The Paintings of James McNeill Whistler

YMSM 064
Harmony in Blue and Silver: Trouville

Harmony in Blue and Silver: Trouville

Artist: James McNeill Whistler
Date: 1865
Collection: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, MA
Accession Number: P1e6
Medium: oil
Support: canvas
Size: 49.5 x 75.5 cm (19 1/2 x 29 3/4")
Signature: butterfly
Inscription: none
Frame: Flat Whistler, Foord & Dickinson label, 1878 [16.5 cm]

Date

Harmony in Blue and Silver: Trouville, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Harmony in Blue and Silver: Trouville, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Harmony in Blue and Silver: Trouville dates from Whistler's stay in Trouville with his model Joanna Hiffernan (b. ca 1843-d.1886) and the painter Jean-Désiré-Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) in 1865, and shows Courbet himself on the shore. 1

The dates of Whistler's visit to Trouville are not precisely known. He was still in London in mid-August 1865, but he probably left England shortly afterwards. He was certainly in Trouville in October, and on 20 October wrote to Lucas (Luke) Alexander Ionides (1837-1924) from the Hôtel du Bras d'Or:

'I am staying here to finish two or three sea pieces which I wish to bring back with me - I believe they will be fine - and worth quite anything of the kind I have ever done - This is a charming place - although now the season is quite over and every one has left - but the effects of sea and sky are finer than during the milder weather.' 2

On 26 October he wrote again to Ionides, 'I am finishing some important pictures which will keep me here until about the 10th of Nov … My picture I think you will like very much - The Sea is splendid at this moment but I am anxious to get back.' 3

He was back by the end of November, and indeed on 25 November his mother wrote that she was 'glad to hear of your last sea views', which had been described to her by Annie Harriet Haden (1848-1937). 4

Images

Harmony in Blue and Silver: Trouville, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Harmony in Blue and Silver: Trouville, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Harmony in Blue and Silver: Trouville, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Harmony in Blue and Silver: Trouville, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Harmony in Blue and Silver: Trouville, frame detail
Harmony in Blue and Silver: Trouville, frame detail

Subject

Titles

Several possible titles have been suggested:

The title 'Harmony in Blue and Silver, Trouville' was given by Whistler in his receipt for payment of this painting in November 1892, although in his letter to E. G. Kennedy of 10 June 1892 he referred to it as 'Sea and Sand'. The punctuation has been amended to conform with other titles, and thus the preferred title is 'Harmony in Blue and Silver: Trouville'.

Description

Harmony in Blue and Silver: Trouville, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Harmony in Blue and Silver: Trouville, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

A beach scene, in horizontal format. At lower left, a man in an overcoat looks across the wide beach to the pale blue sea. The clouds are a pale blue/grey. There are two sailing boats far out on the sea.

Site

The town and port of Trouville on the coast of France.

Whistler painted several pictures at Trouville, including Harmony in Blue and Silver: Trouville y064, Sea and Rain y065, Blue and Silver: Trouville y066, Crepuscule in Opal: Trouville y067, Green and Grey. Channel y069, and Green and Grey. The Oyster Smacks – Evening y070.

Sitter

Jean-Désiré-Gustave Courbet (1819-1877). Years later he remembered,

'la mer où nous prenions des bains sur la plage gelée ... la cotelette au déjeuner ce qui nous permettait ensuite de peindre l'espace la mer et les poissons jusqu'à l'horizon, nous nous sommes payés du rêve et de l'espace.' 13

Translation: 'the sea where we took baths in the freezing sea ... the cutlet at lunch which let us paint together the space, the sea and fish to the horizon, we paid ourselves with dreams and space.'

The painting was listed by Whistler as 'Courbet - on sea shore' in 1892. 14 It shows Courbet at Trouville, and was further identified by Whistler in 1895 as 'The only painting by me of Courbet'. 15

Whistler and Courbet worked together at Trouville in the autumn of 1865, and in a letter to his father of 17 November 1865 Courbet referred to Whistler as his pupil. 16 However, in an important letter in 1867 Whistler told Fantin-Latour that Courbet's influence had been very bad, though he admired Courbet's work:

'Courbet! et son influence a été dégoutant! le regret que je sens et la rage la haine même que j'ai pour cela maintenant t'étonerait peutêtre mais voiçi l'explication - Ce n'est pas le pauvre Courbet qui me repugne, ni ces peintures oeuvres non plus. J'en reconnais comme toujours les qualités - Je ne me plains pas non plus de l'influence de sa peinture sur la mienne - il n'y en a pas eu, et on n'en trouvera pas dans mes toiles - Ca ne pouvait pas être; parce que je suis bien personel et que j'ai été riche en qualités qu'il n'avait pas et qui me suffisaient - Mais voici pourquoi tout cela à été bien pernicieuse pour moi - C'est que ce damné Realisme faisait apel immediate à ma vanité de peintre! et se moquant de toutes les traditions criait tout haut, avec l'assurance de l'ignorance "Vive la Nature!!" la nature! Mon cher ce cri là a été un grand malheur pour moi! - Où pouvait on trouver un apotre plus pret à accepter cette théorie, si commode pour lui! ce calmant pour toute inquietude! - Quoi? il n'avait plus qu'à ouvrir ses yeux et peindre ce qui se trouvait devant lui! la belle nature et tout le bataclan! ce n'était que ca! et bien on allait voir!

Et l'on a vu ... Les Tamises - les vues de mer . . . . des toiles enfin produit par un polisson qui se gonflait de vanité de pouvoir montrer aux peintres des dons splendides - des qualités qui ne demandaient qu'une education sevère pour faire de leur possesseur un maitre au moment qu'il est - et non un écolier débauché.' 17

Free translation: 'Courbet! and his influence was disgusting! the regret I feel and the rage, hate even, I feel for all that now would astonish you perhaps but this is the explanation. It's not poor Courbet whom I find loathsome, any more than his paintings - As always I recognize the qualities they have - I am not complaining either about the influence of his painting on mine - there was none, and you will not find it in my canvases - There couldn't be; because I am too personal and I had many qualities that he did not have but which suited me well - But this is the reason why all that was so bad for me. That damned Realism made an immediate appeal to my vanity as a painter! and mocking all tradition cried out loud, with all the confidence of ignorance, "Long live Nature!!" nature! My dear fellow, that cry was a great misfortune for me! - Where could you have found an apostle more ready to accept this theory, so appealing to him! this remedy for all disquiet - What? All he had to do was to open his eyes and paint what was there in front of him! beautiful nature and the whole caboodle! that was all there was to it! and then people went to see it!

And they saw ... the Thames pictures - the seascapes ... canvases produced by a nobody puffed up with pride at showing off his splendid gifts to other painters - qualities which only required strict education to make their owner the master he really is - not a degenerate student.'

Technique

Composition

Courbet's figure was added after the background had dried, and his feet were originally further to the left. The composition has often been compared with that of Courbet's The Seaside at Palavas of 1854 (Musée Fabre, Montpellier). Courbet's work is richer in colour, more thickly painted, and has a diagonal emphasis lacking in Whistler's more two-dimensional composition. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum website comments:

'Yet, while it refers to that picture and represents the figure of Courbet within its composition, Harmony in Blue and Silver is a turning point in the emergence of what would come to be Whistler’s mature painting mode, a radical reduction of painting to thin veils of color brushed across canvas. Whistler’s growing commitment to the purely formal elements of painting is apparent in the way in which the calm expanses of sand, sea, and sky approach the abstraction of pure bands of color; yet at the same time, thin washes of a pale lavender color suggest shifting lights and depths in the water and the air.

In this painting, a dynamic tension between surface pattern and the evocation of expansive space is reinforced by the ambiguous direction of the gaze of Courbet’s small figure at the lower left. If the figure’s head is turned toward the right, then he gazes diagonally across the sands, with his “Assyrian” beard visible in profile, though wearing his hat at an oddly precarious angle. Alternatively, the figure might be looking straight out to sea, as the hat’s placement tends to suggest. The ambiguous direction of the figure’s gaze may be taken to relate to the picture’s suspension between flat immediacy and expansive depth: in one reading, the figure directly confronts the flat bands of color; in the other reading, the figure gazes across a sea that recedes toward a vanishing point defined by a sailboat in the middle distance and a second boat on the far horizon.' 18

Technique

Harmony in Blue and Silver: Trouville, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Harmony in Blue and Silver: Trouville, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

It is painted on a fine weave canvas. Whistler's long brushstrokes sweep across the canvas parallel to the picture frame, up to a high horizon. The effect is not really flat, however, for the muted pale colours, set off by the still, straight figure, lend an air of spaciousness to the design.

Conservation History

In 1878 Whistler complained to John Cavafy:

'I gave the picture to your Father! ... after many years it comes back to me in a pretty condition - any quality of light and purity it may possess being utterly lost - so much so that it was almost a question as to whether they were not gone for ever - With very little hope however I set to work and finally manage[d] to clean the little picture - and restore it to its original fairness - and then take the trouble to order for it a frame designed by myself - so that after a long period it is returned to you pretty enhanced in beauty; and as a result, so little is the who[l]e thing cared for, that your Father refuses to pay the frame maker for the frame for my silly gift.' 19

On 12 June 1892, Whistler wrote from Paris to his picture restorer, Stephen Richards (1844-1900),

'you will have brought to you, almost directly, four more pictures by me; I have said that you are the only man fit to touch my work, therefore, you must prove again how right I am, in having this full confidence in you. You will clean and take off the varnish with the utmost care and tenderness - Two of the pictures have not been cleaned since they were first painted. They ought all to come out in the most brilliant condition. … The little Thames picture and the seapiece are painted as well as I remember, in one go and consequently are not so much impasted, therefore will require your utmost care.' 20

Likewise, he told Edward Guthrie Kennedy (1849-1932):

'Take the pictures to Mr. Richards - you know where his place is - He is the only man fit to clean my paintings - and you can tell him so from me … Let him then clean the four and varnish them ... they must be covered with dirt ... He works not only well but quickly ... My own, the Sea piece has got a frame that will do for the present - and I can get a glass here of course - probably it would be safer to travel without.' 21

The butterfly signature, added by Whistler in 1892, has been partly cleaned off.

Frame

1865/1870: the style and whereabouts of the original frame, if there was one, is unknown. It is possible that the frame currently on the picture was the original, but that the surface was altered later.

Harmony in Blue and Silver: Trouville, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Harmony in Blue and Silver: Trouville, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Harmony in Blue and Silver: Trouville, frame detail
Harmony in Blue and Silver: Trouville, frame detail

1878/1879: Foord and Dickinson, 90 Wardour Street, sent Whistler a bill (which was among his bankruptcy papers!) for a frame that may have been for this painting, 'A wainscot reeded frame own pattern gilt with green gold 29¾ x 19½', at £6.9.0, and 'A best white patent plate glass for above frame over inside flat', at £1.3.0. 22 The current Flat Whistler frame bears a Foord & Dickinson label. The account quoted above shows that it originally had a painted panel.

History

Provenance

Whistler gave it to G. J. Cavafy, who had bought several of his paintings (The Last of Old Westminster y039, Battersea Reach y045, Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony y056), before about 1878 when Whistler had the painting cleaned and restored and decorated the frame. However, he then complained vigorously to the owner's son, John Cavafy (1839-1901), 'I gave the picture to your Father! absolutely was young enough and foolish enough to make a present of it! ... the right thing to do would be simply this - Give me back my picture - you have had it quite long enough.' 23

Cavafy's pictures were for sale at the Goupil Gallery in June 1892. Cavafy was prepared to accept £600.0.0 cash for all four (this painting, The Last of Old Westminster y039, Battersea Reach y045, and Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony y056). When Goupil failed to sell them, and despite an offer by John Chandler Bancroft (1835-1901), they were bought by E. G. Kennedy of Wunderlich & Co., New York, for £650, and he agreed to return 'Sea and Sand' (Harmony in Blue and Silver: Trouville y064) to Whistler. 24

Despite having ruthlessly helped to sell the picture, Whistler criticised Cavafy's 'rabid greed' in selling it, 'for in his indecent haste he has parted with the works for only a quarter of what they will at once fetch!' 25 Failing to sell 'Sea & Sand' through Durand-Ruel in Paris for 600 guineas, Whistler was prepared to sell it to E. G. Kennedy and apologised for making the 'inexcusable mistake', of offering it first to Durand-Ruel. 26 However, by the end of October 1892 it had been sold to Americans visiting Paris, and Whistler invited Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898) to see 'La marine de Trouville - avec Courbet sur la plage' in his studio in Paris, and meet the Americans who had bought it. 27

One source says that James Rennell Rodd (1858-1941) took Isabella Stewart Gardner to see the picture, another, that she took the American ambassador Thomas Jefferson Coolidge, jr (1863-1912) to support her when she wished to acquire the painting. 28 The Gardner Museum website adds a version of the story of the purchase:

'She fell in love with the picture when she saw it in Whistler’s Paris studio. The artist reluctantly agreed that she could have it, but showed no signs of relinquishing it to her. Impatient, Mrs. Gardner returned with a friend whom she had coached in advance. She told the artist: “That’s my picture … you’ve said many times I could have it, Mr. Whistler, and now I’m going to take it.” Her companion took the painting and started out, followed by Mrs. Gardner, who blocked the way as Whistler followed, complaining that the picture was not finished because he had not signed it. Mrs. Gardner refused to listen, inviting the artist to lunch at her hotel, where he could then sign the picture.' 29

Mrs Gardner agreed to buy it for 600 guineas; then she returned the picture to Whistler so that it could be signed and on 4 December 1892 wrote to ask if she could bring the cheque and collect the picture, adding pointedly, 'Both have to be signed, you know!' 30

Exhibitions

It has been suggested that it was also the 'Harmonie en bleu et argent' exhibited in Ouvrages de peinture, sculpture, architecture, gravure et lithographie des artistes vivants, 101st exhibition, Salon de la Société des artistes français, Palais des Champs Elysées, Paris, 1883 (cat. no. 4) but this seems unlikely, since a description of 'Harmonie en bleu et argent' makes no mention of the conspicuous figure. The description ('Mer bleue où se mirent les nuages, azur du ciel, ainsi que l'argent des autres nuages dans les vagues qui viennent lécher la plage. Effet encore tendre' 31 ) is more applicable to Sea and Rain y065 or Blue and Silver: Trouville y066.

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: YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 64).

2: GUW #11310.

3: GUW #11311.

4: A. M. Whistler to J. Whistler, 25 November [1865], GUW #06526.

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

6: J. Cavafy to Whistler, 7 June 1892, GUW #00783.

7: Whistler to E. G. Kennedy, 10-11 June 1892, GUW #09680.

8: B. Whistler to E. G. Kennedy, [22 October/November 1892], GUW #09703.

9: Whistler to S. Mallarmé, [25 October 1892], GUW #03849.

10: 30 November 1892, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Archives.

11: Loan Exhibition of Pictures by Modern Painters, Copley Society, Boston, 1898 (cat. no. 90).

12: YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 64).

13: 14 February 1877, GUW #00695.

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

15: Whistler to D. C. Thomson, [24 April 1895], GUW #08304.

16: Riat, Georges, Gustave Courbet, Paris, 1906, pp. 228-29.

17: [June/July 1867], GUW #08045. Formerly dated [September 1867?]; however, it was probably written shortly after the Royal Academy exhibition.

18: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum website. See also Tsui, Aileen, 'Harmony in Blue and Silver: Trouville,' in Alan Chong et al., (eds), Eye of the Beholder, Boston, 2003, pp. 198-99.

19: Whistler to J. Cavafy, [July/October 1878], GUW #00549.

20: GUW #08114.

21: 13 [June] 1892, GUW #09685.

22: [August 1878/1879], GUW #08944.

23: Whistler to J. Cavafy, [July/October 1878], GUW #00549.

24: J. Cavafy to Whistler, 7 June 1892, GUW #00783; Whistler to Cavafy, [8 June 1892, GUW #00565; Cavafy to J. & R. McCracken, 10 June 1892, GUW #00562; Cavafy to J. C. Bancroft, 10 June 1892, GUW #00784; Whistler to E. G. Kennedy, 10-11 June 1892, GUW #09680.

25: Whistler to H. E. Whistler, [7 August 1892], GUW #06718; see also Whistler to J. Cavafy, 14 August 1892, GUW #00566.

26: Whistler to Kennedy, [20 October / 10 November 1892], GUW #09700.

27: Whistler to S. Mallarmé, [25 October 1892], GUW #03849.

28: Pennell 1908 [more], vol. 2, pp. 129-30; Carter 1925 [more], p. 135.

29: Website at http://www.gardnermuseum.org; see also Aileen Tsui, 'Harmony in Blue and Silver: Trouville,' in Eye of the Beholder, edited by Alan Chong et al., Boston, 2003, pp. 198-99.

30: Whistler to J. L. Gardner, receipt, 10 November 1892, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum records; J. L. Gardner to Whistler, 30 November 1892, GUW #01645; I. S. Gardner to Whistler, 4 December 1892, GUW #01642.

31: [1883], unidentified press cutting in GUL Whistler PC 7, p. 15.