The Paintings of James McNeill Whistler

YMSM 079
Annabel Lee

Annabel Lee

Artist: James McNeill Whistler
Date: 1869/1877
Collection: The Hunterian, University of Glasgow
Accession Number: GLAHA 46377
Medium: oil
Support: canvas
Size: 74.0 x 50.7 cm (29 1/8 x 20")
Signature: none
Inscription: none
Frame: Flat Whistler, 1870s

Date

Annabel Lee dates from between 1869 and 1877, and was reworked and rubbed down many years later. 1

1868: The composition relates to the series of 'Six Projects' (really five projects), such as Variations in Blue and Green y084, where figures are posed in front of railings against a background of sea and sky.

Sketch for 'Annabel Lee', The Hunterian
Sketch for 'Annabel Lee', The Hunterian

Annabel Lee, The Hunterian
Annabel Lee, The Hunterian

1868/1877: A small oil, Sketch for 'Annabel Lee' y080, may have preceded Annabel Lee y079, or been based upon it. The dates of both paintings are difficult to establish, partly due to the condition of Annabel Lee.

1869: Possibly commissioned by William Graham (1841-1910)

1869/1870: Whistler at first called it a 'Blue Girl' and wrote to a prospective purchaser, William Grapel (1822-1887), 'I wish indeed that the little Blue Girl were yours - for you like it and I should be much gratified to see myself on your walls ... This blue picture is a commission though - tant pis! [from] comparatively a stranger.' 2

1871: It was left unfinished, as Whistler's mother, Anna Matilda Whistler (1804-1881), explained, when the model fell ill:

'A lovely study ordered two years ago by a wealthy MP. was promised in August. A beautiful young girl of 15 had posed for it, she was a novice & soon wearied standing, & pleaded illness, then her brother in play with her as she was at home hurt her seriously, & she had convulsions . . . if the youthful Maggie had not failed Jemie as a model for "The girl in blue on the sea shore" which I trust he may yet finish for Mr. Grahame he would have had no time for my Portrait.' 3

1874: William Graham, MP, wrote on 4 April suggesting that Whistler should give him 'the charming little Annabel Lee', whether it was finished or not. 4

1877: Whistler stated that he had 'tried to complete it many times and has only ruined it':

'There has been always a miserable fatality about the little picture I certainly meant you to have long ago - Curiously unable to satisfy myself I have over and over again attempted to complete the work and only by degrees brought about its destruction.' 5

Annabel Lee, The Hunterian
Annabel Lee, The Hunterian

1900: Annabel Lee was rubbed down for repainting around the turn of the century, according to Harold Wright (1885-1961), probably on the basis of information from Whistler's sister-in-law, Rosalind Birnie Philip (1873-1958). 6

Images

Annabel Lee, The Hunterian
Annabel Lee, The Hunterian

Annabel Lee, frame
Annabel Lee, frame

Annabel Lee, Freer Gallery of Art, pastel
Annabel Lee, Freer Gallery of Art, pastel

Sketch for 'Annabel Lee', The Hunterian
Sketch for 'Annabel Lee', The Hunterian

Subject

Titles

Several possible titles have been suggested, although it is not absolutely certain that they all refer to the same painting:

Annabel Lee is now accepted as the definitive title, although it does not seem to have been used by Whistler.

The title is that of the poem by Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849). Annabel Lee was a child who lived 'In a kingdom by the sea.' Poe, like Whistler, had been a (failed) West Point cadet. 11

The text of Poe's poem is as follows:

'Annabel Lee

It was many and many a year ago, In a kingdom by the sea,That a maiden there lived whom you may know By the name of Annabel Lee; And this maiden she lived with no other thought Than to love and be loved by me.

I was a child and she was a child, In this kingdom by the sea, But we loved with a love that was more than love - I and my Annabel Lee - With a love that the wingéd seraphs of Heaven Coveted her and me.

And this was the reason that, long ago, In this kingdom by the sea, A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling My beautiful Annabel Lee; So that her highborn kinsmen came And bore her away from me, To shut her up in a sepulchre In this kingdom by the sea.

The angels, not half so happy in Heaven, Went envying her and me - Yes! - that was the reason (as all men know, In this kingdom by the sea) That the wind came out of the cloud by night, Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.

But our love it was stronger by far than the love Of those who were older than we - Of many far wiser than we - And neither the angels in Heaven above Nor the demons down under the sea Can ever dissever my soul from the soul Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;

For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams Of the beautiful Annabel Lee; And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes Of the beautiful Annabel Lee; And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side Of my darling - my darling - my life and my bride, In her sepulchre there by the sea - In her tomb by the sounding sea.'

Whistler's long-standing enthusiasm for Poe's writing was shared by his friends in Paris in the 1890s, and in particular by the symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898) and his circle. In 1889 Mallarmé presented Whistler with a copy of his translation of Les Poèmes d'Edgar Poe (Brussels 1888) including 'Annabel Lee'. 12

NOTE: Niobe or Annabel Lee:

Annabel Lee, 1885/1887,  Freer Gallery of Art
Annabel Lee, 1885/1887, Freer Gallery of Art

A pastel by Whistler now known as Annabel Lee m1077, shows a woman in classical robes, seen from the back, standing by railings looking out over the sea. Dating from 1885/1887, it was called 'Niobe' by Thomas Robert Way (1861-1913) until 1905. Then, according to Way, it 'was shown at the Memorial Exhibition under the title 'Annabelle Lee,' a title which he [Whistler] only gave it late in his life.' 13 Accordingly, it was renamed 'Annabel Lee' when it was bought from T. R. Way's father, Thomas Way (1837-1915) by Charles Lang Freer (1856-1919) in 1905. 14 It is now known as Annabel Lee m1077, but it has, as Getscher pointed out, only a tenuous relationship to the composition of the oil. 15

Description

Annabel Lee, The Hunterian, GLAHA 46377
Annabel Lee, The Hunterian, GLAHA 46377

A figure subject in vertical format. A young woman with wavy reddish-brown hair stands in front of a railing, with her arms extended on the rail at either side. She faces the viewer, her head slightly bent forward. Her weight rests on her right leg, and her left leg crosses over in front of it. She wears diaphanous robes gathered in at the neck, and a long thin mauve scarf is draped around her arms. The robe is creamy white with shades of grey and green. Behind the railing is a stretch of turquoise sea; the sky appears lilac at the horizon, with pale shades of cream, orange and greenish blue clouds above.

Sitter

Maggie (fl. 1871). The original model, a girl called Maggie, was mentioned in a letter from Whistler's mother to her sister, Kate Palmer, on 3 November 1871:

'A lovely study ordered two years ago by a wealthy MP. was promised in August. A beautiful young girl of 15 had posed for it, she was a novice & soon wearied standing, & pleaded illness, then her brother in play with her as she was at home hurt her seriously, & she had convulsions . . . if the youthful Maggie had not failed Jemie as a model for "The girl in blue on the sea shore" which I trust he may yet finish for Mr. Grahame [sic] he would have had no time for my Portrait.' 16

Comments

Annabel Lee is described as the first of many 'Blue Girls', although, as it now appears, it is totally different in dress and colour from the later studies in blue, The Blue Girl: Portrait of Miss Elinor Leyland y111, The Blue Girl: Maud Franklin y112, Arrangement in Blue and Green y193 , The Blue Girl: Portrait of Connie Gilchrist y207, possibly Harmony in Coral and Blue: Miss Finch y237 and Harmony in Blue and Violet: Miss Finch y239, Scherzo in Blue: The Blue Girl y226, and finally Blue and Coral: The Little Blue Bonnet y500.

Technique

Composition

Annabel Lee, The Hunterian
Annabel Lee, The Hunterian

Sketch for 'Annabel Lee',The Hunterian
Sketch for 'Annabel Lee',The Hunterian

The composition of a small oil painting known as Sketch for 'Annabel Lee' y080 is similar to that of Annabel Lee, but it is not certain if it came first or was inspired by it.

Technique

Annabel Lee, The Hunterian
Annabel Lee, The Hunterian

Annabel Lee is on a very fine plain tabby-weave canvas, very slubby and loosely woven (like muslin rather than linen), trimmed and paste-lined with a more textured fine weave canvas. Cusping of the canvas edges shows that it has lost at least 3 cm from the top and bottom edges. This would have made a considerable difference to the position of the figure, which would have had more space above the head. There is a thin priming layer including silica, lead white, chalk and earth pigments. The imprimatura is a pinkish brown colour, and analysis shows that it includes lead white, chalk, bone black and natural earth pigments. There is no sign of underdrawing. It appears to have been painted from the start as a draped, not a nude, figure. 17

Early sittings were interrupted by the illness of the first model, in 1871. In 1877, several years after he had commissioned this oil, William Graham wrote 'If my recollection does not mislead me it was quite sufficiently attractive in the state I bought it in, to be a pleasant addition to my collection.' 18 However, Whistler replied, 'Curiously unable to satisfy myself I have over and over again attempted to complete the work and only by degrees brought about its destruction.' 19 It was presumably in such a rubbed down state by 1879 that it was exempted from Whistler's bankruptcy sales, and the canvas was returned to him later – possibly many years later.

According to Harold Wright (1885-1961), it was rubbed down for subsequent repainting around 1900. 20

Visual evidence confirms that the painting was partially reworked. At both the left and right edges, the paint runs over the edge that had been trimmed for lining, suggesting that it might have been lined for Whistler, before he reworked it. 21 The paint on the head is smoother than elsewhere and the paint looks of a different quality, showing that the face was reworked. Greenish-blue streaks radiating from the neck run over the pink scarf and are also evidence of later working. Sky, horizon and water were painted partly over the reworked head.

Prussian blue was used for the background and the water. The pink horizon includes madder, non-fluorescent red lake, ultramarine, bone black, lead white, and a lot of wet-in-wet working. 22

Although the entire painting has been thoroughly rubbed down, it still glows with rainbow colours, and the face is delicately and softly painted.

Conservation History

The painting was largely rubbed down – at times, right down to the canvas – and the remaining paint is abraded and very thin indeed. However, the paint is in a generally stable condition, although the canvas is weak at the edges. 23

It was bequeathed by Miss R. Birnie Philip to the University of Glasgow with the specific instruction that it should not be restored.

Frame

Annabel Lee, frame
Annabel Lee, frame

Flat Whistler frame, probably dating from the 1870s, 105.5 x 81.5 x 5.2cm. This painting was never displayed during Whistler's lifetime, so it could have remained unframed, and been framed eventually with a frame of the right size from the studio.

History

Provenance

It was commissioned, probably in 1869, by William Graham, whom Whistler described as 'comparatively a stranger'. 24 On 4 April 1874, Graham asked Whistler:

'May I venture to ask you if you can at all summon the necessary afflatus to complete the charming little Annabel Lee of which I had a [preview?] in the early days of our acquaintance or if that cannot be if you will kindly let me have it in such unfinished state as you have been able to accomplish.' 25

In July 1877, Graham reminded Whistler that he had sent him £100 pounds on account for the picture, adding, 'it was quite sufficiently attractive in the state I bought it in, to be a pleasant addition to my collection.' 26 Whistler replied that he had 'tried to complete it many times and ... only ruined it', and asked Graham to accept Nocturne: Blue and Gold - Old Battersea Bridge y140 instead. 27

Annabel Lee may have been may have among the 'loose canvases which [Whistler] more or less destroyed at the time of his bankruptcy' in 1879, according to Thomas Robert Way (1861-1913), and which were handed over to his creditors, but 'rejected by the auctioneers as unsaleable' and bought by a picture dealer on behalf of Way's father, Thomas Way (1837-1915) . 28 It could then have among ten small canvases returned to the artist as part of the final settlement between Whistler, Thomas Way and his son, T. R. Way, in August 1897. 29

Exhibitions

It was not exhibited in Whistler's lifetime.

Under the stipulations of the bequest of Rosalind Birnie Philip (1873-1958), it was not to be lent to any exhibitions, because it was in an unfinished and rubbed down condition. However, it has been on exhibition in the Hunterian, and was lent to Japan in 1987. 30

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: Dated to 'late 1860s' in YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 79).

2: [1869/1870], GUW #01792, formerly dated [1869/1873]; a reference to a 'Venus' suggests the narrower date.

3: A. M. Whistler to C. Palmer, 3-4 November 1871, GUW #10071. The resulting portrait was, of course, Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter's Mother y101.

4: W. Graham to Whistler, 4 April 1874, GUW #01782.

5: Whistler to W. Graham, [23/30 July 1877], GUW #01784.

6: Label on verso written by H. Wright, initialled by Miss R. Birnie Philip.

7: [1869/1870], GUW #01792.

8: A. M. Whistler to C. Palmer, 3-4 November 1871, GUW #10071.

9: W. Graham to Whistler, 4 April 1874, GUW#01782.

10: YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 79).

11: Kobbé, Gustave, 'Whistler at West Point,' The Chap Book, vol. 8, no. 11, 15 April 1898, pp. 439-42.

12: Inscribed copy, GUL; poem ed. Griswold, Willis & Lowell 1853 [more].

13: Way 1912 [more], p. 98.

14: Way's list of works for sale was annotated 'Annabel Lee' by C. L. Freer, FGA.

15: Getscher 1991 [more], pp. 132.

16: A. M. Whistler to C. Palmer, 3-4 November 1871, GUW #10071.

17: Reports by Clare Meredith, 30 April 2001, Hunterian files; Dr (now Professor) Erma Hermens, University of Glasgow, 2003; Professor Joyce H. Townsend, Tate Britain, April 2017.

18: Graham to Whistler, 23 July 1877, GUW #01783.

19: Whistler to W. Graham, [23/30 July 1877], GUW #01784.

20: Label on verso written by H. Wright, initialled by Miss R. Birnie Philip.

21: Information from Dr Erma Hermens, University of Glasgow, 2003 (now Professor Hermens, Rijksmuseum).

22: Technical analysis carried out at the Natural History Museum EM Unit, London, for Professor Townsend; Examination report, April 2017, op. cit.

23: Meredith, 30 April 2001, op. cit.

24: Whistler to W. Grapel, [1869/1870], GUW #01792.

25: W. Graham to Whistler, 4 April 1874, GUW #01782.

26: Graham to Whistler, 23 July 1877, GUW #01783.

27: Whistler to Graham, [23/30 July 1877], GUW #01784.

28: Way 1912 [more], pp. 98, 135-38.

29: G. & W. Webb to Whistler, 11 August 1897, GUW #06241.

30: ホイスラー展. Whistler Exhibition in Japan, Isetan Museum of Art, Tokyo; Hokkaido Museum of Modern Art, Sapporo; Shizuoka Prefectural Museum, Shizuoka, 1986 (cat. no. 7) p. 59, repr.