The Paintings of James McNeill Whistler

YMSM 044
A White Note

A White Note

Artist: James McNeill Whistler
Date: 1862
Collection: Colby College Museum of Art
Accession Number: 2013.418.
Medium: oil
Support: canvas
Size: 36.8 x 31.8 cm (14 1/2 x 12 1/2")
Signature: 'Whistler' and 'Whis'
Inscription: '1862'
Frame: Flat Whistler, American, 1920s

Date

A White Note probably dates from 1862. It is signed and dated very faintly, possibly reading 'Whistler / 1862'.

A White Note, Colby College Museum of Art
A White Note, Colby College Museum of Art

1861: Whistler's biographers, the Pennells, assumed, probably wrongly, that 'Joe, Note Blanche' was painted in Whistler's studio in Paris, 'in the Boulevard des Batignolles in 1861.' 1

1862: Whistler wrote in October from Guéthary in the Basses-Pyrénées to Ignace-Henri-Jean-Théodore Fantin-Latour (1836-1904), saying that he was having trouble completing a canvas:

'il fait un temps de tous les diables! Je regrette la petite toile de [20?]. C'est une tranchée de chemin de fer - mais il semble impossible de pouvoir la finir, car chaque fois qu'il pleut on est obligé d'attendre trois jours pour que la terre seche avant de pouvoir y travailler!' 2

Translation: 'the weather is devilish! I am sad about the little canvas of [20?]. It is a railway cutting - but it seems impossible to finish, because every time it rains one has to wait three days for the ground to dry before being able to work on it!'

By the end of November winter had set in, forcing him to leave Guéthary, as he told Fantin:

'Ah mon cher decidement tu as raison - la peinture d'apres nature! on doit la faire chez soi! Il n'y a que la petite toile de vingt que je rapporte et de ça je ne suis pas trop content - L'hiver ici me serait impossible et je perds mon temps inutilement.' 3

Translation: 'Ah my dear fellow you are right - painting from nature! needs to be done at home! I shall only be bringing back the little size twenty canvas and I am not too pleased with it - Winter here would be impossible for me and I am wasting my time uselessly.'

At one point Whistler asked Fantin-Latour to send him some materials from a supplier of artist's materials, P. Hardy-Alan (fl. 1860-1903), possibly for this canvas:

'Maintenant sois assez gentil pour aller immediatement chez Hardy faire partir de suite les deux toiles en question, ... Dis a Hardy aussi qu'il me faut deux tubes du beau vermillion!! 2. Jaune Citron, et puis n'y a-t-il pas de jaune Garance? il doit avoir Garance jaune, ou jaune de Maro - Deux tubes de chaque s'il y en a.' 4

Translation: 'Now will you be nice enough to go straight to Hardy's and have him send right away the two canvasses in question; ... Tell Hardy that I also need two tubes of beautiful vermilion!! 2 Lemon Yellow, and also, is there not some Madder-Root Yellow? He ought to have Madder-Root Yellow, or Màro Yellow. Two tubes of each if he has it.'

These colours suggest a richly coloured figure or landscape subject: Joanna Hiffernan's red hair and fair skin against an autumn landscape might qualify.

Images

A White Note, Colby College Museum of Art
A White Note, Colby College Museum of Art

Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl, Tate Britain
Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl, Tate Britain

Subject

Titles

One principal title is known:

'A White Note' is the preferred title.

Description

A White Note, Colby College Museum of Art
A White Note, Colby College Museum of Art

A three-quarter-length portrait in vertical format. A young woman with long dark red hair stands in profile to left, looking out of a window. She wears a white dress with low neckline and full sleeves. Her hands are clasped in front of her waist. Through the window is a landscape, under a grey sky. In the foreground is a field of ripe corn. There is a wooded hill in the distance, and a steam locomotive travelling from right to left in a cutting in front of the trees.

Site

It may have been painted in Guéthary, Basses-Pyrénées, where Whistler also painted Blue and Silver: Blue Wave, Biarritz y041.

Sitter

A White Note, Colby College Museum of Art
A White Note, Colby College Museum of Art

Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl, Tate Britain
Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl, Tate Britain

Joanna Hiffernan (b. ca 1843-d.1886), Whistler's chief model and partner in the 1860s. She also posed in white for Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl y038, Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl y052, Symphony in White, No. 3 y061, The Artist's Studio y062, and The Artist in his Studio (Whistler in his Studio) y063.

Comments

The inclusion of a locomotive in a picture by Whistler is unusual, but it may reflect attitudes towards contemporary subject matter associated with the Realist master, Jean-Désiré-Gustave Courbet (1819-1877). 10

Technique

Technique

A White Note, Colby College Museum of Art
A White Note, Colby College Museum of Art

The canvas is of fairly fine weave. The head was at one time higher up and further to the left. Parts of the sky and her left arm have been scraped down. There are areas of very dark, almost black, paint under the skirt and shawl, and a black line outlines her breast at left. Head and hair are painted thickly, and the dress is even more thickly impasted. The grey of the sky outlines her profile clearly. The curves of her hair, in shades of brown enriched with touches of red, extend partly over and partly under surrounding areas.

Although much of the figure was painted with a round-ended brush, some areas of shadow on her face were rubbed in to create softer shadows. By contrast, patches of bare canvas suggest her eyes and surround the brushstrokes on her face, the folds of the low-necked chemise, the skirt, and the shawl.

The undergrowth in the background, and the clouds, have been laid on with a palette knife; the square end of a bristle brush jabbed trees along the horizon. Only the wall below the window and the embankment below the train are painted thinly, the engine consisting of a summary stroke of green, and the funnel, a mere touch of reddish brown. It is possible that the train originally extended further to right. 11

Conservation History

Unknown.

Frame

Flat Whistler frame, American-made, 1920s. 12

History

Provenance

It is not known what happened to this painting at the time of Whistler's bankruptcy in 1879. According to a label on the frame, it was acquired by the artist Walter Richard Sickert (1860-1942). This was probably after Whistler's return from Venice in 1880 and certainly before 1888.

The painting was passed to Sickert's wife Ellen 'Nellie' Millicent Ashburner Cobden, Mrs W. R. Sickert (1848-1914) (they were divorced in 1899, at which time she took her maiden name of Cobden). She lent the painting to the Whistler Memorial exhibition in Paris in 1905, and after her death it was lent by her estate to an exhibition in San Francisco in 1915. It probably then passed to her sister, Mrs T. J. Cobden Sanderson, who owned it (according to the Pennells) before it was acquired by the art dealers, Knoedler's, New York. 13

Knoedler's sold it on 5 May 1920 to Harris Whittemore (1864-1927), Naugatuck, CT, President of the J . H. Whittemore Company. 14 On his death it passed to Gertrude Buckingham Whittemore (1874-1941), and was sold at auction after her death.

Exhibitions

A White Note, Colby College Museum of Art
A White Note, Colby College Museum of Art

In 1888 the Daily Telegraph compared it to the work of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), commenting that 'the rich red hair and full pouting lips suggest Rossetti', while the Yorkshire Post interpreted it, not very favourably, as a Pre-Raphaelite image, 'A sad-eyed damsel gazes wistfully through the open window of an ancient tower to a mass of woodland ... the picture is motiveless, is smudgily painted, and suffers grievously from a dead-level of colour.' 15 However, the Illustrated London News called it 'exceedingly clever', describing it as 'a girl in an admirable pose, looking over a bit landscape—painted many years ago, for it is a Whistler “before the mark,” no symptom of the butterfly being discernible'. 16

Bibliography

Catalogues Raisonnés

Authored by Whistler

Catalogues 1855-1905

Newspapers 1855-1905

Journals 1855-1905

Monographs

Books on Whistler

Books, General

Catalogues 1906-Present

Journals 1906-Present

Websites

Unpublished

Other


Notes:

1: Pennell 1908 [more], vol. 1, p. 95.

2: [24/31 October 1862], or possibly earlier in October, GUW #08029. It is not absolutely certain that it says '20', an alternative reading is 'Jo'.

3: [12/19 November 1862], GUW #07952.

4: [21/28 October 1862], GUW #08030.

5: New English Art Club, Dudley Gallery, London, 1888 (cat. no. 98).

6: Œuvres de James McNeill Whistler, Palais de l'Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris, 1905 (cat. no. 6).

7: Pennell 1908 [more], vol. 1, p. 95.

8: Pennell 1921C [more], p. 156.

9: YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 44).

10: YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 44).

11: MacDonald, Margaret F., 'Joanna Hiffernan and James Whistler: an Artistic Partnership' in Margaret F. MacDonald (ed.), The Woman in White: Joanna Hiffernan and James McNeill Whistler, New Haven and Washington, 2020, pp. 15-31.

12: Dr Sarah L. Parkerson Day, Report on frames, 2017.

13: Pennell 1921C [more], pp. 156, 161.

14: Smith, Ann Y., Hidden in Plain Sight: The Whittemore Collection and the French Impressionists, Garnet Hill Publishing Co. and Mattatuck Historical Society, 2009, p. 93.

15: Yorkshire Post, 9 April 1888; Daily Telegraph, 19 April 1888; press cuttings in GUL Whistler PC 9, pp. 87, 79.

16: 'The New English Art Club', Illustrated London News, London, 21 April 1888, p. 19.