The Paintings of James McNeill Whistler

YMSM 084
Variations in Blue and Green

Variations in Blue and Green

Artist: James McNeill Whistler
Date: 1868
Collection: Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
Accession Number: F1903.178a-b
Medium: oil
Support: millboard, mounted on wood
Size: 46.9 x 61.8 cm (18 1/2" x 24 3/8")
Signature: none
Inscription: none
Frame: Grau-style, American, after 1903 [17.8 cm]

Date

Variations in Blue and Green is one of the 'Six Projects' and dates from 1868. 1 The 'Six Projects' comprise Venus y082, Symphony in Green and Violet y083, Variations in Blue and Green y084, Symphony in White and Red y085 and 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

Variations in Blue and Green, Freer Gallery of Art
Variations in Blue and Green, Freer Gallery of Art

It was probably the painting seen and described by Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909) in the spring of 1868 as 'a gathering of women on a balcony.' 3

It was first exhibited Mr Whistler's Exhibition, Flemish Gallery, 48 Pall Mall, London, 1874 (cat. no. 12) as 'Variations in Blue and Green'.

Images

Variations in Blue and Green, Freer Gallery of Art
Variations in Blue and Green, Freer Gallery of Art

Variations in Blue and Green, Freer Gallery of Art, framed
Variations in Blue and Green, Freer Gallery of Art, framed

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

A composition: women on a terrace, The Hunterian
A composition: women on a terrace, The Hunterian

A composition: draped figures on a terrace, The Hunterian
A composition: draped figures on a terrace, The Hunterian

Study for 'Variations in Blue and Green', The Hunterian
Study for 'Variations in Blue and Green', The Hunterian

Two nudes reclining on a terrace, The Hunterian
Two nudes reclining on a terrace, The Hunterian

Five paintings at the Galerie Georges Petit, GUL Whistler P402
Five paintings at the Galerie Georges Petit, GUL Whistler P402

Subject

Titles

Only one title has been suggested:

Description

Variations in Blue and Green, Freer Gallery of Art
Variations in Blue and Green, Freer Gallery of Art

Four women are on a balcony or promenade by the sea. One at left, in a white robe and lilac scarf, is facing right, and to right of her is a seated woman and two figures leaning over the railing and looking away out to sea.

Sitter

Not identified.

Comments

Japonisme:

Charles Lang Freer (1856-1919) noted that, 'The shore scene girls and sea, like Kiyonaga' was in Whistler's studio in London in 1902. 6

Kyonaga, A Party viewing the Moon on the Sumida River, right hand section of triptych, Boston Museum of Fine Art
Kyonaga, A Party viewing the Moon on the Sumida River, right hand section of triptych, Boston Museum of Fine Art

The theme that runs through the 'Six Projects' is seen repeatedly in Japanese woodcuts, particularly those of Torrii Kiyonaga (1752-1815). His woodcuts appear to have provided a basis for Whistler's more explicitly Asian composition Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony y056. Kiyonaga's diptych Cool of the Evening by the Sumida River (Series, Minami Juni-ko), an impression is reproduced above) is similar in the poses of the figures and setting, and could have been part of the inspiration both for this painting and Symphony in Blue and Pink y086.

At some point either Whistler or his wife Beatrice Philip (Mrs E. W. Godwin, Mrs J. McN. Whistler) (1857-1896) acquired an impression, which was given to the British Museum by Beatrice's younger sister Rosalind Birnie Philip (1873-1958) in memory of her sister (British Museum Print Room, BM 1909-6-18-31).

Art for Art's Sake:

Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909) may have been describing this painting, seen in Whistler's studio in 1868, when he wrote that of figures 'looking far oversea in that quiet depth of pleasure without words when spirit and sense are filled full of beautiful things, till it seems that at a mere breath the charmed vessels of pleasure would break or overflow, the brimming chalices of the senses would spill this wine of their delight.' As Prettejohn comments, 'The slight sketch thus becomes a figure for aesthetic contemplation.' 7

Technique

Composition

Variations in Blue and Green, Freer Gallery of Art
Variations in Blue and Green, Freer Gallery of Art

The painting shows numerous alterations. Some of the overpainting is difficult to interpret, particularly the dark green around the shoulders of the two left-hand figures; the line of the balcony and railing runs right into the drapery of the second figure from the right.

A composition: women on a terrace, The Hunterian
A composition: women on a terrace, The Hunterian

A composition: draped figures on a terrace, The Hunterian
A composition: draped figures on a terrace, The Hunterian

There are numerous studies related to the painting, with variations on the pose of the figures.

Study for 'Variations in Blue and Green', The Hunterian
Study for 'Variations in Blue and Green', The Hunterian

Two nudes reclining on a terrace, The Hunterian
Two nudes reclining on a terrace, The Hunterian

Two drawings ̶ r.: A composition - draped figures on a terrace; v.: Studies for 'Variations in Blue and Green' m0343 and Study for 'Variations in Blue and Green' m0346 ̶ show a reclining figure beside the seated woman. The draperies, which can be seen to the right of the seated figure in the painting and which have been painted over in green, may relate to this second figure.

Technique

Variations in Blue and Green, Freer Gallery of Art
Variations in Blue and Green, Freer Gallery of Art

It has been painted on a dark ground, with several layers of creamy paint, slightly impasted, applied with sweeping breaststrokes, plus wriggly squiggles, blobs, dashes and dots.

As Marc Simpson comments, in the 'Six Projects' Whistler 'experimented with a thinned, nearly liquid paint, one responsive to the pressure of the brush so totally that a single stroke could vary from translucent to opaque and back again.' 8

Conservation History

For some time Whistler had five of the 'Six Projects' hanging in his house in Cheyne Walk. 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, urgently, 'I want my small pictures that you gave him to clean and varnish ... the sketches that used to hang in the dining room, Cheyne Walk.' 9

However, when they arrived he 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.' 10

According to Freer Gallery conservation files, it was cradled, cleaned and resurfaced in 1931, resurfaced in 1942, cleaned and resurfaced in 1951.

Frame

Variations in Blue and Green, Freer Gallery of Art, framed
Variations in Blue and Green, Freer Gallery of Art, framed

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.' 11

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

The Grau-style frame is of similar construction to the frames on the other 'Projects'. 12 It was certainly on the frame by 1904, as seen in the photograph above.

History

Provenance

Charles Lang Freer (1856-1919) noted that, 'The shore scene girls and sea, like Kiyonaga' was in Whistler's studio in London in 1902 and he bought it from Whistler in July 1903 for £1000. 13

Exhibitions

In the Pall Mall exhibition of 1874 it was described by an art critic simply as one of two paintings 'neither of which reveal to us their subject with sufficient clearness. We just perceive a fascination of dimly suggested scheme of colour, and note here and there a graceful attitude defining itself from the obscurity of the general mist.' 14

Five paintings at the Galerie Georges Petit, GUL Whistler P402
Five paintings at the Galerie Georges Petit, GUL Whistler P402

Whistler sketched this oil when it went to the Galerie Georges Petit in 1899, in a letter sent to Rosalind Birnie Philip (1873-1958). 15

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

C. L. Freer lent the painting to exhibitions in his lifetime, including the Boston exhibition of 1904, where the 'Projects' were exhibited together, as shown in the photograph reproduced above. However, by the terms of 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. 84).

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

3: Swinburne, Algernon C., Essays and Studies, London, 1875, p. 360.

4: Mr Whistler's Exhibition, Flemish Gallery, 48 Pall Mall, London, 1874 (cat. no. 12).

5: YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 84).

6: n.d., Diaries, Bk 12, Freer Gallery Archives.

7: Swinburne 1868 [more], quoted in Prettejohn 2007 [more], p. 60.

8: Simpson, Marc, 'Whistler, Modernism, and the Creative Afflatus', in Simpson, Marc, Like Breath on Glass: Whistler, Inness, and the Art of Painting Softly, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA, 2008, pp. 24-51, at pp. 31-32, 34, repr. p. 33.

9: [6 June 1892], GUW #08337.

10: 12 June 1892, GUW #08114.

11: Ibid.

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

13: n.d., Diaries, Bk 12, Freer Gallery Archives.

14: 'Exhibition of Mr. Whistler's Paintings and Drawings', Globe, London, 20 June 1874, p. 2. Press cutting in GUL Whistler PC 1, p. 79.

15: Whistler to R. Birnie Philip, [5 December 1899], with drawing, Five paintings at the Galerie Georges Petit m1600, GUW #04762.