The Paintings of James McNeill Whistler

YMSM 092
Tanagra

Tanagra

Artist: James McNeill Whistler
Date: 1869/1873
Collection: Maier Museum of Art at Randolph College
Accession Number: M.1953.1
Medium: oil
Support: canvas
Size: 31.0 x 17.5 cm (12 1/4 x 6 7/8")
Signature: butterfly
Inscription: none

Date

Tanagra dates from between 1869 and 1873.

Tanagra, Maier Museum of Art at Randolph College
Tanagra, Maier Museum of Art at Randolph College

1863/1867: Whistler incorporated Asian artefacts, particularly fans, as decorative features in his own house and in his paintings from about 1863 on. The arrangement of fans is reminiscent of the figure composition Harmony in Flesh Colour and Red y091, which is dated between 1863 and 1867.

1867/1870: Andrew McLaren Young (1913-1975) considered that 'Tanagra belongs to the years 1867 to 1870', the period of the 'Six Projects' (for example, Venus y082), as well as Harmony in Flesh Colour and Red y091 and Annabel Lee y079. 1

Venus, 1868, Freer Gallery of Art
Venus, 1868, Freer Gallery of Art

1869: The pose of the figure is very like that in the cartoon Venus m0357, which is signed and dated 1869 (it bears Whistler's first dated butterfly monogram).

1871/1873: Tanagra is signed with a butterfly of a slightly later date, between 1871 and 1873. A similar signature is seen on Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony y056, which is dated 1864-1873.

Images

Tanagra, Maier Museum of Art at Randolph College
Tanagra, Maier Museum of Art at Randolph College

Inspiration, The Hunterian
Inspiration, The Hunterian

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

Venus, photograph altered by Whistler,  GUL Whistler PH4/10
Venus, photograph altered by Whistler, GUL Whistler PH4/10

Rose and Silver, The Hunterian
Rose and Silver, The Hunterian

Sketch after a Greek terracotta figure, The Hunterian
Sketch after a Greek terracotta figure, The Hunterian

Greek terracotta figure, photograph, The Hunterian
Greek terracotta figure, photograph, The Hunterian

Subject

Titles

Whistler’s own title is not known. Suggested titles include:

To avoid confusion, the title 'Tanagra' has been retained.

Rose and Silver, The Hunterian
Rose and Silver, The Hunterian

The 1980 catalogue commented, 'The title "Tanagra", first suggested by McLaren Young in 1960, is taken from that given, probably by Whistler, to a related chalk drawing on brown paper in the Hunterian Art Gallery, Glasgow.' 6 However, there is no evidence that the pastel (reproduced above) was called 'Tanagra' by Whistler. It was signed about 1881/1882 and exhibited by Whistler in 1889 as Rose and Silver m0356. It was some years after Whistler's death that his executrix, Rosalind Birnie Philip (1873-1958), lent the pastel to an exhibition as 'Tanagra'. 7

Sketch after a Greek terracotta figure, The Hunterian, m1419
Sketch after a Greek terracotta figure, The Hunterian, m1419

Greek terracotta figure, photograph, The Hunterian
Greek terracotta figure, photograph, The Hunterian

The term 'Tanagra' was in common use in Whistler's time, and was used to refer to certain Greek terracotta statuettes or figurines. 8 About 1894 Whistler was asked to help in the sale of a collection of such statuettes in the collection of Alexander Ionides (1840-1898). He was given an album of photographs of these figurines and copied the photograph of what he himself described as one of the 'Tanagras' or 'Tanagra figures' in the album, Sketch after a Greek terracotta figure m1419. 9 The album includes a photograph of a woman holding a fan, similar in pose to the oil sketch Tanagra. 10

Whistler had a close business relationship with the art dealer Marcus Bourne Huish (1843-1904), who was an expert on these figurines and published an article on them, 'Tanagra Terra-cottas', in The Studio in 1898, and a book, Greek Terra-cotta Statuettes: Their Origin, Evolution, and Uses, in 1900. 11

Description

Tanagra, Maier Museum of Art at Randolph College
Tanagra, Maier Museum of Art at Randolph College

A small full-length study of a standing woman in vertical format. She is wearing a white robe, and her head, in three-quarter view, is tilted to her left but looking at the viewer. She stands with her right leg slightly bent, so that her body curves gently. A stole in very pale pink is clasped around her arms and the ends fall over her left arm. She has dark brown hair tied by a patterned purple scarf behind her neck; the scarf then loops across her body, and trails down at left behind her right knee. Her right arm crosses her body, with her hand adjusting the stole below her left shoulder; her left arm is not seen but her left hand holds a round palm fan.

There are several more fans on the wall, coloured in cream, pale blue, and mauve. Ochre, white, and purple petals and small green leaves are scattered across the cream and pink background. She stands on a blue and white chequered rug. Behind her is a low shelf or bench with, at right, a tall fluted vase holding purple flowers; at far right, on the front of the shelf, is a cartouche signed with a butterfly.

Sitter

Tanagra, Maier Museum of Art at Randolph College
Tanagra, Maier Museum of Art at Randolph College

Unknown.

Comments

Recent catalogues have associated the painting with Japanese art and artefacts rather than 'tanagra'. For instance the Maier Museum website (where the title of the painting has been changed from Tanagra to Sketch of a Figure with Flowers and Japanese Fans) states:

'Whistler exemplifies Western artists' interest in Japanese aesthetics. Incorporating Japanese artifacts such as fans and porcelain into his images, he also - perhaps most significantly - incorporated Japanese design sensibilities into his compositions. ...

Whistler purchased Japanese prints, fans and costumes, exemplifying Western artists' interest in Japanese aesthetics. "Sketch of a Figure with Flowers and Japanese Fans" was based on the style of Greek terra cotta figures but it is evident that Whistler’s interest in Japanese art largely influenced the outcome of the painting with the inclusion of the fan and porcelain vase.' 12

Technique

Composition

This may be part of a sequence of studies for a larger composition. Whistler's working method could well have started, in traditional academic style, with drawings from models nude and clothed, small oil studies, and a full-scale cartoon intended for transfer to a large canvas.

Inspiration, The Hunterian
Inspiration, The Hunterian

The chalk, pastel, and watercolour drawing on the recto of r.: Inspiration; v.: A nude with a parasol and a jug m0358, suggests variations on the pose seen in the oil sketch Tanagra. The model's right hand is extended to left, holding out the drapery, and there are indecisive indications of the fan in her other hand. The tall vase on its shelf is included in two alternative positions at right.

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

A large chalk cartoon by Whistler, dated 1869, and known as Venus m0357, shows a standing figure of a woman with a fan, similar in pose to the figure in Tanagra, although the figure is nude, holding a fan, with drapery falling from her left shoulder. Her head is more upright and is seen straight on. The flowers are omitted in the cartoon. The cartoon is pricked for transfer to a canvas but no canvas of the subject on this scale is extant (the cartoon is 119.4 x 61.4 cm and is signed with a butterfly).

It was probably a photograph of this cartoon that Whistler sent to his American patron Thomas de Kay Winans (1820-1878) in 1869, saying:

'I send you a small photograph of the "cartoon" for one of the pictures I am engaged upon - The figure itself is about small life size and will when painted be clad in thin transparent drapery, a lot of flowers and very light bright colour go to make up the picture.' 13

Venus, photograph altered by Whistler, GUL Whistler PH4/10
Venus, photograph altered by Whistler, GUL Whistler PH4/10

A copy of this photograph came with Whistler's collection to Glasgow University: it was drawn on in pencil by the artist, altering the outline of the torso to lean more to the left.

Spencer pointed out similarities between Tanagra and Albert Moore's painting Venus of 1869 (City of York Art Gallery). 14 Moore's technique, and in particular his method of drawing a cartoon for transferring a design to canvas, is very similar indeed to Whistler's cartoon Venus.

Tanagra, Maier Museum of Art at Randolph College
Tanagra, Maier Museum of Art at Randolph College

For all its small scale, Whistler's oil sketch Tanagra was painted with small brushed in sweeping strokes of creamy paint. There are traces of alterations to the position of the head and figure, and on the wall near the fans. However, it is signed with a butterfly that can be dated to the early 1870s, and is definitely later than the cartoon of 1869.

Rose and Silver, The Hunterian
Rose and Silver, The Hunterian

A chalk and pastel drawing, Rose and Silver m0356, also appears to be related to the oil sketch, but looks as if it was completed later, and it was certainly signed much later, about 1881/1882. It is impossible to know if it was originally drawn around the time the oil sketch was under construction. It includes several elements of the oil, in particular the drapery and fan, but the model's right hand is shown at her side, not crossing the body. It is possible that Whistler either revisited the subject in the 1890s, or reworked the pastel at that time.

1872: There is a possibility that these studies – drawings, oil sketch and cartoon – were later adapted for a proposed decorative painting intended for South Kensington Museum. Whistler was commissioned on 20 March 1872 to design 'two figures, one of Neath, the Egyptian Goddess of the Spindle, and the other of a Japanese art worker.' 15

1873: In March 1873 Whistler described a composition for South Kensington as a 'Gold Girl' and wrote to Alan Summerly Cole (1846-1934) :

'Your Gold Girl is all right - you have seen her well under way and in full swing ... and you shall have the large one coloured and finished quite as soon as you are really ready for her ... the Japanese painter of the Sun shall be of my most superb ... It will take me one day and a half to finish perfectly the small Gold Girl - and two days to colour the large one you send me, photographed i.e. enlarged - Now you do not need the large finished work until the middle of April ... Say this to your father from me and say that I bind myself to the accomplishment of this thing - moreover I have set my heart on having it in your halls in a state of perfection for exhibition ... Only how swell to have my others in the Academy and my Symphony in Gold at the Kensington Museum at the same time!' 16

Then in April Whistler wrote to the Director of the museum, Henry Cole (1808-1882):

'I am quite distressed that you should have had so long to wait for my work, which I am most anxious to deliver to you -

… When I first wrote to your son, I expected to complete the Japanese "Gold Girl" within a very few days. Almost immediately upon that letter my model broke down from over work - and has been incapable until today - The work itself has become much more important as I have gone on with it, and I desire that you should have it in it's completeness and of my best capacity -

It has been impossible for me to push this more rapidly ... Tomorrow evening I believe that the traced cartoon will be ready for photographing and enlarging upon the big canvass - and if you will have it sent for and put at once in hand, I will myself attend and assist all the next day - when by Monday night it will be doubtless ready for hanging -

... if it be impossible to work at the photographing on Sunday next, I can only say that you shall have the cartoon and canvass on the Monday - and my pupils shall work upon it during my absence, and I engage myself to return it to you colored and ready to hang on the 1st. of May.' 17

Venus m0357 is the only known cartoon by Whistler and it is possible that it was supposed to be transferred to canvas as the 'Gold Girl', while the oil sketch Tanagra was 'the small Gold Girl' mentioned in the previous letter to A. S. Cole, which would explain its early 1870s butterfly. However, the project was abandoned.

Technique

Tanagra, Maier Museum of Art at Randolph College
Tanagra, Maier Museum of Art at Randolph College

Whistler's oil sketch Tanagra was freely painted, with sweeping strokes of creamy-textured paint applied with small brushes, leaving ridges of paint at each side of the brushstrokes. There are signs of alterations to the position of the head and figure, and on the wall near the fans.

Conservation History

Unknown.

Frame

19 x 13 1/2 x 2 1/2" (Museum website).

History

Provenance

The early provenance is unknown, and the later history is based mostly on Museum records and those of the Macbeth Galleries, New York, but is sadly lacking in secure dates. According to Museum records, it was owned at one time by the diplomat, Robert Woods Bliss. It was acquired in trade from a client by the E. & A. Silberman Galleries, who sold it to R. G. McIntyre of the Macbeth Galleries, New York. It was bought in 1953 by the Randolph-Macon Woman's College, which later became the Maier Museum of Art at Randolph College. 18

Exhibitions

It was not, as far as is known, exhibited in Whistler's lifetime.

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: Young, A. McLaren, James McNeill Whistler, Arts Council Gallery, London, and Knoedler Galleries, New York, 1960 (cat. no. 22).

2: R. G. McIntyre to A. McLaren Young, 25 March 1960, GUL WPP files.

3: Young, A. McLaren, James McNeill Whistler, Arts Council Gallery, London, and Knoedler Galleries, New York, 1960 (cat. no. 22).

4: YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 92).

5: Maier Museum website at http://collections.maiermuseum.org.

6: YMSM 1980, op. cit.

7: Loan Exhibition of Works by James McNeill Whistler to aid the Professional Classes War Relief Council, Messrs Colnaghi, London, 1915 (cat. no. 47).

8: For a fuller account see Tanagra: Mythe et archéologie, exh. cat., Musée du Louvre, Paris, 2003. At the end of the 1860s, local inhabitants started to plunder tombs in the region of Tanagra and sold these statuettes. The figurines quickly became a popular collector's item in France and Britain.

9: See Whistler to A. Ionides, [15 August 1895], GUW #02364; Whistler to B. Whistler, [28 November 1895], GUW #06649.

10: MF Williams 1965 [more], pp. 98-99, (xiii), repr. p. 98, drawings repr. p. 96.

11: Huish, Marcus Bourne, 'Tanagra Terra-cottas', The Studio, vol. 14, 1898, pp. 97-104; Huish, Marcus Bourne, Greek Terra-cotta Statuettes: Their Origin, Evolution, and Uses, London, 1900.

12: Maier Museum website at http://collections.maiermuseum.org.

13: [September/November 1869], GUW #10632.

14: Spencer 1972 [more], p. 42, painting by Moore repr. p. 38, cartoon repr. p. 39.

15: H. Cole to Whistler, GUW #05518. Several drawings that may be related to this project include: r.: A Japanese Woman; v.: Girl with parasol m0458, A Chinese lady with a parasol m0459, and Japanese lady decorating a fan m0460, as well as two later pastels, Design for a Mosaic m1226 and The Japanese Dress m1227, completed in the 1890s.

16: [March 1873], GUW #09022.

17: [27 April 1873], GUW #07887.

18: R. G. McIntyre to A. McLaren Young, 25 March 1960, GUL WPP files.