The Paintings of James McNeill Whistler

YMSM 082
Venus

Venus

Artist: James McNeill Whistler
Date: 1868
Collection: Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
Accession Number: F1903.175a-b
Medium: oil
Support: millboard
Size: 61.9 x 45.6 cm (24 3/8 x 18")
Signature: two butterflies (1902)
Inscription: none
Frame: Grau-style, American, 1903 [17.8 cm]

Date

Venus dates from 1868. 1 It is considered one of the 'Six Projects', which comprise Venus y082, Symphony in Green and Violet y083, Variations in Blue and Green y084, Symphony in White and Red y085, Symphony in Blue and Pink y086, and The White Symphony: Three Girls y087. This group of paintings was mentioned by William Michael Rossetti (1829-1919) in his diary for 28 July 1868, when he wrote that Whistler was 'doing on a largish scale for Leyland the subject of women and flowers.' 2

Venus, Freer Gallery of Art
Venus, Freer Gallery of Art

1869/1873: Whistler wrote to William Grapel (1822-1887), 'The Venus is really scarcely to be judged of in its present wild rough hewn state.' 3 Two such subjects, the Venus under discussion here and Venus Rising from the Sea y093, are in what Whistler might have called a 'rough hewn state.' However, it is not certain that the reference is to either of these paintings.

1876: It may be the picture described in the New York Herald as 'a superb Venus walking on the seashore, flowers springing into bloom beneath her feet.' 4

1879: Probably acquired by the London printer Thomas Way (1837-1915) at Whistler's bankruptcy in 1879 and later returned to Whistler.

1886: The art critic Malcolm Charles Salaman (1855-1940) saw 'a sketch of a Venus, very lovely in colour and design, the nude figure standing close to the sea with delicate gauze draperies being lifted by the breeze' in Whistler's studio in June 1886. 5

1888-1892: According to the artist Sidney Starr (1857-1925):

'In his Tite Street studio Whistler had shown me some canvases, one of them a Venus in low tones of ivory and gray-blue, bathed in the warm evening after-glow, a note of red on the ivory drapery, and spoke of painting a larger canvas of it soon. He never did. The study hung some years later between the windows of his dining room in Cheyne Walk.' 6

1893: According to the Pennells, it was in Whistler's Paris house in the summer and autumn of 1893. 7

1902: Again according to the Pennells, 'the Venus' was worked on by Whistler in April 1902, but this may have been Venus y548. 8 However, Charles Lang Freer (1856-1919) noted that the 'Venus' which 'Used to be at Rue du Bac' was in Whistler's London studio in 1902. 9 Freer bought it from Whistler in July 1903.

Images

Venus, Freer Gallery of Art
Venus, Freer Gallery of Art

Venus, Freer Gallery of Art
Venus, Freer Gallery of Art

Venus, frame, detail
Venus, frame, detail

Whistler Memorial Exhibition, Boston, 1904, GUL Whistler PH6/21
Whistler Memorial Exhibition, Boston, 1904, GUL Whistler PH6/21

A nude looking in a mirror, The Hunterian
A nude looking in a mirror, The Hunterian

Study for Three Decorative Panels Representing 'The Landing of Columbus', 'Queen Isabel la Católica of Spain' and 'Queen Elizabeth of England’, Boston Public Library
Study for Three Decorative Panels Representing 'The Landing of Columbus', 'Queen Isabel la Católica of Spain' and 'Queen Elizabeth of England’, Boston Public Library

Venus, Freer Gallery of Art
Venus, Freer Gallery of Art

Subject

Titles

Only one title has been suggested:

Description

Venus, Freer Gallery of Art
Venus, Freer Gallery of Art

A figure composition in vertical format. A nude woman stands on the shore, with pale peach coloured draperies over her arms, billowing behind her, above and to left. A pale blue sea is seen in the distance.

Sitter

Unidentified.

Comments

For further paintings of Venus see Venus Rising from the Sea y093 and Venus y548.

Technique

Composition

Venus, Freer Gallery of Art
Venus, Freer Gallery of Art

The figure, particularly in the face, the angle of the arms, and the drapery on the right, shows numerous signs of alterations, although the sea-scape is painted freely.

A nude looking in a mirror, The Hunterian
A nude looking in a mirror, The Hunterian

A life-drawing of a figure in a related pose, A nude looking in a mirror m0353, has been dated 1868/1869. In this, the tentative, flowing strokes of the chalk are reminiscent of the sketchy brushstrokes of the oil.

Study for Three Decorative Panels Representing 'The Landing of Columbus', 'Queen Isabel la Católica of Spain' and 'Queen Elizabeth of England’, Boston Public Library
Study for Three Decorative Panels Representing 'The Landing of Columbus', 'Queen Isabel la Católica of Spain' and 'Queen Elizabeth of England’, Boston Public Library

The painting was still in Whistler's hands in 1892, and may, as Curry suggests, have served as a 'muse' for the unfinished decorative panel, Study for Three Decorative Panels Representing 'The Landing of Columbus', 'Queen Isabel la Católica of Spain' and 'Queen Elizabeth of England' y396, for Boston Public Library, between 1892 and 1895. 15

Venus, Freer Gallery of Art
Venus, Freer Gallery of Art

A later pastel called Venus m1523, showing a nude with floating drapery standing on a beach, may date from about 1898. It may well have been based on the oil. However, in the pastel, the figure is much less massive than the oil, her head is bent more to the left, and her left leg is also more bent.

Technique

Venus, Freer Gallery of Art
Venus, Freer Gallery of Art

The critic Malcolm Charles Salaman (1855-1940) saw 'a sketch of a Venus, very lovely in colour and design, the nude figure standing close to the sea with delicate gauze draperies being lifted by the breeze' in Whistler's studio in June 1886. 16 According to the artist Sidney Starr (1857-1925),

'In his Tite Street studio Whistler had shown me some canvases, one of them a Venus in low tones of ivory and gray-blue, bathed in the warm evening after-glow, a note of red on the ivory drapery, and spoke of painting a larger canvas of it soon. He never did. The study hung some years later between the windows of his dining room in Cheyne Walk.' 17

Conservation History

According to Freer conservation files, it was cleaned and resurfaced in 1931, 1949, and 1951, and resurfaced only, in 1937.

Frame

Venus, Freer Gallery of Art
Venus, Freer Gallery of Art

Venus, frame, detail
Venus, frame, detail

For some time between 1890 and 1892 Whistler had the so-called 'Six Projects' (actually five!) hanging in his house in Cheyne Walk, although they were not exhibited. The five ' Projects' were certainly framed by 1892, when they were cleaned and varnished by Stephen Richards (1844-1900), but returned to the artist, as he complained, 'without their frames? ! !' 19

Whistler Memorial Exhibition, Boston, 1904, GUL Whistler PH6/21
Whistler Memorial Exhibition, Boston, 1904, GUL Whistler PH6/21

The current Grau-style frame dates from after the painting was bought by C. L. Freer in 1903. It is of similar construction to the frames on the other 'Projects'. It was certainly on the frame by 1904, as seen in the photograph above.

History

Provenance

Venus was probably one of the paintings acquired by the London printer Thomas Way at Whistler's bankruptcy in 1879 and returned to Whistler in the 1880s. 20 The critic M. C. Salaman saw 'a sketch of a Venus ... the nude figure standing close to the sea with delicate gauze draperies being lifted by the breeze' in Whistler's studio in June 1886. 21 According to the artist Sidney Starr (1857-1925), 'In his Tite Street studio Whistler had shown me some canvases, one of them a Venus in low tones of ivory and gray-blue … and spoke of painting a larger canvas of it soon. He never did. The study hung some years later between the windows of his dining room in Cheyne Walk.' 22

The Pennells (1908) record that it was in Whistler's Paris house in the summer and autumn of 1893 and, also (in 1920), that 'the Venus' was worked on by Whistler in April 1902, but this may have been Venus y548. 23 C. L. Freer noted that the 'Venus' which 'Used to be at Rue du Bac' was in Whistler's London studio in 1902 and he bought it from Whistler in July 1903 for £1000. 24

The History of 'THE SIX PROJECTS'

1868: The Pennells assumed that the 'Six Projects' were 'Whistler's first scheme of decoration' for Frederick Richards Leyland (1832-1892), of Liverpool, and that they were 'most likely referred to' by William Michael Rossetti (1829-1919) in his diary for 28 July 1868:

'Whistler is doing on a largish scale for Leyland the subject of women with flowers, and has made coloured sketches of four or five other subjects of the like class, very promising in point of conception of colour-arrangement.' 25

1878: According to the Pennells, 'the beautiful studies' for the 'Six Projects' were among the 'Bundles of rubbish ... carried off for a few shillings' after Whistler's bankruptcy, at the sale of the White House on 18 September 1879, but from this description it is not entirely clear to what they were referring. 26

1884: The painter Jacques Émile Blanche (1861-1942) described seeing what were probably the 'Six Projects' in Whistler's Tite Street studio. 27

1886: In June 1886 the art critic Malcolm Charles Salaman (1855-1940) noted in Whistler's studio 'sketches of three pictures [Whistler] is going to paint, consisting of various groups of several girls on the seashore' which the Pennells assumed to be the 'Six Projects': Venus y082, Symphony in Green and Violet y083, Variations in Blue and Green y084, Symphony in White and Red y085, Symphony in Blue and Pink y086, and The White Symphony: Three Girls y087'. 28

1890/1891: For some time Whistler had five of the 'Six Projects' ̶ Venus y082, Symphony in Green and Violet y083, Variations in Blue and Green y084, Symphony in White and Red y085, Symphony in Blue and Pink y086, The White Symphony: Three Girls y087 ̶ hanging in his dining room in Cheyne Walk.

1892: In June 1892 they were cleaned and varnished by Stephen Richards (1844-1900), his picture restorer in London. Whistler then asked David Croal Thomson (1855-1930) to retrieve them from Richards and send them to him in Paris:

'Richards. I want my small pictures that you gave him to clean and varnish - You know the ones I mean - the sketches that used to hang in the dining room, Cheyne Walk - I wrote you about them - Do kindly get them off to me at once.' 29

However, when they arrived the artist wrote to Richards from Paris:

'I have just received the five small paintings on millboard - (sketches of figures & sea) - that you have cleaned & varnished for me. They look pure and brilliant as on the day they were painted! -

But while you were about it, I wish enough you had seen to the condition of their backs - They were put down upon other cardboards some time ago, and they are all loose and bent about now ...

How could you let them leave your place, clean and freshly varnished as they were, unframed!

This is so unlike your usual thoughtfulness and great care! I was horrified! However happily they are unharmed.' 30

1902: One of the series was sold by Thomas Robert Way (1861-1913) to Charles Lang Freer (1856-1919), Detroit, in 1902 (The White Symphony: Three Girls y087) and the other five were sold by Whistler to Freer in July 1903.

It is possible that Whistler intended to enlarge the 'Six Projects' for Frederick Richards Leyland (1832-1892), but only The Three Girls y088 was enlarged to a suitable scale, and only a fragment, Girl with Cherry Blossom y090, survives.

Exhibitions

It was not exhibited in Whistler's lifetime.

Whistler Memorial Exhibition, Boston, 1904, GUL Whistler PH6/21
Whistler Memorial Exhibition, Boston, 1904, GUL Whistler PH6/21

Charles Lang Freer (1856-1919) lent the painting to the Boston exhibition of 1904, where the 'Projects' were exhibited together, as shown in the photograph reproduced above. However, by the terms of C. L. Freer's bequest to the Freer Gallery of Art, the painting cannot now be lent to any other venue.

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. 82).

2: Rossetti 1903 [more], p. 320.

3: [1869/1873], GUW #01792.

4: 'American Artists in London, What they have done for Philadelphia', New York Herald, New York, 10 April 1876, p. 5. Press cutting in GUL Whistler PC 2, p. 2.

5: Salaman 1886 B [more].

6: Starr 1908 [more], p. 531.

7: Pennell 1908 [more], vol. 2, pp. 26, 138.

8: Pennell, Elizabeth Robins & Joseph, The Life of James McNeill Whistler, 6th edition, revised, Philadelphia, 1920, p. 414.

9: [1902], Diaries, Bk 12, Freer Gallery of Art.

10: 'American Artists in London, What they have done for Philadelphia', New York Herald, New York, 10 April 1876, p. 5.

11: Salaman 1886 B [more].

12: Oil Paintings, Water Colors, Pastels and Drawings: Memorial Exhibition of the Works of Mr. J. McNeill Whistler, Copley Society, Boston, 1904 (cat. nos. 19-24).

13: Œuvres de James McNeill Whistler, Palais de l'Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris, 1905 (cat. no. 12).

14: YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 82).

15: Curry 1984 [more], pp. 107-08.

16: Salaman 1886 B [more].

17: Starr 1908 [more].

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

19: 12 June 1892, GUW #08114.

20: Way 1912 [more], pp. 135-36.

21: Salaman 1886 B [more].

22: Starr 1908 [more].

23: Pennell 1908 [more], vol. 1, p. 149, vol. 2, pp. 26, 138; Pennell, Elizabeth Robins & Joseph, The Life of James McNeill Whistler, 6th edition, revised, Philadelphia, 1920, p. 414.

24: [1902], Diaries, Bk 12, Freer Gallery Archives.

25: Pennell 1908 [more], vol. 1, p. 149; vol. 2 pp. 26, 138. The Pennells incorrectly date the diary 1867.

26: Ibid.

27: Blanche 1905 [more].

28: Salaman 1886 B [more]

29: [6 June 1892], GUW #08337.

30: 12 June 1892, GUW #08114.