The Paintings of James McNeill Whistler

YMSM 057
Sketch for 'The Balcony'

Sketch for 'The Balcony'

Artist: James McNeill Whistler
Date: 1867/1870
Collection: The Hunterian, University of Glasgow
Accession Number: GLAHA 46359
Medium: oil
Support: wood
Size: 61.0 x 48.2 cm (24 x 19")
Signature: none
Inscription: none
Frame: Reeded Flat, ca 1860

Date

1867: The earliest possible date for Sketch for 'The Balcony' is the early summer of 1867, when Whistler wrote to Ignace-Henri-Jean-Théodore Fantin-Latour (1836-1904): 'Je t'envoies une photographie d'apres la petite esquisse du 'balcon' - Je vais le faire grand presque comme nature pour le salon - Dis moi ce que [tu] en penses pour composition, lignes etc ... la couleur en est tres éclatante.' 1 (Translation: 'I send you a photograph of the little study of the 'balcony' - I am going to make it almost life-size for the salon - Tell me what you think of it as to composition, lines etc ... the colour of it is very brilliant.') This might refer to Sketch for 'The Balcony', although it is usually assumed that it referred to the more finished composition, Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony y056.

1864-1871: Whistler had framed his full signature in a rectangular cartouche on another Asian subject, Purple and Rose: The Lange Leizen of the Six Marks y047, which dates from 1864. He first used a butterfly monogram, derived from his initials 'JW', in Venus m0357 in 1869. In 1871 oils such as Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Chelsea y103 were signed with the butterfly on a rectangular cartouche, for exhibition.

Sketch for 'The Balcony', The Hunterian
Sketch for 'The Balcony', The Hunterian

Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony, Freer Gallery of Art
Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony, Freer Gallery of Art

1869/1870: Sketch for 'The Balcony' incorporates a cartouche (but no signature or butterfly) and flowers in the lower left-hand corner. These were painted in the foreground while the paint underneath was still wet, which implies that they are not a later addition, and that Sketch for 'The Balcony' dates from after 1869. Sketch for 'The Balcony' was originally very similar in colour and composition to Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony. The 'squaring' visible on the 'Sketch' could have been intended for transferring or enlarging the composition, perhaps revisiting the plan to enlarge the composition to life-size, as mentioned to Fantin-Latour in 1867.

1870: By the spring of 1870 Whistler had apparently abandoned or postponed the idea of enlarging the original study. The 'Sketch' could have been used as part of Whistler's preparations for completing Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony, which was sent to the Royal Academy of Arts for exhibition in May 1870, and was probably signed at that time with a butterfly on the cartouche in the lower left corner.

Andrew McLaren Young (1913-1975) pointed out that there is a major difference in spirit between Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony and Sketch for 'The Balcony'. In the 'sketch', he wrote, 'though posed almost identically, the figures are, with their occidental waists and curves, much more Greek than Japanese' and he thought that 'the sketch – and the rethinking of which it is a token ... inspired the alterations to the picture [Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony] ... that went to the 1870 Royal Academy.' 2

1870/1872: There are other possibilities. For instance, the Sketch for 'The Balcony' could have been painted or substantially reworked after the exhibition of Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony in 1870, and represent a re-think of the composition, which, in any case, was not carried out.

Images

Sketch for 'The Balcony', The Hunterian
Sketch for 'The Balcony', The Hunterian

Sketch for 'The Balcony', framed, The Hunterian
Sketch for 'The Balcony', framed, The Hunterian

Sketch for 'The Balcony', frame detail
Sketch for 'The Balcony', frame detail

Sketch for 'Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony', New York Public Library
Sketch for 'Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony', New York Public Library

Study for 'Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony', The Hunterian
Study for 'Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony', The Hunterian

Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony, Freer Gallery of Art
Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony, Freer Gallery of Art

The Artist in his Studio (Whistler in his Studio), Art Institute of Chicago
The Artist in his Studio (Whistler in his Studio), Art Institute of Chicago

Subject

Titles

Whistler's original title is not known. Only one title is recorded:

Description

Sketch for 'The Balcony', The Hunterian
Sketch for 'The Balcony', The Hunterian

On a balcony overlooking the river are four women. At left, a woman in a pink kimono-like robe reclines on the floor, leaning on her elbow at right and holding a fan above her head. To her right is a woman in pale pink robes, standing, leaning back, and holding on to the balcony railing; she is seen from the back, in profile to right, looking over the river. In front and to right of her is a seated woman in mauve and greyish-blue, holding a lute (shamisen), and behind this musician, barely visible at far right, is another seated woman, dark-haired, facing front. Behind the latter is a pillar and, at the upper right corner, slatted blinds are visible. There are flowers in the foreground and a group of rectangles form a cartouche in the lower left corner. The far side of the river is barely indicated.

Site

The view from Whistler's house in Lindsey Row, Chelsea, looking across to Battersea, on the south bank of the river Thames.

Sitter

The Artist in his Studio (Whistler in his Studio), Art Institute of Chicago
The Artist in his Studio (Whistler in his Studio), Art Institute of Chicago

The models may have included 'la Japonaise', who posed for The Artist's Studio y062, and The Artist in his Studio (Whistler in his Studio) y063 (reproduced above) in a pale peach-pink kimono, but since her features are not visible, this is not certain.

Technique

Composition

The date and purpose of this oil sketch are difficult to establish, and the sequence of the development of the composition, from pencil, pen, and watercolour sketches, to this oil sketch, to the finished and exhibited painting, and possibly to an enlarged version of the same composition, is not at all clear.

Sketch for 'Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony', New York Public Library
Sketch for 'Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony', New York Public Library

There are two drawings for, or studies related to, the 'Balcony' composition. Sketch for 'Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony' m0319, in pen and ink (reproduced above), appears to be the earliest idea and has a different figure at right, a woman seated on a stool and bending forward.

Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony, Freer Gallery of Art
Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony, Freer Gallery of Art

Study for 'Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony', The Hunterian
Study for 'Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony', The Hunterian

Sketch for 'The Balcony', The Hunterian
Sketch for 'The Balcony', The Hunterian

The other is a watercolour, Study for 'Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony' m0320, which was actually traced from the more finished oil, Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony. It has flowers in the foreground that appear to be an addition (they are painted in body-colour), and there is no cartouche. The watercolour appears to represent an intermediate stage, possibly in preparing Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony for the Royal Academy in 1870.

Sketch for 'The Balcony' and Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony y056 are very similar indeed in composition and size. Some of the pink- and peach-coloured draperies in the 'Sketch' were painted over what appear to be figures identical in form and colour to those worn by the models in Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony. This suggests that the 'Sketch' is a slightly later stage in the development of the composition, or that, having originally been almost identical to Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony, the 'Sketch' was materially altered with the aim of developing an alternative scheme.

The 'Sketch' incorporates the foreground flowers and a cartouche (for a signature) in the lower left-hand corner. These flowers and a butterfly monogram were added to Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony, possibly in or very shortly after 1870, but other details are different.

The right arm of the standing figure, which is straight in Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony, curves along the side of her body, and the whole figure has a strong backward curve. In addition, her dress, dark greenish–blue in Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony, is a pale pink. The fan of the figure lying down, blue in Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony, is pink in the 'Sketch', and the blue/grey robe on which she is lying extends over her shoulder in the 'Sketch'. In the 'Sketch', the girl playing a lute (shamisen) is wearing a dress or robe of a purplish shade, and a large light-coloured object, possibly a fan, is painted on her right side; in 'The Balcony' she wears much brighter and more decorative robes, but it is possible that a similar light-coloured robe is underneath the purplish dress seen in the 'Sketch'.

Technique

Sketch for 'The Balcony', The Hunterian
Sketch for 'The Balcony', The Hunterian

Sketch for 'The Balcony' is painted on a 21mm thick mahogany panel, constructed from a single section of timber. 5 It was sized with animal glue and then primed on both sides with a commercial priming of lead white, some chalk and traces of barium sulphate, in oil. Whistler applied a substantial dark grey imprimatura made from lead white and bone black in oil to the front. 6 The upright post appears to have been painted with brown imprimatura. The whole composition is painted over a dark background, against which the light colours stand out strongly. Blue paint underlies most of the composition – thus the sky, painted with horizontal brushstrokes, overlies blue – except where the architectural elements were done first in brown. The brushstrokes that depict the sky and water strokes are painted right up to these features and also to the head of the standing woman.

A medium or ‘sauce’, which might include copal as well as a natural resin such as mastic, was added to the paint. The pigments used include combinations of vermilion, madder, another red lake, pale and mid-chrome yellow, Prussian blue, and synthetic ultramarine; there is also some chrome orange and Indian red. For example, the peach-coloured robe contains vermilion, chrome orange, and a red earth pigment (Venetian or Indian red). The olive green of the screen includes lead white, chrome yellow, Prussian blue, vermilion, and ivory black. There is Prussian blue in the water and sky, mixed with raw umber and black – possibly ivory black – for the distant water, and with chrome yellow near the balcony. Bone black and umber were used for darkening and perhaps also as a universal harmoniser, in several mixtures. The paint goes neatly to the edges but does not run over the sides, except for slight staining where it has been wiped. Brushes 1cm wide were used on the sky, a smaller brush for the figures. 7

The figures were painted first, and the standing figure initially had a red sash (with paint containing vermilion) which was modified to a purplish pink. The pose of models was altered by wiping off partly dried paint, and painting straight over it, with further wet-on-wet working and wiping until the poses were finalised. There are signs of alterations: the figure lying down was originally 7 mm higher and her fan was higher up and to the right, and the seated figure with a shamisen was both higher and to the right, with her blue robes extending further left.

The reclining figure in her peach-coloured robe is surrounded by a complementary band of blue–green. The paint dried fast and must have been thinned with a fast-drying solvent, not oil. Faces were added at a late stage. The foreground flowers were added last, over wet and drying paint, with some of the same paint mixture used for the faces.

Sketch for 'The Balcony' is roughly 'squared' (in fact the ruled lines create rectangles) for transferring the composition to another or a larger canvas or panel. There are pin holes at intervals down each side of the panel, from which thread or thin wire would have been laid over the painting. The pin holes may have been meant to be regular but the spaces between them vary by up to 5 mm. 8 This irregularity would have made it very difficult to transfer the composition accurately to another support. Some of the paint covers, or partially covers, these ruled lines; in fact it looks as if the thread was laid over some parts while it was still wet.

There is no documentary record of Whistler transferring the composition to another canvas.

However, the 'squaring' does suggest that the artist had intended to use the lines to help in the transfer of an earlier drawing to the wood panel of Sketch for 'The Balcony', or, alternatively, the 'squaring' could be for enlarging the composition of Sketch for 'The Balcony' onto a larger canvas, as Whistler in 1867 told Fantin-Latour he planned to do for the Salon. 9 Furthermore, the alterations made to Sketch for 'The Balcony' may indicate that Whistler planned to change the composition of Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony, before enlarging it.

Conservation History

It is in good condition despite some paint loss at the edges and below the standing figure, and subsequent retouching. 10

Frame

Sketch for 'The Balcony', framed, The Hunterian
Sketch for 'The Balcony', framed, The Hunterian

Sketch for 'The Balcony', frame detail
Sketch for 'The Balcony', frame detail

70.2 x 59.4 x 5.4 cm.

History

Provenance

Unfinished works, and paintings destroyed by the artist, were not sold at the time of his bankruptcy. Some were retained for safe-keeping by his family, friends, and even creditors, and some of these paintings were returned to him later.

Exhibitions

It was not exhibited in Whistler's life time.

Bibliography

Catalogues Raisonnés

Authored by Whistler

Catalogues 1855-1905

Journals 1855-1905

Monographs

Books on Whistler

Books, General

Catalogues 1906-Present

COLLECTION:

EXHIBITION:

Journals 1906-Present

Websites

Unpublished

Other


Notes:

1: [June/July 1867], GUW #08045. Formerly dated [September 1867?], it was probably written shortly after the Royal Academy exhibition, which had opened in May.

2: Young, A. McLaren, Glasgow University's Pictures, Colnaghi, London, 1973 (cat. no. 73); YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 57).

3: Young, A. McLaren, James McNeill Whistler, Arts Council Gallery, London, and Knoedler Galleries, New York, 1960 (cat. no. 20).

4: YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 57).

5: Mahogany support, tangential cut, painted on reverse and not in the least warped or cracked, neat edges. Report by Professor Joyce H. Townsend, Tate Britain, June 2016, GUL WPP.

6: Condition report by Clare Meredith, 8 May 2001, Hunterian files; Report by Professor Joyce H. Townsend, Tate Britain, 2017, GUL WPP.

7: Technical analysis carried out at the Natural History Museum EM Unit, London; reports by Professor Townsend, 1993 and 2017.

8: The holes are on the sides of the panel, and reading from left to right along the bottom edge, the distances hole to hole measure 59 mm, 63 mm, 61 mm, 58 mm, 60 mm, 60 mm, 61 mm, and 60 mm to the right edge of the panel; along the top, left to right, they measures 58 mm, 62 mm, 60 mm, 59 mm, 58 mm, 58 mm, 63 mm, and 62 mm to the end; along the left edge, reading from top to bottom, the distance between holes is 39 mm, 37 mm, 38 mm, 38 mm, 39 mm, 37 mm, 39 mm, 37 mm, 37 mm, 39 mm, 37 mm, 37 mm, 38 mm, 37 mm, 37 mm, and 39 mm to the end; along the right edge, reading from top to bottom, the distances between holes are 38 mm, 37 mm, 38 mm, 38 mm, 39 mm, 37 mm 38 mm, 38 mm, 38 mm, 39 mm, 37 mm, 37 mm, 38 mm, 38 mm, 37 mm, and 39 mm. Measured by Professors J. H. Townsend, Tate Britain, and Christina Young, University of Glasgow, 2017.

9: [June/July 1867], GUW #08045.

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