The Paintings of James McNeill Whistler

YMSM 060
Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen

Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen

Artist: James McNeill Whistler
Date: 1864
Collection: Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
Accession Number: F1904.75a
Medium: oil
Support: wood
Size: 50.2 x 68.7 cm (19 3/4 x 27")
Signature: 'Whistler. 1864.'
Inscription: see above
Frame: 1864 Whistler, incised decoration [13.3 cm]

Date

Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen is signed and dated 1864. 1 It may, however, have been completed in the following year.

1865: It was probably the work referred to by Whistler in a letter to Ignace-Henri-Jean-Théodore Fantin-Latour (1836-1904) of March 1865, 'J'ai fait encore un petit tableau Japonais qui est ravissant! Je l'enverrai chez Martinet' (that is, he planned to send it to the exhibition of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, Paris). 2

Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen, Freer Gallery of Art
Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen, Freer Gallery of Art

It was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1865 (cat. no. 90) as 'The golden screen'.

Images

Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen, Freer Gallery of Art
Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen, Freer Gallery of Art

Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen, Freer Gallery of Art
Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen, Freer Gallery of Art

Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen, frame
Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen, frame

Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen, detail of frame
Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen, detail of frame

Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen, photo, Goupil Album, 1892,  Glasgow University Library, Whistler PH5/6/8
Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen, photo, Goupil Album, 1892, Glasgow University Library, Whistler PH5/6/8

Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen, photo, before 1903, Мир искусства [Mir Iskusstva, 'World of Art'], vol. 9, 1903, repr. p. 63
Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen, photo, before 1903, Мир искусства [Mir Iskusstva, 'World of Art'], vol. 9, 1903, repr. p. 63

Hiroshige, Saijo, Iyo Province, 1855, woodcut, Art Institute of Chicago 1980.339
Hiroshige, Saijo, Iyo Province, 1855, woodcut, Art Institute of Chicago 1980.339

Purple and Rose: The Lange Leizen of the Six Marks, Philadelphia Museum of Art
Purple and Rose: The Lange Leizen of the Six Marks, Philadelphia Museum of Art

Subject

Titles

Several possible titles have been suggested:

When it was exhibited in 1873, it was called 'The Golden Screen: Harmony in purple and gold (No. 2)', but before that date there is no record of a painting called 'Harmony in purple and gold No. 1', unless Purple and Rose: The Lange Leizen of the Six Marks y047 was first thought of as 'Purple and Gold' before being called 'Purple and Rose'. However, the title given in the 1873 exhibition catalogue (in which Whistler showed two paintings) could have been a mistake by the gallery. A label in Whistler's hand on the back of Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen y060 reads: 'No. 2: The Golden Screen (oil painting)'.

'Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen', as it was entitled in 1892, is the definitive title.

Description

Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen , Freer Gallery of Art
Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen , Freer Gallery of Art

A composition in horizontal format, showing a woman in a black embroidered kimono and red patterned scarf sitting on the floor, in profile to right. A white embroidered stole is also draped around her, spreading out onto the floor in the foreground. She holds a colour woodcut in her hands and several other Japanese prints are scattered on the floor around her. At right, behind the prints, is a folding chair, and behind her, right across the background, a gold painted screen. In the foreground at left is a blue and white Chinese jar.

Charles Lang Freer (1856-1919) thought that the screen was of the Tosa school. 12 The screen is not specifically identifiable but, according to the Freer Gallery of Art, the subject appears to be of the literary type, such as the Tales of Genji. 13

Hiroshige, Saijo, Iyo Province, 1855, woodcut, Art Institute of Chicago 1980.339
Hiroshige, Saijo, Iyo Province, 1855, woodcut, Art Institute of Chicago 1980.339

The model is looking at the prints of Ando Hiroshige (1797-1858), as discussed by MacDonald :

'These included Hiroshige’s 1855 colour woodcut Saijo, Iyo Province from Views of Famous Places in the 60-odd Provinces. A richly coloured, bold design, with startling perspective, it is dominated by the fan-shaped curve of a single sail, gathered into the mast like the waist of a robe. In the distance is a mountain, and tiny boats in the bay. Perhaps this provided inspiration for paintings such as Grey and Silver – Old Battersea Reach, where the sails dominate the composition.' 14

Other prints shown may be Hiroshige’s Osumi Province: Sakura shima (Osumi, Sakurajima), Suruga Province: Miho Pine Grove (Suruga, Miho no matsubara), and Etchu Province: Toyama, Pontoon (Osumi, Sakura shima) from the series Famous Places in the Sixty-odd Provinces (Rokujuyoshu meisho zue), published in 1853. 15

Sitter

Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen , Freer Gallery of Art
Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen , Freer Gallery of Art

Purple and Rose: The Lange Leizen of the Six Marks, Philadelphia Museum of Art
Purple and Rose: The Lange Leizen of the Six Marks, Philadelphia Museum of Art

Joanna Hiffernan (b. ca 1843-d.1886), who also posed in Asian dress for Purple and Rose: The Lange Leizen of the Six Marks y047.

Technique

Technique

Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen, Freer Gallery of Art
Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen, Freer Gallery of Art

It is on a thick wooden panel. It was painted carefully, richly coloured, with signs of alterations to the outlines of the carpet, prints, and clothes of the model. She may originally have turned more away from the viewer. Her knees and the curve of drapery were higher on the canvas. There was originally another woodcut on the floor at right, above those shown. At the lower right corner it is clear that the print was painted over the edge of the carpet.

There is some impasto on the draperies around the figure, and in the flowers at left. A wide variety of brushstrokes were used, from small dots for details like her earring and hair ornament, criss-crossing delicate strokes building up the modelling of the face, and broad, slashing strokes and blobs on the robe and embroidery. The background and floor are smoothly painted, setting off the vigorous brushwork in the foreground.

The woodcuts are surprisingly broadly painted, with a square ended brush applying blocks of colour, rather than replicating the detail of the images. 16 Anna Gruetzner Robins comments 'There is much in this picture to hold the viewer's attention, not least the vibrant colour effects in the prints, reduced to colour lozenges of red, yellow and blue that punctuate the landscapes of each print.' 17 It is apparent that it is the colour that influenced Whistler at this time: it was some years before the expressive shape of brushstrokes in Asian art had a major impact on his work. 18

Conservation History

Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen, photo, Goupil Album, 1892, Glasgow University Library, Whistler PH5/6/8
Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen, photo, Goupil Album, 1892, Glasgow University Library, Whistler PH5/6/8

Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen, Freer Gallery of Art
Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen, Freer Gallery of Art

Several repairs were carried out in the Freer Gallery of Art. A split in the panel was glued in 1921 and the panel was cradled in the following year. Cracks were infilled and the painting resurfaced in 1931. It was cleaned and resurfaced in 1935 and 1951. Heavy discoloured varnish and retouching was removed by Ben Johnson in 1965, and it was partially inpainted and cleaned before being varnished.

Frame

Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen, frame
Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen, frame

Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen, Freer Gallery of Art
Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen, Freer Gallery of Art

Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen, detail of frame
Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen, detail of frame

The provenance for the frame currently now on Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen y060 is unknown, as it apparently entered the Freer Gallery of Art in 1919 on a different painting, Portrait Sketch of a Lady y184, which is of a much later date. Andrew McLaren Young (1913-1975) attributed the present frame to this painting on grounds of its size, and its similarity to the frame designed for Purple and Rose: The Lange Leizen of the Six Marks y047, which was painted in the same year.

However, while the current frame is extremely similar in style and design to Whistler’s 1864 frames, as on La Princesse du pays de la porcelaine y050 and Purple and Rose: The Lange Leizen of the Six Marks y047, and possibly Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl y052 and Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony y056), the construction differs significantly.

The frame on Purple and Rose: The Lange Leizen of the Six Marks is made of solid wood pieces, while the frames on both La Princesse du pays de la porcelaine and Purple and Rose: The Lange Leizen of the Six Marks consist of several pieces of moulding joined together with wood corner blocks. The varying construction may suggest that it was made by a frame-maker other than Joseph Green. It could also suggest that it was not made in 1864, but at a later time. Furthermore, it could even indicate the work of an American framer, who may have had only a picture of the other 1864 frames to work from. While the frame looks as if it is original to the piece, it is difficult to know for certain.

The original frame, whether or not it is the current frame, may have been on Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen as early as 1865, and that frame may have been removed in 1892 when most of Whistler's works were reframed by Frederick Henry Grau (1859-1892). During preparations for the Goupil Gallery exhibition the majority of Whistler's works were reframed in the simpler Grau frame (gilded, reeded and quite broad) and it is possible that this painting was reframed at that time. This is not certain because Whistler himself was vague on the subject: he queried whether it had been reframed and if the owner had paid for that. 20 However, it is possible that a Grau frame was on the work when it was purchased by Charles Lang Freer in 1904.

History

Provenance

It was sold by Flower through Marchant to C. L. Freer on 19 June 1904, for £3000 plus 10 per cent commission.

Exhibitions

Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen, Freer Gallery of Art
Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen, Freer Gallery of Art

1865: Reviews of Whistler's work at the Royal Academy in 1865 were mixed but they make it clear that Whistler exhibited two Asian subjects: The Scarf y059 and Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen y060. Both were well hung, according to Philippe Burty (1830-1890), who wrote,

'ses deux Japonaises ont été justement considérées comme des mystifications, et les Académiciens, qui avaient le droit de les repousser, se sont montrés fort spirituels en les livrant au jugement des délicats par des places excellentes. Elles abondent en tons faux et délavés, choses singulières, puisque M. Whistler s'inspirait directement de ces feuilles d'albums japonais si franches et si riches.' 21

Translation: 'these two Japanese subjects are justly considered as mystifications, and the academicians, who had every right to reject them, were very spiritual [thoughtful? insightful?] in delivering them to the judgement of the refined by excellent places. They abound with false and faded tones, singular things, since Mr. Whistler was directly inspired by the leaves of Japanese albums, so fresh and so rich.'

The Pall Mall Gazette on 6 May 1865 described Whistler as 'An artist of remarkable power, but so eccentric that he can hardly hope for popularity' (!) and added, 'He continues painting Japanese ladies in fanciful draperies. As studies of colour these pictures are bold, original and pleasing. They are always left unfinished, in a kind of dilettante fashion, which reminds us of some foreign painters.' Similarly, the Saturday Review, after describing the Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl y052 as 'most gracefully felt, but less than half-painted', continued with an oblique reference to the Japanese subject:

'until Mr. Whistler chooses to put heads and hands on a level with screens and dresses, we fear that he will not rank above that class which the French name amateur-prodige.' 22

The Times categorised Whistler as eccentric, but grouped him with English 'young painters' like Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) and Ford Madox Brown (1821-1893) (neither of whom had anything in the exhibition!), Anthony Frederick Augustus Sandys (1829-1904), and Valentine Cameron Prinsep (1836-1904) (who also included Japanese artefacts in his Belinda (cat. no. 188). The critic commented:

'Mr Whistler is the man at once of highest genius and most daring eccentricity of this school. He is equally capable of exquisite things or of gross impertinences, and this exhibition contains instances of both; of the former, in the "Little White Girl", of the latter, in his two sketches of Japanese and Chinese fabrics and screens, accompanied by slight caricatures of maidens of the flowery land, mere plays of colour, and imitation of textures, ugly in form and unfinished in execution.' 23

On the other hand, William Michael Rossetti (1829-1919) considered them 'unsurpassed in delicate aberrances and intricate haphazards of colour.' 24

1873: A few years later the painting was on show at the Society of French Artists and was described enthusiastically in the London Evening Standard:

'Mr. Whistler's canvases ... impart an air of novelty to the gallery. We know of no greater difficulty than to succeed in giving people who have not seen them a notion of what Mr. Whistler's pictures are like. The more important, perhaps, of those now exhibited is called "The Golden Screen Harmony," which at first sight seems an exquisite work of a Japanese artist. Mr. Whistler rightly finds wonders in the works of Japan, which suggest to him much of beauty expressed with a rapture (little known in Europe) on costly robes and porcelain, on cabinet and screen. Like a child he sports with these things, and fashions terraces and peoples them with graceful shapes of women, who glide about among flowers or painted screens, and butterflies of every hue are supposed to wing their way from shrub to shrub and mingle with the blossoms. "The Golden Screen" is an interior made up of many picturesque things and patterns rare as the colours which cunning Oriental artists know so well how to combine in contrasts vivid, without once in an age breaking the laws of harmony.' 25

1892:

Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen, photo, Goupil Album, 1892,  Glasgow University Library, Whistler PH5/6/8
Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen, photo, Goupil Album, 1892, Glasgow University Library, Whistler PH5/6/8

The photographs taken for the Goupil Album in 1892 displeased Whistler, the photographic process having falsified the colour. He wrote to D. C. Thomson, complaining about 'those shocking reproductions of the Gold Screen!':

'Why, of all the pictures choose that one, so difficult in itself to reproduce at all, so absolutely unfitted in every way as a representative work because of the impossibility of even hinting at its atmosphere on account of the false rendering of its colour in photography and consequent hard black & whiteness! -

How did it come about by the way that it was chosen? I don't remember your saying anything to me about it - and what possessed the people to turn it out in the absolutely damnable blues & violets! like the outside of a Spanish plum box or a case of Cuban cigars! gold tipped Colorados!' 26

Immediately after the show, Whistler wanted to borrow the painting for exhibition in Paris, but clearly this did not happen. 27 It was finally shown in Paris after Whistler's death, in one of the memorial exhibitions.

By the terms of C. L. Freer's bequest to the Freer Gallery of Art, the painting cannot be lent.

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. 60).

2: [February/March 1865], GUW #08040.

3: 97th Exhibition of the Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1865 (cat. no. 90).

4: Sixth Exhibition of the Society of French Artists [Summer Exhibition], Deschamps Gallery, London, 1873 (cat. no. 109).

5: Whistler to J. A. Rose, [November 1878], GUW #08784.

6: Note by Whistler on letter from H. Faraday to T. Way, 12 March 1881, GUW #13354.

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

8: Whistler to D. C. Thomson, 21 February [1892], GUW #08212.

9: Nocturnes, Marines & Chevalet Pieces, Goupil Gallery, London, 1892 (cat. no. 14).

10: Œuvres de James McNeill Whistler, Palais de l'Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris, 1905 (cat. no. 8).

11: YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 60).

12: Freer to R. Birnie Philip, 1l August 1904, GUL MS Whistler BP III 4/60.

13: Note by A. Yonaumara, curator of the Oriental collections, Freer Gallery of Art.

14: V&A E367-1896; MacDonald 2013 [more], at p. 23.

15: See 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.

16: See MacDonald, Margaret F., Joanna Dunn, and Joyce H. Townsend, 'Painting Joanna Hiffernan', in Margaret F. MacDonald (ed.), The Woman in White: Joanna Hiffernan and James McNeill Whistler, New Haven and Washington, 2020, pp. 33-45.

17: Robins 2007 [more], pp. 26-27.

18: See 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.

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

20: Whistler to D. C. Thomson, [6 June 1892], GUW #08337.

21: Burty 1865 [more], p. 561. See also The Examiner, 6 May 1865, which described 'Mr Whistler's Golden Screen and Scarf, Japanese studies from a Birmingham teaboard' as 'well hung'.

22: Saturday Review, 3 June 1865 [more].

23: 'Exhibition of the Royal Academy. Second Notice', The Times, London, 8 May 1865, p. 8.

24: Rossetti 1867: [more], p. 276.

25: 'Society of French Artists', London Evening Standard, London, 21 April 1873, p. 2. See also 'Society of French Artists', The Examiner, London, 26 April 1873, pp. 15-16, at p. 16, which describes it as 'having more the appearance of a complete and finished picture than the generality of Mr Whistler's productions.'

26: [16 February 1893], GUW #08237.

27: Whistler to D. C. Thomson, [1/8 April 1892], GUW #08210.