by mid-November 1861. 6

The Coast of Brittany, Wadsworth Atheneum
The Coast of Brittany, Wadsworth Atheneum

On 23 November 1861 Ignace-Henri-Jean-Théodore Fantin-Latour (1836-1904) wrote to Edwin Edwards (1823-1879) that Whistler had been back in Paris a couple of weeks, 'il a fait un tableau qu'il ne veut montrer que nettoyé et encadré, oh! Barnum.' 7 A month later the painting was apparently ready to be displayed: under the title 'Seule', it arrived on 26 December 1861 in the Boulevard des Italiens for exhibition by the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. 8

Images

The Coast of Brittany, Wadsworth Atheneum
The Coast of Brittany, Wadsworth Atheneum

Whistler Memorial Exhibition, Boston, 1904, photograph, GUL Whistler PH6/15
Whistler Memorial Exhibition, Boston, 1904, photograph, GUL Whistler PH6/15

Whistler Memorial Exhibition, Boston, 1904, photograph detail, GUL Whistler PH6/15
Whistler Memorial Exhibition, Boston, 1904, photograph detail, GUL Whistler PH6/15

Whistler Memorial Exhibition, Boston, 1904, photograph, GUL Whistler PH6/27
Whistler Memorial Exhibition, Boston, 1904, photograph, GUL Whistler PH6/27

Design for a picture frame, G. A. Lucas Collection, Baltimore Museum of Art
Design for a picture frame, G. A. Lucas Collection, Baltimore Museum of Art

Subject

Titles

Several alternative titles have been suggested:

The variations on the title are confusing but the painting is generally accepted as 'The Coast of Brittany'.

Description

The Coast of Brittany, Wadsworth Atheneum
The Coast of Brittany, Wadsworth Atheneum

On 13 August 1899 Whistler described this as 'A beautiful thing - painted in Brittany - blue sea - long wave breaking - black and brown rocks - great foreground of sand - and wonderful girl asleep.' 20

It is a beach scene in horizontal format, with the horizon placed over two thirds of the way up the canvas. There are a few clouds in a pale blue sky. The girl, sitting on the sand, leaning back on the rocks at left, is dressed in Breton costume: a black dress with large white collar and white bonnet. The rocks are, as Whistler described, mainly a rich brown, with a band of nearly black rocks, dramatically contrasting with the vivid blue sea and white waves splashing on the shore.

Site

In 1862 Whistler described the painting as the 'Brittany Sea piece.' 21 On 13 August 1899 he said it had been 'painted in Brittany.' 22 It almost certainly shows the coast near Perros-Guirec in Brittany, in north-western France, where pink granite rocks surround the sandy bays.

Whistler made one etching at Perros-Guirec in Brittany in 1861, The Forge [86].

Sitter

The model is unidentified: Whistler described her as a 'wonderful girl asleep.' 23

She is definitely not Whistler's partner, Joanna Hiffernan (b. ca 1843-d.1886), who was living with him in Greenwich in March 1861, while they were presumably working on Wapping y035. Hiffernan could not possibly have stayed with the Hadens while Whistler was ill, and it is not known where she spent the autumn. By December they were both in Paris, and sittings began for Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl y038.

Comments

It has been suggested that it recalls many English paintings of genre figures by the edge of the sea, for example those by James Clarke Hook (1819-1907) (see Seascape with Figures y040). 24

Technique

Technique

The Coast of Brittany, Wadsworth Atheneum
The Coast of Brittany, Wadsworth Atheneum

It is painted on a canvas that was probably acquired in France, for it is a 'toile de cinquante' (89 x 116 cm). The canvas bears the stamp: 'L'Rue Chil[debert] Paris / Hard[y] Alan'. P. Hardy-Alan (fl. 1860-1903) was at 1 rue Childebert, near St Germain-des-Prés, Paris, from 1859-1868. 25

On returning from France early in 1862, Whistler described the painting to George du Maurier (1834-1896), who in turn reported: '(The sand was not laid on with a palette knife.) And there is not one part of the picture with which he [Whistler] is not thoroughly satisfied he says, and its open air freshness nothing can stand against.' 26

Conservation History

Unknown.

Frame

In November/ December 1861, Ignace-Henri-Jean-Théodore Fantin-Latour (1836-1904) mentioned that Whistler had been back in Paris a couple of weeks, but would not show anyone his painting until it was cleaned and framed ('nettoyé et encadré'). 27

Design for a picture frame, G. A. Lucas Collection, Baltimore Museum of Art
Design for a picture frame, G. A. Lucas Collection, Baltimore Museum of Art

When ordering a frame for another seascape in 1862, Whistler asked George Aloysius Lucas (1824-1909) for one similar to that made for The Coast of Brittany, 'richly carved, and bold - deep and rather broad; massive but not cumbersome, and well finished.' 28 He reminded Lucas, 'The Brittany sea piece last year was a "toile de cinquante" and the frame very large and deep as you remember - it cost 150 [francs].' 29

When The Coast of Brittany was bought by Whistler's half-brother, George William Whistler (1822-1869), he asked Whistler about a frame:

'I want a nice & appropriate frame … I like as little of a frame around a picture as possible - Have the framing & packing well done, & I will pay you for it ... I dont know if the sea piece would look well with less frame than it now has - use your own judgement.' 30

Then George apparently queried the price of what he had bought and the artist offered take the picture back, promising, 'I will see that you are not troubled with the bill from the frame maker, or if he have already sent it, I will return you the sum.' 31 However, there are no further letters surviving and George kept the framed picture.

Whistler Memorial Exhibition, Boston 1904, photograph detail, GUL Whistler PH6/15
Whistler Memorial Exhibition, Boston 1904, photograph detail, GUL Whistler PH6/15

Whistler Memorial Exhibition, Boston 1904, photograph, GUL Whistler PH6/27
Whistler Memorial Exhibition, Boston 1904, photograph, GUL Whistler PH6/27

The frame, made in 1862 or 1863, appears in photographs of the Whistler Memorial Exhibition in Boston in 1904. It was then in a French-made Louis XVIth style frame, attributed to the Parisian frame firm Dutocq & Fernandez, which has since been replaced. 32

The painting is now in a Grau-style frame, probably American, dating from after 1904.

History

Provenance

Whistler's step-brother George, having bought the painting, reported to the artist: 'On Thursday I called on your friend Mr Cavafy & paid him the £84. for the picture.' 34 It appears that George was a little shocked at the price of his purchases (he bought etchings as well as paintings), so the artist offered to take the painting back:

'I fear that really I have launched you into art with foolish inconsiderateness, that I might hereafter have to reproach myself with - Your daily life requires nothing of the kind, and why should you unwisely begin! - Now my dear brother we will make it all right immediately ... give me a letter to Messrs [Carey/Cavafy?] to restore to me the case containing the sea piece ... I will return you the ... £84 ... and then all will be as it ought to be between us; - for it is absurd that the tastes of one brother for his own works! should be expensively forced upon the other!' 35

However, his brother kept the picture!

After G. W. Whistler's death in 1869, his family returned to Baltimore in the autumn of 1872, and the painting was passed by family descent until sold at Christie’s, London, in 1906. There is a gap in its provenance between 1909 and 1922, but during this time it appears to have remained in America.

Exhibitions

It was exhibited as soon as Whistler got back from Brittany and had it framed, under the title 'Seule'. 36 It was shown again in the following year at the Royal Academy as 'Alone with the Tide'. Whistler reported to G. A. Lucas: 'Now then for my news … "The White Girl" was refused at the Academy where they only hung the Brittany Sea piece and the Thames Ice Sketch! both of which they have stuck in as bad a place as possible.' 37 However, it was noticed by The Athenaeum, where it was described as 'a coast scene of wild weed and limpet-covered rock sunk in sand, the half-saturated look of which last is perfectly expressed.' 38 Furthermore, The Spectator thought it 'admirable', and 'painted with a truth of tone and power of handling that [gives] evidence of having been studied from nature.' 39

In March 1863 Whistler asked James Anderson Rose (1819-1890): 'Shall I send the Brittany Sea piece to the "Artists & Amateurs" or would it be too large?' 40 It was apparently not too large, but instead he sent an even larger painting, Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl y038 to The Artists' and Amateur's Conversazione, Willis's Rooms, London, 1863.

The Coast of Brittany then travelled with Whistler's widowed sister-in-law Julia de Kay Whistler to America, and was shown at the National Academy of Design in 1874, where, according to John LaFarge (1835-1910), it was 'skied above a door.' 41

In 1876 it was shown at the Academy Charity Exhibition in Baltimore as 'On the Brittany Coast'. 42 And a couple of years later, under yet another title, it appeared in the First Annual Exhibition of the Society of American Artists as 'Coast of Brittany'.

It was lent by Ross Winans Whistler (1858-1927) of Baltimore, to two exhibitions in New York in 1881. At the Union League Club an exhibition that was probably organised by Samuel Putnam Avery (1822-1904) included Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl y038 and Whistler's beach scene. The press was not enthusiastic. ' "The Brittany Coast" is a slashing study of rocks, against one of which reclines the figure of a female', wrote one art critic, comparing it unfavourably with 'a magnificent landscape by David Johnson.' 43 At this point there was a lull in its exhibiting history.

Whistler suggested it to David Croal Thomson (1855-1930) for inclusion in his 1892 Goupil retrospective, but nothing seems to have been done about it at that time. 44 A few years later he again suggested it, this time to Edward Guthrie Kennedy (1849-1932), for possible display in an undefined exhibition, possibly in New York.

'What do you know about the Winans' pictures? ... what about a painting called "Alone with the Tide"- It used to be George Whistler's -

A beautiful thing - painted in Brittany - Blue Sea - long wave breaking - black and brown rocks - great foreground of sand - and wonderful girl asleep - You ought to have that for the Exhibition -

And now that I tell you about it you might in return so manage that I have it for Exhibition here - and for reviewing - cleaning and putting in order.' 45

Whistler Memorial Exhibition, Boston 1904, photograph, GUL Whistler PH6/15
Whistler Memorial Exhibition, Boston 1904, photograph, GUL Whistler PH6/15

However, again, there was no further action taken. It was not exhibited again until the Whistler Memorial exhibitions in both Boston and London.

Bibliography

Catalogues Raisonnés

Authored by Whistler

Catalogues 1855-1905

Newspapers 1855-1905

Journals 1855-1905

Monographs

Books on Whistler

Books, General

Catalogues 1906-Present

EXHIBITION:

SALE:

Journals 1906-Present

Websites

Unpublished

Other


Notes:

1: YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 37).

2: Letter from George du Maurier to his sister Isabel, dated from a reference to the recent Crystal Palace Rose Show of 6 July 1861. Du Maurier 1951 [more], p. 56.

3: 19 August 1861, GUW #06517.

4: Letter to his mother, Mrs du Maurier, dating from shortly after 12 October 1861, Du Maurier 1951 [more], p.84.

5: Letter to J. W. Gamble, 19 February 1862, GUW #06518.

6: D. Louncke to Whistler, 14 November 1861, GUW #02638.

7: Translation: 'he has done a painting that he does not wish to show until it is cleaned and framed, oh! Barnum.' Copy of letter, Bibliothèque Municipale, Grenoble. Fantin-Latour means Whistler was a showman, like P. T. Barnum.

8: Receipt signed by Ernest Gilloneau or Guilloneau, secretary to the Beaux-Arts Exposition, 26 Boulevard des Italiens, GUW #01664.

9: Receipt from E. Gilloneau or Guilloneau, 26 December 1861, GUW #01664.

10: Whistler to G. A. Lucas, 26 June [1862], GUW #11977.

11: RA Exhibition catalogue 1862 [more] (cat. no. 670).

12: Forty-Ninth Annual Exhibition, National Academy of Design, New York, 1874 (cat. no. 325).

13: Exhibition catalogue Charity Art Exhibition, Baltimore 1876 [more] (cat. no. 44).

14: Baltimore American and Commercial Advertiser, 20 March 1876.

15: First Annual Exhibition, Society of American Artists, Kurtz Gallery, New York, 1878 (cat. no. 76).

16: Anon., 'The Union League', unidentified newspaper, New York, [10 April 1881] (press cutting, GUL Whistler PC 4, p. 61).

17: Loan Collection of Paintings, in the West Galleries, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1881 (cat. no. 204).

18: Whistler to E. G. Kennedy, [3 August 1899], GUW #09796.

19: YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 37).

20: Whistler to E. G. Kennedy, [3 August 1899], GUW #09796.

21: Whistler to G. A. Lucas, 26 June [1862], GUW #11977.

22: Whistler to Kennedy, [3 August 1899], op. cit.

23: Whistler to Kennedy, [3 August 1899], ibid.

24: Staley, Alan (ed.), From Realism to Symbolism: Whistler and His World, Wildenstein, New York, and Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1971 (cat. no. 11).

25: Simon, Jacob, 'British artists' suppliers, 1650-1950', National Portrait Gallery website at http://www.npg.org.uk/research.

26: Du Maurier 1951 [more], pp. 104-05.

27: Copy of letter from Fantin-Latour to Edwin Edwards, 1861, Bibliothèque Municipale, Grenoble.

28: 18 October [1862], GUW #01987.

29: [27 October 1862], GUW #01988.

30: 2 May 1863, GUW #06676.

31: 7 October 1863, GUW #06677.

32: Dr Sarah L. Parkerson Day, Report on frames, 2017; see also Parkerson 2007 [more].

33: G. W. Whistler to J. Whistler, 2 May 1863, GUW #06676.

34: 2 May 1863, GUW #06676.

35: 7 October 1863, GUW #06677. It is possible that 'Messrs Carey' should read 'Messrs Cavafy'.

36: Receipt from E. Gilloneau, 26 December 1861, GUW #01664.

37: 26 June [1862], GUW #11977.

38: 'Fine Arts: R.A.', The Athenaeum, 24 May 1862, p. 699.

39: 'Fine Arts: Exhibition of the Royal Academy, First Notice', The Spectator, 10 May 1862, p. 521, and 'Fine Arts: Royal Academy, Second Notice', The Spectator, 17 May 1862, p. 549.

40: [20 March 1863], GUW #08985.

41: Quoted by Pennell 1921C [more], p. 156.

42: Baltimore American and Commercial Advertiser, 20 March 1876.

43: Anon., 'The Union League', unidentified press cutting, New York, [10 April 1881], GUL Whistler PC 4, p. 61. David Johnson (1827-1908) was based in New York, and his work reflected the influence of the Hudson River School and Barbizon painters.

44: Whistler to D. C. Thomson, [4/11 January 1892], GUW #06795.

45: Whistler to E. G. Kennedy, [3 August 1899], #09796.