The Paintings of James McNeill Whistler

YMSM 089
Pink and Grey: Three Figures

Pink and Grey: Three Figures

Artist: James McNeill Whistler
Date: 1879
Collection: Tate Britain, London
Accession Number: N05971
Medium: oil
Support: canvas
Size: 139.1 x 185.4 cm (55 x 73")
Signature: none
Inscription: none
Frame: Flat Whistler with incised frieze, 1997


Pink and Grey: Three Figures, a copy of The Three Girls y088, dates from 1879. 1

Pink and Grey: Three Figures, Tate Britain
Pink and Grey: Three Figures, Tate Britain

Whistler declared that 'on one of the last days in the White House I painted a rough copy, or commencement of a copy, of the 3 girls - on the same size canvas.' 2 Whistler's house and studio, the White House in Tite Street, was sold by auction on 18 September 1879. Whistler's letter implies that this copy was painted in the first half of September.


Pink and Grey: Three Figures, Tate Britain
Pink and Grey: Three Figures, Tate Britain

The White Symphony: Three Girls, Freer Gallery of Art
The White Symphony: Three Girls, Freer Gallery of Art

Girl with Cherry Blossom, Private Collection
Girl with Cherry Blossom, Private Collection



Basically one title has been suggested, with the word order varying:

'Pink and Grey: Three Figures' is the preferred version.


Pink and Grey: Three Figures, Tate Britain
Pink and Grey: Three Figures, Tate Britain

A figure composition in horizontal format, showing three women in diaphanous white robes in a garden or conservatory. The woman at left stands bending forward to right,with her hands on her knees. The woman in the centre crouches facing to right, with her arms reaching out to a flowering cherry tree in an orange pot sitting on a low table. At far right there is a blue and white vase with a pink flower. The woman at right, facing left, wears a red headband or scarf; her left arm crosses her body, holding a large parasol with red edging over her right shoulder. Behind them is a white shoulder-high fence. Awnings or blinds hang on a blue open framework visible above the fence, against a blue sky. A rug and a dark blue robe lie on the white floor.




Frances Fowle comments:

'This picture derives from one of six oil sketches that Whistler produced in 1868 as part of a plan for a frieze, commissioned by the businessman F.R. Leyland (1831-92), founder of the Leyland shipping line. Known as the 'Six Projects', the sketches … were strongly influenced by his admiration for Japanese art. Another precedent for these works was The Story of St George, a frieze that Edward Burne-Jones (1833-98) executed for the artist and illustrator Myles Birket Foster (1825-99) in 1865-7. ...

Although the three figures are clearly engaged in tending a flowering cherry tree, Whistler's aim in this picture is to create a mood or atmosphere, rather than to suggest any kind of theme. Parallels have been drawn with the work of Albert Moore, whose work of this period is equally devoid of narrative meaning. The design is economical and the picture space is partitioned like a Japanese interior. The shallow, frieze-like arrangement, the blossoming plant and the right-hand figure's parasol are also signs of deliberate Japonisme. ... It has been suggested that Whistler derived his colour schemes, and even the figures themselves, in their rhythmically flowing drapery, from polychrome Tanagra figures in the British Museum, which was opposite his studio in Great Russell Street.' 6



The White Symphony: Three Girls, Freer Gallery of Art
The White Symphony: Three Girls, Freer Gallery of Art

Pink and Grey: Three Figures, Tate Britain
Pink and Grey: Three Figures, Tate Britain

This is, according to Whistler, a copy of The Three Girls y088. The artist stated, 'three Girls ... is a rough copy made from the original when that was given to the Creditors.' 7

There are many pentimenti, particularly around the heads and arms of the figures, which suggest that it was not a literal copy.

Girl with Cherry Blossom, Private Collection
Girl with Cherry Blossom, Private Collection

The Three Girls y088 was destroyed but it is believed that a section containing the central figure was saved, which is known as Girl with Cherry Blossom y090. This is similar to the central figure in Pink and Grey: Three Figures, in that it is very lightly draped, whereas in an oil sketch for the composition, The White Symphony: Three Girls y087, the model was draped in white. The figure on the left in Pink and Grey: Three Figures shows signs of having been scraped down and altered, and may also have been draped, in the original composition.


Pink and Grey: Three Figures, Tate Britain
Pink and Grey: Three Figures, Tate Britain

A survey of Pink and Grey: Three Figures by Professor Joyce H. Townsend at Tate Britain follows:

'Whistler’s very coarse and loosely-woven canvas has about 8 threads per centimetre, and it has a grey imprimatura, darker than a mid tone, very effectively covering an earlier bright greenish-blue imprimatura made from lead white, Prussian blue, a pre-mixed green (Prussian blue and cadmium yellow) and orange ochre – presumably by Whistler. He had regularly used Prussian blue for blue backgrounds in this decade. The grey imprimatura is made from lead white and bone black toned with sienna, and both are oil-based. This was not necessarily a fabric intended for artists’ use, and it does not have a conventional off-white artists’ priming beneath these layers.

Along the top edge and the right end of the lower edge, as well as on parts of the left edge, there are neatly-painted grey tick marks, evenly spaced by 7 cm (2 ½") at the figures and by 13 cm (5") elsewhere. The canvas is not actually squared up, as the tick marks are not joined up with painted or drawn lines. These are likely to be Whistler’s own marks, used to align the figures as he copied an earlier subject, possibly from memory. Being American by birth, he is highly likely to have used measurements in inches despite his youthful training in France. There are a few pencil marks near the neck of the left figure, which suggest light pencil sketching on the grey imprimatura, before painting. The paint would conceal any underdrawing used elsewhere. The canvas has not been X-rayed, but the thin paint is not at all likely to conceal an earlier image.

The rubbing down of the paint exposes the grey imprimatura but rarely exposes the bright blue beneath. Whistler worked from dark to light on this dark grey background, and at a middle stage applied paint for the grey background to the composition, lighter than the grey imprimatura, up to and around the reserved areas where the figures and other elements, such as the flower pot, had been begun. The figures were extensively rubbed down and reworked, but a final working that would have satisfied the artist is absent, giving the figures an unfinished, worn look because the last paint application was rubbed down. The eyes and the shadows under them are particularly thinly painted, which was the artist’s usual method of creating darks within a face. Some elements in the background were painted, wiped off, and never reworked.

As the canvas progressed, the red of the flower pot and the capes was made more intense, the same red colour being used each time. The shelf in the foreground, little changed from its initial painting, was painted using an optical green, made from blue and black pigments. Though the blue mountains and water of the background are a greenish blue, this is not the bright greenish blue imprimatura, but applied paint over the grey imprimatura. The flowers were painted last and must have been deemed successful, since they were not rubbed down.

The paint for the flowerpot was extremely thinned, and had to be wiped to retain the shape of the pot, as drips ran off. The flesh paint was less thinned and remains thicker, even lightly impasted, in places. Some of the paint fluoresces strongly in ultraviolet light, which could indicate an added medium modifier incorporating natural resin, which would confer a similar appearance. Certainly the paint medium is darker today than originally. 8

Lead white, bone black, vermilion, Prussian blue and some synthetic ultramarine form the paint for the laying-in of the composition before the grey background was applied, and the same colours can be seen in the later paint, augmented with madder and yellow ochre for the flowers, and a purplish-red ochre for the caps worn by the women. The red paint is almost pure vermilion, and Prussian blue is common in the later applications of paint. The range of colours employed is wider than in a 'Nocturne' or 'Harmony', yet narrow in that no green at all, nor bright yellows nor browns, are included. The colours themselves have not altered with time. 9

Conservation History

Professor Joyce H. Townsend, Tate Britain, reports:

'The painting was lined and re-attached to a new and rather flimsy stretcher at an unknown date, rather unevenly stretched at the top left and bottom right corners. Prior to this lining the canvas had suffered some damage, and during the lining it was crumpled in places. Cusping on all four sides indicates the points of attachment of the canvas to the original stretcher, and the depth of the cusping makes it clear that the format was slightly reduced at top and bottom during the lining, by less than one centimetre. Both the lining canvas, medium weight and therefore finer than the original, with a more conventional thread count, and the new stretcher bear export stamps from France where the work was likely carried out. This lining could date from Whistler’s lifetime.' 10

Professor Townsend adds:

'In 2001 two thick and yellowed varnishes that filled the hollows of the coarse canvas were removed by Stephen Hackney at Tate. Analysis of the combined varnishes suggested oil as well as natural resin, and the difficulty in removing them is consistent with this finding. Whistler’s own varnishes – or more likely those applied for him – were generally based on natural resin alone, which suggests these might have been applied at the time of the lining, or else later to ‘refresh’ the surface. Before the 2001 treatment, the surface appeared very dull: it became evident during cleaning that the paint medium has discoloured towards brown, making the surface permanently darker and more dull.' 11


1891: When it was on exhibition with Messrs Dowdeswell, London, Whistler wrote, 'I am in no way responsible for the taste of the frame with its astonishments of plush and varied gildings.' 12 The whereabouts of this frame is unknown.

1997: Flat Whistler frame with incised frieze, gold leaf and silver powder (oil and water gilding) on wood (pine), made at the Tate in 1997, based on Whistler designs. 13

This frame replicates that on Whistler’s Girl with Cherry Blossom y090, which itself was cut down from a larger format. The inner frieze is covered with rows of small whorls incised into the whitening layer of powdered chalk and protein glue. This was a pattern used by Whistler in 1864 on Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl y052 and reflects his interest in blue and white Chinese porcelain.

Whistler did not develop the reeded outer-frame until the 1870s. Therefore the combination of elements replicated on this 1997 frame is possibly an early twentieth century interpretation of a ‘Whistler’ frame. 14



It is not entirely clear what happened to this painting at the time of Whistler's bankruptcy in 1879. On 22 March 1880 Whistler wrote from Venice to his sister-in-law Nellie that he had made a copy of The Three Girls y088 after 7 May 1879, when he was officially declared bankrupt:

'on one of the last days in the White House I painted a rough copy, or commencement of a copy, of the 3 girls - on the same size canvas - this was sent over to Pellegrini's, and from there, John took it finally I suppose to Wimpole Street - Now if this be the 3 girls you have - then most certainly do they belong to no one but myself - as they were done after the settlement of my affairs.' 15

In a further letter, Whistler suggested that his brother, William McNeill Whistler (1836-1900), should take James Waddell (1838-1892), the official Receiver for Whistler's bankrupt estate, to Dr Whistler's house in Wimpole Street, and 'show him the three Girls',

'... tell him that this is a rough copy made from the original when that was given to the Creditors - made when everything that I did was to be my own according to Waddell's assurance ... Let Elden go with Willie - he can tell him about my doing the copy.' 16

According to Matthew Robinson Elden (1839-1885), writing to Whistler about certain 'lost pictures' on 12 April 1880,

'Waddells ... had reserved them as being valueless & I suppose with the intention of returning them to you ... at the meeting on Thursday last Way & Leyland - the only Trustees present [-] the canvasses in dispute were unrolled & Leyland on seeing the 3 girls said at once - Oh that is my picture and I shall fight for it - nothing was settled and the meeting adjourned - Way sent for me and his position is that these things must be put up for sale - that whatever dispute tween Leyland & Whistler at the meeting for liquidation - Leyland became an ordinary creditor - and cant take advantage of his position of Trustee to settle trifles to his own advantage the picture too not being the one commissioned by him - so the matter stands for the moment.' 17

This appears to refer to the copy, Pink and Grey: Three Figures y089, and not to The Three Girls y088, which was commissioned by Leyland. Although it seems that Leyland at first satisfied Whistler's solicitor, George Henry Lewis (1833-1911), that this version (which was actually a copy) of The Three Girls belonged to him, his ownership was disputed, and there is no evidence that he ever received it. Way reported:

'We have had our final meeting and nothing more is to be said about the 3 Girls or the pictures at yours about which bye [sic] the way Mr Leyland was good enough to take my word that they were of no commercial value & did not belong to the Estate.' 18

One 'J. E. Hine' is listed in the bankruptcy papers as having bought 'canvasses & unfinished paintings' on 31 May 1879 for £5.0.0 but it is not known how many there were or what happened to them. 19

It is possible that the copy was actually left in the White House, which went to auction on 18 September 1879. Certainly this was the memory of the purchaser of the house, the art critic Henry Quilter (1851-1907), who wrote, years later,

'on the occasion of [Whistler's] bankruptcy, about eleven years since, I bought his house in Tite-street, the work in question was one of a batch of clearly experimental canvases which he left after the sale upon the premises, and which I had, unless my memory deceives me, to request him to remove.' 20

If this was correct, Pink and Grey: Three Figures y089 may have been moved from the White House in 1880 during Whistler's absence in Venice, possibly by Messrs Dowdeswell, who certainly became involved in the attempted sale of the picture some years later.

It is not clear how the painting got to Liverpool (unless through the hands of F. R. Leyland), but it was bought by the Liverpool collector, Alfred Chapman, against the artist's advice. Whistler was, he said, 'Astonished & mortified to learn that you purchased notwithstanding my warning years ago.' 21 By October 1886 it was on display at the Art Gallery in Liverpool. 22 Five years later, in 1891, Chapman attempted to sell the painting through Messrs Dowdeswell, and Whistler wrote urgently, urging Chapman to 'wire Dowdeswell [to] deliver over the whole thing to me today & I will paint you some other picture worthy of hanging beside your real masterpieces - your own portrait or wifes if you like.' 23 Whistler failed in his attempt to retrieve the painting, as he told Edward Guthrie Kennedy (1849-1932):

'Now if you will turn to the Bible of Art, you will see, at page 288 to 292, "Auto-Biographical", the whole explanation of the shady place given to the three girls - for which Mr Chapman wanted 1000 pounds - As usual I behaved with great generosity - I went to him and offered to paint his portrait, full length - or that of his wife - and make him a present of it, if he would give me that canvas that I might destroy it! But he would listen to nothing - and I told him that if he persisted in attempting to sell it, I would prevent him -

He saw nothing but the 1000 - and so I effectively put an end to the whole business by the letter which apparently [you] have never read - No doubt he and his brother are great admirers of mine, for he always waited until I was hard up, and bought his pictures for nothing and is now seeing his way to sell them for large sums.' 24

The letter to which Whistler referred had been written to the Morning Post in 1891, describing the painting as 'a work long ago barely begun, and thrown aside for destruction ... I think it not only just to myself to make this statement, but right that the public should be warned against the possible purchase of a picture in no way representative, and, in its actual condition, absolutely worthless.' 25 Whistler followed up with a letter to the Pall Mall Gazette:

'The dealers business is to buy and sell - and in the course of such traffic, these same busy picture bodies, without consulting me, put upon the market a painting that I, the author intended to efface - and, thanks to your courtesy, I have been enabled to say so effectually in your journal.

All along have I carefully destroyed plates, torn up proofs, and burned canvases, that the truth of the word quoted shall prevail, and that the future collector shall be spared the mortification of cataloging his pet mistakes.

To destroy is to remain.' 26

Whistler's letter was backed up by no other than the art critic Harry Quilter. On 5 August 1891 Quilter wrote to Edward Tyas Cook (1857-1919), journalist, editor of the Pall Mall Gazette:

'Will you kindly allow me to add my testimony to that of the Modern Velasquez in the matter of a picture by him, which he declares to be worthless "in its present state", but which, nevertheless, an enterprising firm ... are endeavouring to sell in Bond-street? I have the best reason to know that in this instance Mr Whistler's opinion is not only correct, but was formed many years ago; since, when on the occasion of his bankruptcy, about eleven years since, I bought his house in Tite-street, the work in question was one of a batch of clearly experimental canvases which he left after the sale upon the premises, and which I had, unless my memory deceives me, to request him to remove. The artist is quite right ... in resenting the public display, with a price attached "in the way of trade" of a fanciful sketch, which he did not consider sufficiently satisfactory to finish or exhibit; and it might be well if more artists would plainly express their opinion as to the permissibility of "enterprising firms" submitting for sale works of this character, which have presumably been purchased "for a song", as genuine specimens of the art produced by them.

... I write [this] simply as a matter of justice to an artist, who, whatever may be his deficiencies of temper and character, is at least too capable and sincere to exhibit for sale as satisfactory and creditable work which is on the face of it a "rejected essay".' 27

Not surprisingly, the painting was withdrawn from sale, and interestingly it seems that Whistler and Chapman remained on friendly terms, although privately Whistler considered him an idiot, as he told his wife, 'Chapman is an ass - and an obstinate one - He will hear nothing - wants a thousand pounds for the picture - Of course what I must now do is to paint the new one, thats all - and therefore I had better for the present let the old story die out.' 28 But what he meant by 'the new one' is not known.

Some years later, on 6 January 1900 Whistler warned John James Cowan (1846-1936), Edinburgh, not to buy 'a large canvass [sic] of three figures' from Chapman, and Cowan obediently let the opportunity pass. 29 Finally, after Whistler's death, Chapman offered the painting for sale at Gleanzer Galleries, New York, where it was shown in December 1904, and priced at £5000. 30 It did not sell, and in the following year Chapman lent it to the Whistler Memorial Exhibition in London (cat. no. 399). It was then sold by him to Messrs Agnew, London art dealers (their a/c #1633 and 0333), who sold it to the Princesse Edmond de Polignac in June 1905. On her death in 1943 the picture was stored by her executors at the National Gallery in London until it went to auction at Christie's, 28 July 1950 (lot 140), and was bought again by Agnew's, for 700 guineas. The painting was finally bought for the nation on 1 August 1950, with the aid of contributions from the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers, and from Francis Howard, in memory of the Society's first president, James McNeill Whistler.


Pink and Grey: Three Figures, Tate Britain
Pink and Grey: Three Figures, Tate Britain

The print dealer Thomas M. McLean (b. ca 1832) told Whistler on 22 October 1886, 'Your large picture three nude figures with parasol & one girl leaning down over a flower, the L'pool Art Gallery have.' 31 It was probably lent by Alfred Chapman (1839-1917), who attempted to sell it through Messrs Dowdeswell in London a few years later. It was, according to one visitor to the Dowdeswells' gallery, 'not on public exhibition, but was in one of their private rooms', and, wrote the very unimpressed writer, Wallace L. Crowdy (fl. 1885-1911), 'so far from Messrs. Dowdeswell showing it as a "completed work," they distinctly spoke of it as unfinished; nor can I imagine any one acquainted with Mr. Whistler's works speaking of any of them as "completed"!' 32

After several indignant letters from Whistler to the press, it was, not surprisingly, withdrawn from sale and show, and was not exhibited again in Whistler's lifetime. 33


Catalogues Raisonnés

Authored by Whistler

Catalogues 1855-1905

Newspapers 1855-1905

Journals 1855-1905


Books on Whistler

Books, General

Catalogues 1906-Present



Journals 1906-Present

Newspapers 1906-Present





1: YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 89).

2: Whistler to H. E. Whistler, [22 March 1880], GUW #06688.

3: Nocturnes, Marines & Chevalet Pieces, Goupil Gallery, London, 1892 (cat. no. 399).

4: Memorial Exhibition of the Works of the late James McNeill Whistler, First President of The International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers, New Gallery, Regent Street, London, 1905 (cat. no. 399).

5: YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 89).

6: Tate website at

7: Whistler to H. E. Whistler, [22 March 1880], GUW #06688

8: The paint medium was not investigated further than by heating a fragment of it, which yellowed and softened at a low temperature. These observations suggest added natural resin-based medium modifier, and also imply that early darkening of the paint with age is likely.

9: Report by Prof. Joyce H. Townsend, Tate Britain, November-December 2017.

10: Townsend 2017, op. cit.

11: 'At that time, the painting was marouflaged to an aluminium honeycomb panel, without having been X-rayed first. The metal and the honeycomb effect would together conceal any underlying image on the coloured imprimatura, so only four digital X-ray plates exist from 2017, giving very little information.' Townsend 2017, op. cit.

12: Whistler, J. McN., letter to the Editor, The Morning Post, 27 July 1891; reprinted in Whistler 1892 [more], p. 288; GUW #13566 and #05842.

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

14: Ibid.

15: Whistler to H. E. Whistler, [22 March 1880], GUW #06688. The people referred to are Carlo Pellegrini (1839-1889) and 'John', a servant.

16: Whistler to H. E. Whistler, [March 1880], GUW #06689.

17: Eldon to Whistler, 12 April [1880], GUW #01048.

18: T. Way to Dr W. Whistler, 15 April 1880, GUW #06081.

19: London Bankruptcy Court to J. A. Rose, 7 May 1879 (up to 5 October 1880), GUW #11711.

20: Quilter to E. T. Cook, published in 'Mr Quilter In Support Of Mr Whistler', Pall Mall Gazette, 6 August 1891, p. 2; GUW #13428.

21: [30 July 1891], GUW #09041.

22: T. M. McLean to Whistler, 22 October 1886, GUW #03725.

23: Whistler to Chapman, [30 July 1891], GUW #09041.

24: Whistler to E. G. Kennedy, New York, 5 August [1895], GUW #09733.

25: Whistler, letter to the Editor, The Morning Post, 27 July 1891; reprinted in Whistler 1892 [more], p. 288; GUW #13566 and #05842.

26: Whistler to E. T. Cook, Editor, 1 August [1891], published in the Pall Mall Gazette, 4 August 1891, GUW #04391, and Whistler 1892 [more], pp. 291-92.

27: 5 August [1891], published in 'Mr Quilter in support of Mr Whistler', Pall Mall Gazette, London, 6 August 1891, p. 2; GUW #13428.

28: Whistler to B. Whistler, [13 August 1891], GUW #06595. See also Whistler to Chapman, [1/2 and 3/4 August 1891], GUW #09036 and #09035.

29: GUW #00739.

30: New York Times, 18 December 1904, press cutting with note by C. L. Freer, Freer Gallery Archives.

31: GUW #03725.

32: W. L. Crowdy to E. T. Cook, 31 July 1891, Pall Mall Gazette, 1 August 1891; reprinted, Whistler 1892 [more], pp. 289-91.

33: Whistler, J. McN., letter to the Editor, The Morning Post, 27 July 1891; reprinted in Whistler 1892 [more], p. 288; GUW #13566 and #05842; and to E. T. Taylor, published Pall Mall Gazette, 1 August 1891, GUW #04391, reprinted in Whistler 1892, ibid, pp. 291-92.