The Paintings of James McNeill Whistler

YMSM 086
Symphony in Blue and Pink

Symphony in Blue and Pink

Artist: James McNeill Whistler
Date: 1868
Collection: Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
Accession Number: F1903.179a-b
Medium: oil
Support: millboard mounted on wood
Size: 46.7 x 61.9 cm (18 3/8 x 24 3/8")
Signature: none
Inscription: none
Frame: Grau-style, American, after 1903 [17.8 cm]

Date

Symphony in Blue and Pink 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

Symphony in Blue and Pink, Freer Gallery of Art
Symphony in Blue and Pink, Freer Gallery of Art

In September 1870 Whistler wrote to the artist Albert Joseph Moore (1841-1893) that Frederick Richards Leyland (1832-1892) had shown him Moore's paintings, and he felt that one of his paintings was similar to Moore's 'yellow one'; he suggested that Moore should ask William Eden Nesfield (1835-1888) for an opinion:

'your two beautiful sketches were shown to me by Leyland, - and while admiring them as you know I must do every thing of yours - more than the production of any living man - it struck me dimly - perhaps - and with great hesitation that one of my sketches of girls on the sea shore, was in motive not unlike your yellow one - of course I dont mean in scheme of color but in general sentiment of movement and in the place of the sea - sky and shore &c - - Now I would stop here and tare [sic] this letter up as I have done others if I were not sure that you could not impute to me self sufficiency enough to suppose that I could suggest for a moment that any incomplete little note of mine could even unconsciously have remained upon the impression of a man of such boundless imagination and endless power of arrangement as yourself … Now what I would propose is that you should go with Billy Nesfield down to my place and together look at the sketch in question (it is hanging up on the wall in the studio,) ... The one I mean is one in blue green and flesh color of four girls careering along the sea shore, one with a parasol the whole very unfinished and incomplete - But [what] I want you two to see is whether it may be dodged that we may each by any suggestion of yours that we may each paint our picture without harming each other in the opinion of those who do not under-stand us … Or more clearly if after you have painted yours I may still paint mine without suffering from any of the arrangement either of the sea and shore or the mouvement [sic] of the figures ... If however Nesfield and you find that I am unecessarily [sic] anxious and that I am altogether mistaken I will be more than satisfied.' 3

W. E. Nesfield replied:

'I strongly feel that you have seen & felt Moores specialitè in his female figures, method of clothing them & use of colored muslin also his hard study of Greek work - Then Moore has thoroughly appreciated & felt your mastery of painting in a light key ... I conscientiously think thus - In answer to your question "could each paint the two pictures without harming each in the opinion of those who do not understand you both" I am quite certain you both may - The effect & treatment are so very wide apart, that there can be no danger from the vulgar fact of there being, shore, sea, & sky, & a young woman walking on the foreground.' 4

Whistler probably met Moore in 1865. At about the time that Whistler was engaged on Symphony in Blue and Pink y086, F. R. Leyland commissioned a pair of pictures from Albert Moore. These were Sea Gulls (Williamson Art Gallery and Museum, Birkenhead) and Shells (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool), a single figure with windblown draperies, walking by the sea, which may be the work referred to in Whistler's letter to Moore.

Elizabeth Prettejohn comments that while Whistler was concerned at similarities between his painting and Albert Moore's Sea Gulls, it is in some ways closer to Greek Girls Picking up Pebbles by the Sea (ca 1871, private collection) by Frederick Leighton (1830-1896). 5 The paintings by Moore and Leighton were both shown at the Royal Academy in 1871, but both, as Prettejohn notes, are considerably less animated than the figures and seascape in Whistler's painting.

Images

Symphony in Blue and Pink, Freer Gallery of Art
Symphony in Blue and Pink, Freer Gallery of Art

Symphony in Blue and Pink, Freer Gallery of Art
Symphony in Blue and Pink, Freer Gallery of Art

Symphony in Blue and Pink, frame, detail
Symphony in Blue and Pink, frame, detail

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

Four figures on a terrace, The Hunterian
Four figures on a terrace, The Hunterian

Design for a fan, Lunder Collection
Design for a fan, Lunder Collection

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

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

Subject

Titles

Only one title has been suggested:

Description

Symphony in Blue and Pink, Freer Gallery of Art
Symphony in Blue and Pink, Freer Gallery of Art

A figure composition in horizontal format. Four women, three in white robes and one (the second from the left) in blue, with stoles in green and blue, walk on a beach by the sea. The woman second from the right carries a parasol.

Sitter

Unknown.

Comments

Japonisme:

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, and particularly those of Torrii Kiyonaga (1752-1815), as noted by C. L. Freer. Kiyonaga's Cool of the Evening by the Sumida River relates to the composition of both Symphony in Blue and Pink y086 and Variations in Blue and Green y084.

Technique

Composition

Four figures on a terrace, The Hunterian
Four figures on a terrace, The Hunterian

Design for a fan, Lunder Collection
Design for a fan, Lunder Collection

There is a small rough sketch that may be related to Whistler's ideas for the composition of Symphony in Blue and Pink y086, and a more elaborate watercolour Design for a fan m0392, which was once owned by the artist Charles Hazlewood Shannon (1863-1937), and is now in the Lunder collection.

r.: A group of figures, Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute
r.: A group of figures, Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute

Technique

Symphony in Blue and Pink, Freer Gallery of Art
Symphony in Blue and Pink, Freer Gallery of Art

It is painted fairly thinly, with creamy textured paint in layer upon layer of colour, over a dark grey ground. The white robe of the figure at left was painted a little more thickly, with some impasto. The upper part of the body of the girl on the right has white painted over blue, green over purple and white below that, and white over blue over red on the skirt. Apart from the colour changes, the only compositional change was to the parasol. In shape it was originally a flatter ellipse, behind and to right of the woman's head; it was moved to the left in several stages. The parasol in its final form was painted over the sea. At a late stage, much of the sky and sea was painted with slightly thicker paint up to and around the figures.

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, '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 ... Do kindly get them off to me at once.' 8 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.' 9

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

Frame

Symphony in Blue and Pink, Freer Gallery of Art
Symphony in Blue and Pink, Freer Gallery of Art

Symphony in Blue and Pink, frame, detail
Symphony in Blue and Pink, 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.' 10

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

The current Grau-style frame dates from1903 when the painting was bought by C. L. Freer. It is of similar construction to the frames on the other 'Projects'. 11 It was certainly on the frame by 1904, as seen in the photograph above.

History

Provenance

Exhibitions

When exhibited in Whistler's one-man exhibition in 1874 'Symphony in Blue and Pink' was described favourably in a press cutting from the Globe, that was kept by the artist:

'As another attractive feature of the gallery, we have a certain number of designs for pictures. These are painted in oil, but without any fullness of realisation, and giving merely the artist's first thought of the design and colour that is to be thrown into the finished work. One of these represents four female figures on the sea shore; another is of some girls arranging flowers in bright sunlight; and there are two more, 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.' 12

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

This painting was in the panel exhibited at Petit's in 1899 and was drawn in a sketch sent to Rosalind Birnie Philip (1873-1958) on 5 December, Five paintings at the Galerie Georges Petit m1600. 13

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 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. 86).

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

3: Whistler to Moore, [12/19 September 1870], GUW #04166.

4: 19 September 1870, GUW #04263.

5: Prettejohn 2007 [more], pp. 114-115.

6: Mr Whistler's Exhibition, Flemish Gallery, 48 Pall Mall, London, 1874 (cat. no. 11).

7: YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 85).

8: [6 June 1892], GUW #08337.

9: 12 June 1892, GUW #08114.

10: Ibid.

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

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

13: [5 December 1899], GUW #04762.