The Paintings of James McNeill Whistler

YMSM 391
Portrait of Ellen Sturgis Hooper

Portrait of Ellen Sturgis Hooper

Artist: James McNeill Whistler
Date: 1890
Collection: Private collection
Accession Number: none
Medium: oil
Support: canvas
Size: 51.0 x 30.7 cm (20 1/8 x 12 1/8")
Signature: none
Inscription: none

Date

Portrait of Ellen Sturgis Hooper dates from 1890. 1

It was commissioned on 20 June 1890 by the sitter's father, Edward William Hooper (1839-1901) of Boston, Massachusetts, who offered Whistler 200 guineas for 'A small full length in water color or a head in oil':

'If it will not bore you to make for me a "note" of my oldest daughter - a red haired girl about seventeen years old - it will give me great satisfaction to have you do so ... [we] shall be in London only two weeks more, and my daughter is not very strong so that it will not be possible to have more than ten sittings of about an hour each.

Either my friend Mrs Mason or I will have to go with my daughter at each sitting.' 2

There were some twenty sittings: according to the sitter, Ellen Sturgis Hooper (Mrs John B. Potter) (1872-1974), who described the result as an 'unfinished portrait', she had 'delightful memories of the sittings, which covered about 60 hours, in June and July.' 3 A telegram from Whistler to Ellen Hooper dated 21 June 1890, arranging a sitting, confirms this recollection. 4 A draft of a letter from Whistler's wife, Beatrice Philip (Mrs E. W. Godwin, Mrs J. McN. Whistler) (1857-1896), to the sitter's father, written after 12 July 1890, states that 'he cannot touch the head with any pleasure or safety today - because the paint around it is neither wet or dry' and postpones a sitting from Miss Hooper because 'it would be worse than folly that what is so near its completeness as a beautiful thing.' 5

Portrait of Ellen Sturgis Hooper, Private collection
Portrait of Ellen Sturgis Hooper, Private collection

The portrait appears to have been finished by 23 September 1890 when the sitter's father told Whistler, after he had returned to America, that the portrait had been carefully packed by Frederick Henry Grau (1859-1892). 6 The sitter stated later that in 1890 Whistler had asked her father to leave the painting unvarnished, saying that 'he [Whistler] might come to the States the following summer and might want to put on a few touches.' 7

Images

Portrait of Ellen Sturgis Hooper, Private collection
Portrait of Ellen Sturgis Hooper, Private collection

Portrait of Ellen Sturgis Hooper, detail of photograph, 1904
Portrait of Ellen Sturgis Hooper, detail of photograph, 1904

Portrait of Ellen Sturgis Hooper, photograph, 1980
Portrait of Ellen Sturgis Hooper, photograph, 1980

Portrait of Ellen Sturgis Hooper, frame
Portrait of Ellen Sturgis Hooper, frame

Subject

Titles

Titles include:

'Portrait of Ellen Sturgis Hooper' is the preferred title.

Description

Portrait of Ellen Sturgis Hooper, Private collection
Portrait of Ellen Sturgis Hooper, Private collection

A three-quarter length portrait in vertical format. It shows a young woman in a white dress seated facing the viewer, her arms resting on the arms of a chair, her hands crossed in her lap. The dress has a dark blue belt and trim on the sleeves. She is in slight three-quarter view to right. She has a long face with narrow chin, brown hair drawn back behind her head, perhaps into a bun, with tiny curls on her forehead. The background is pale brown. The light, such as there is, comes from the left. The overall tone is dark.

Sitter

Ellen Sturgis Hooper (Mrs John B. Potter) (1872-1974). She married John Briggs Potter of Michigan, who, after studying art in Paris in the 1890s, later became curator of paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. According to Armstrong, who interviewed the sitter,

'[Whistler] was interested in Ellen's copper hair and high coloring. She wore a dress made of material sent her by a cousin in Japan, Dr. W. S. Bigelow. It was Japanese linen with a dark blue folded edging and a blocked overall blue pattern. This was composed of ten characters, repeated, "which meant", she said to me with a little smile, "happy old age." Whistler talked very little during the sittings ... gave the impression of intense concentration, and painted on long after the best light was gone.' 10

She posed, holding a fan in her hand, in the studio at 21 Cheyne Walk, and her father attended all the sittings. Although they were pleased with the result, none thought it a good likeness.

Comments

The Leicester Galleries discussed this at some length, making some interesting observations, as quoted here:

'He created an atmosphere with his brushwork in portraits as in his “Nocturnes”. Fluid, flowing strokes, broad cross-hatching, and lively, ribbon-like strokes from long, slender brushes, build up an intricate surface. The figure, and flesh tones, complementing and emerging from the gauzy materials, created a fragile harmony. The surface glimmers with the quality of the material, the face glows with sultry colour against the misty hues of the dress.

The dress merges with the fan that Ellen held, dropping from a languid hand. It may have been taken from Whistler's own collection. Certainly fans of this shape appear in his paintings in the early sixties, ... in watercolours and pastels – particularly those of models nearly nude, draped in long gauzy robes of butterfly colours, which were his delight to the end of his life. The curving shape complemented the folds of drapery, the cool white matched her dress. White diffused daylight falls ... onto the girl in her white dress, so that she stands out from the warm creamy-brown shadows of the studio. Pattern, dress, fan, drapes, all are half concealed, half revealed, in typically Whistlerian fashion. Against the soft colours, the deep, dark blue splashes of colour at cuffs and neck, and the vibrant colour of lips and face emerge startlingly.

Ellen's face has the quality of an icon. Thinly painted, the elegant brushstrokes which are an integral part of the dress are much more restrained in the painting of the face. Whistler thought it important to conceal the means of achieving his ends, and in the early nineties struggled agonizingly with this self-created problem. Expressive brushwork, even flashy brushstrokes, had their place in enlivening and unifying the surface of the canvas. The unity of the whole surface was of paramount importance.

But an agitated surface did not suit the timeless quality he sought in the face. He painted and rubbed out and repainted the face so that the final result ... [had] the freshness of the first sketch, combined with the understanding gained from many. It was the result of long study expressed with “the experience of a lifetime”. In the attempt to create a lasting portrait, expressing more than a fleeting expression, Whistler came upon the problem that he was in fact painting the model at one moment in time and under a particular set of circumstances. The freshness of that moment was of value, and he sought to convey that value in colour and paint as truthfully and seriously as he could. But truth is capable of many interpretations. ' 11

Technique

Technique

Portrait of Ellen Sturgis Hooper, Private collection
Portrait of Ellen Sturgis Hooper, Private collection

Whistler having said that he intended to 'put on a few touches' in 1891, it was described as 'unfinished' in 1905 and later by the sitter, but it is no more unfinished than a lot of Whistler's late portraits, such as Portrait of Miss Lilian Woakes y393.

It is painted very fluidly with small brushes, 3 mm (1/8") on the head, and 5 mm (3/16") on the skirt. Because it was not varnished until a considerable time after being painted, the paint sank in and the original light colours became more sultry.

Conservation History

Portrait of Ellen Sturgis Hooper, photograph, 1980
Portrait of Ellen Sturgis Hooper, photograph, 1980

Portrait of Ellen Sturgis Hooper, Private collection
Portrait of Ellen Sturgis Hooper, Private collection

Unknown. Andrew McLaren Young (1913-1975) commented when he saw it about 1975 that it was very dirty, with discoloured varnish. There are still traces of old varnish, minor abrasions, repairs and retouching. It is, however, very dark.

Frame

Portrait of Ellen Sturgis Hooper, detail of photograph, 1904
Portrait of Ellen Sturgis Hooper, detail of photograph, 1904

Portrait of Ellen Sturgis Hooper, frame
Portrait of Ellen Sturgis Hooper, frame

The frame is not the original; it was imitated by the Leicester Galleries; however, the original backboard bears labels confirming ownership and exhibitions. 12

History

Provenance

Exhibitions

Portrait of Ellen Sturgis Hooper, detail of photograph, 1904
Portrait of Ellen Sturgis Hooper, detail of photograph, 1904

A photograph shows it on exhibition in Boston in 1904.

Bibliography

Catalogues Raisonnés

Authored by Whistler

Catalogues 1855-1905

Journals 1855-1905

Monographs

Books on Whistler

Books, General

Catalogues 1906-Present

EXHIBITION:

SALE:

Journals 1906-Present

Websites

Unpublished

Other


Notes:

1: YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 391).

2: GUW #09138.

3: Ellen Potter to F. W. Coburn, 8 April 1946, GUL Rev 1955; and Armstrong 1966 [more].

4: Private collection.

5: [20/30 July 1890], GUW #13259.

6: GUW #02166.

7: Letter to F. W. Coburn, 1946, GUL WPP file.

8: Loan Collection of Portraits of Women for the Benefit of The Boston Children's Aid Society and the Sunnyside Day Nursery, Copley Society, Boston, 1895 (cat. no. 880).

9: YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 391).

10: Armstrong 1966 [more].

11: Peter Nahum at the Leicester Galleries at http://www.leicestergalleries.com/19th-20th-century-paintings/d/james-abbott-mcneill-whistler/12691 (acc. 2017).

12: Peter Nahum, Leicester Galleries at http://www.leicestergalleries.com/19th-20th-century-paintings/d/james-abbott-mcneill-whistler/12691 (acc. 2017).