The Paintings of James McNeill Whistler

YMSM 196
Harmony in Blue: The Duet

Harmony in Blue: The Duet

Artist: James McNeill Whistler
Date: 1877/1878
Collection: Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence
Accession Number: Jesse Metcalf Fund 14.083
Medium: oil
Support: wood
Size: 27.3 x 45.7 cm (10 3/4 x 18")
Signature: none
Inscription: none

Date

Harmony in Blue: The Duet may date from the winter of 1877 to 1878, but is not completely consistent with Whistler's usual technique and style of painting. 1

1877: According to John Hollingshead (1827-1904), Whistler attended the last rehearsals at the Gaiety Theatre of the Grasshopper, Hollingshead's adaptation of Meilhac & Halévy's La Cigale, in which a caricature of Whistler painted by Carlo Pellegrini (1839-1889) appeared. 2 It opened on 13 October 1877.

Harmony in Blue: The Duet, Rhode Island School of Design
Harmony in Blue: The Duet, Rhode Island School of Design

Theatrical Sketch, The Hunterian
Theatrical Sketch, The Hunterian

A rough wash figure composition, known as Theatrical sketch m0672, is to some extent similar in subject and technique, and may be related to the oil. It is therefore assumed to date from the same period, but does not actually help to date the oil.

1877-1878: At the Gaiety Whistler made numerous pen drawings of the accompanying burlesque, Little Dr Faust, by H. J. Byron, including r.: Masked girl wearing a head-dress skipping; v.: Dancer m0663, r.: Nellie Farren; v.: Demon m0665, r.: Demon; v.: Two sketches of Nellie Farren m0666, r.: Two sketches of Nellie Farren; v.: Studies of two actors or actresses, one playing a banjo m0667, r.: Demon; v.: Young woman m0668.

Venetian Carnival, The Hunterian
Venetian Carnival, The Hunterian

A man serenading a woman on a balcony, The Hunterian
A man serenading a woman on a balcony, The Hunterian

He also made sketches of other theatrical scenes, including Venetian Carnival m0669, r.: A man serenading a woman in a balcony; v.: Lovers embracing m0670, Carnival at Venice m0671.

1878: Whistler wrote to Walter Theodore Watts-Dunton (1832-1914) on 12 January 1878 that he wished he could paint the star of the show, Ellen ('Nellie') Farren (1848-1904). 3

On 20 January 1878 Alan Summerly Cole (1846-1934) wrote in his diary that Whistler was 'Whistler painting scenes from little Dr. Faust at Gaiety which may turn out well.' 4 These may have been related to Harmony in Blue: The Duet.

Souvenir of the Gaiety, Private Collection
Souvenir of the Gaiety, Private Collection

A pastel study of three theatrical figures, Souvenir of the Gaiety m0664, may also be related to the studies and drawings mentioned above, and has also been tentatively dated 1878.

Images

Harmony in Blue: The Duet, Rhode Island School of Design
Harmony in Blue: The Duet, Rhode Island School of Design

Venetian Carnival, The Hunterian
Venetian Carnival, The Hunterian

A man serenading a woman on a balcony, The Hunterian
A man serenading a woman on a balcony, The Hunterian

Theatrical Sketch, The Hunterian
Theatrical Sketch, The Hunterian

Souvenir of the Gaiety, Private collection
Souvenir of the Gaiety, Private collection

Subject

Titles

The only suggested title varies in punctuation:

'Harmony in Blue: The Duet' is the preferred version of the title.

Description

Harmony in Blue: The Duet, Rhode Island School of Design
Harmony in Blue: The Duet, Rhode Island School of Design

Three figures on a stage, with a curtain or flat at right, painted in horizontal format. On the stage at left stands an actor with a cocked hat and pale blue skin-tight costume, and at right, two smaller figures, one probably a woman in white, the other in a loose pale blue costume, holding a white hat or cloth.

Site

Possibly the Gaiety Theatre, London.

Sitter

Actors and actresses, not identified.

The Rhode Island School of design website comments:

'Here Whistler introduces three characters from the commedia dell’arte – a humorous theatrical presentation with stock characters – who enact a dreamlike performance. Harlequin plays the violin while Pierrot and a companion sing a duet, enveloped in a hazy blue light. The result is a union of theme, color, and setting, a key tenet of the Aesthetic style, which promoted the creation of a harmonious environment.' 7

It is probably a coincidence that the male figure bears some similarities to two later missing portraits, Master Menpes y261, and Portrait of Henry E. Dixey y356.

Technique

Technique

Harmony in Blue: The Duet, RISD
Harmony in Blue: The Duet, RISD

Thinly painted, with dry, uncertain brushstrokes on the background, and more fluid ones on the figures. It is clearly unfinished, which may account for the technique, which is not very like Whistler's usual work.

Conservation History

Unknown.

Frame

Unknown.

History

Provenance

The early provenance is uncertain. In 1914 L. Earle Rowe (d. 1937), Director of Rhode Island School of Design, stated that this painting was given by Whistler to his half-sister, Deborah Delano Haden (1825-1908), and seen in her collection by John James Cowan (1846-1936), Edinburgh, who persuaded Whistler to give her another painting in its place so that he could buy it, after which 'it remained [in Cowan's collection] for a number of years until it lately came to America.' 8

However, Whistler did not mention it in his correspondence with J. J. Cowan or with Deborah Haden and the history of Harmony in Blue: The Duet y196 after 1878 is therefore unsubstantiated until its appearance in 1914.

Exhibitions

It was not 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

Journals 1906-Present

Websites

Unpublished

Other


Notes:

1: YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 196).

2: Hollingshead, John, My Lifetime, 2 vols., London, 1895, vol. 2, pp. 120-21, 154-55.

3: GUW #09575.

4: Ms copy, 27 March 1872-18 April 1885, GUW #13132.

5: Rowe 1914 [more].

6: YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 196).

7: Website at http://risdmuseum.org/art_design.

8: Rowe 1914 [more].