The Paintings of James McNeill Whistler

YMSM 421
Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Little Blue Girl

Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Little Blue Girl

Artist: James McNeill Whistler
Date: 1894-1903
Collection: Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
Accession Number: F1903.89a-b
Medium: oil
Support: canvas
Size: 74.7 x 50.5 cm (29 3/8 x 19 7/8")
Signature: none
Inscription: none
Frame: Grau-style with painted chequered pattern and butterfly, 1895/1903 [17.7 cm]

Date

Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Little Blue Girl was started in 1894 and worked on at intervals until Whistler's death in 1903. 1

1894: Arthur Jerome Eddy (1859-1920) saw 'the little blue girl' at the time his own portrait, Arrangement in Flesh Colour and Brown: Portrait of Arthur J. Eddy y425, was being painted in Paris in 1894, and later expressed a wish to buy it. 'What ever became of the little blue girl - that was a picture I wanted', he wrote to the artist. 2

Charles Lang Freer (1856-1919) bought the 'Blue Girl' with three drawings from Whistler in November 1894 and expected Whistler to send it to him after exhibition at the Paris Salon in 1895, but it was not exhibited at that time. 3

1895: In the following year, Freer, after a lengthy trip to Japan, enquired of Whistler if his 'Little Blue Girl' was coming to America soon. 4

1896: Whistler's wife Beatrice Philip (Mrs E. W. Godwin, Mrs J. McN. Whistler) (1857-1896) died of cancer.

1897: Whistler continued to work on the painting and wrote to Freer:

'your little "Blue & Gold Girl" is doing her very best to look lovely for you ...

I write to you many letters on your canvas! - and one of these days, you will, by degrees, / read them all, as you sit before your picture -

And in them you will find, I hope, dimly conveyed, my warm feeling of affectionate appreciation for the friendship that has shown itself to me, in my forlorn destruction - as it had done before, in our happiness, to both of us - And in the work, perhaps will you of your refined sympathy and perception, discover the pleasure and interest taken in the perfecting of it, by the other one who, with me, liked you.' 5

Freer, who had sent a telegram asking Whistler to send the painting, then replied, showing deep sympathy for Whistler's loss:

'Your letter with its exquisite memories, tenderness and friendship came this morning, and as I read of her sympathetic interest in the "Little Blue and Gold Girl" and realized for her sake, how precious its care and deeply-loving each finishing touch, my heart sank at the thought of having asked you to hurry the picture to me -

Forgive, I pray, those cold words of last week - colder to you, I fear, than the icy waves of the Atlantic through which they were flashed. And be assured, my dear Mr. Whistler, that whenever, in your own good time and way, you are quite ready to complete, and transfer to my keeping, that which she loved, and which all who have seen loves, I shall be rejoiced to receive, and care for as you would have me. And when I am gone, the picture shall rest with its own beautiful kind, so, "that in after years, others shall pass that way, and understand." ' 6

1901: Whistler planned to continue painting the model, Eva Victoria Carrington (1887-1979), 'the long-legged dancing Blue Girl', when he returned from Corsica, if the screen in the background, Blue and Silver: Screen, with Old Battersea Bridge y139 , could be brought over from Paris to Fitzroy Street for this purpose:

'And now is the time when I want to attend to the Blue Girl and do the beautiful things that should save the situation ...

the difficulty about the Blue Girl is Paris and the Carrington! ... I might perhaps manage it in London - more quietly - but that would require bringing over blue screen etc: - You have as yet all the draperies & backgrounds in Fitzroy St. haven't you?' 7

1900-1903: On 27 June 1900 and again on 21 July 190l Freer wrote, with amazing patience, asking if it was finished. 8 In 1902 he saw the 'Little Blue Girl' in Whistler's studio, and offered to give Whistler more money for it. 9 However, he did not receive the inpainting until after Whistler's death in 1903.

Images

Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Little Blue Girl, Freer Gallery of Art
Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Little Blue Girl, Freer Gallery of Art

Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Little Blue Girl, photograph, 1980
Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Little Blue Girl, photograph, 1980

Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Little Blue Girl, frame
Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Little Blue Girl, frame

Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Little Blue Girl, frame
Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Little Blue Girl, frame

Blue and Silver: Screen, with Old Battersea Bridge, The Hunterian
Blue and Silver: Screen, with Old Battersea Bridge, The Hunterian

Sketch of 'Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Little Blue Girl', Private collection
Sketch of 'Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Little Blue Girl', Private collection

Nude figure standing, holding a veil, 1897, Library of Congress
Nude figure standing, holding a veil, 1897, Library of Congress

Sketch of 'Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Little Blue Girl', 1900, The Hunterian
Sketch of 'Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Little Blue Girl', 1900, The Hunterian

Rose et vert: Une étude, The Hunterian
Rose et vert: Une étude, The Hunterian

Subject

Titles

Several titles have been suggested:

'Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Little Blue Girl' is the preferred title.

Description

Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Little Blue Girl, Freer Gallery of Art
Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Little Blue Girl, Freer Gallery of Art

A figure study in vertical format. A nude young woman stands with arms raised, taking off a blue robe. Standing on the floor at right is a grey vase with a white flower and foliage. Behind the figure and vase is a low straight-back sofa with white wood frame, and behind that a blue folding screen.

Blue and Silver: Screen, with Old Battersea Bridge, The Hunterian
Blue and Silver: Screen, with Old Battersea Bridge, The Hunterian

The screen is Blue and Silver: Screen, with Old Battersea Bridge y139.

Sitter

Eva Victoria Carrington (1887-1979), 'the long-legged dancing Blue Girl', was posing for Whistler in 1900, and Whistler planned to continue painting her on his return from Corsica in March 1901. 15

Rose et vert: Une étude, The Hunterian
Rose et vert: Une étude, The Hunterian

The model may be the same as in Rose et vert: Une étude y489.

Technique

Composition

Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Little Blue Girl, Freer Gallery of Art
Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Little Blue Girl, Freer Gallery of Art

Sketch of 'Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Little Blue Girl', Private collection
Sketch of 'Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Little Blue Girl', Private collection

Nude figure standing, holding a veil, 1897, Library of Congress
Nude figure standing, holding a veil, 1897, Library of Congress

Sketch of 'Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Little Blue Girl', 1900, The Hunterian
Sketch of 'Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Little Blue Girl', 1900, The Hunterian

There are several small drawings that relate to the composition: Sketch of 'Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Little Blue Girl' m1379, dating from 1893, Nude figure standing, holding a veil m1487, from 1897, and Sketch of 'Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Little Blue Girl' m1610, from 1900.

Rose et vert: Une étude, The Hunterian
Rose et vert: Une étude, The Hunterian

A similar pose is seen in Rose et vert: Une étude y489.

Blue and Silver: Screen, with Old Battersea Bridge, The Hunterian
Blue and Silver: Screen, with Old Battersea Bridge, The Hunterian

The screen in the background of Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Little Blue Girl is Blue and Silver: Screen, with Old Battersea Bridge y139.

Technique

Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Little Blue Girl, Freer Gallery of Art
Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Little Blue Girl, Freer Gallery of Art

The canvas is nearly a 'toile de vingt' (73 x 50cm) and may have been acquired in Paris. The paint has been applied in multiple thin layers, rubbed down, and reworked, so that the surface is uneven.

There are alterations to the drapery held by the girl, the position of her feet, and around her head.

Conservation History

Freer Gallery files record that it was relined, cleaned, and resurfaced in 1922, retouched and resurfaced in 1931, and cleaned and surfaced in 1935 and 1951. A technical examination conducted by R. J. Gettens in 1959, in collaboration with Dr Robert Feller from the Mellon Institute, showed that not only had the painting darkened, but that the repeated over-painting of the face by Whistler had resulted in 'wrinkling and distortion of the paint film'. Furthermore, the varnish had a blueish bloom. The vase at lower right had been retouched, and these brush marks had whitened (tests showed the presence of both zinc and lead white in the retouching), while varnish over these marks was brittle. The painting was restored in 1965, when Ben Johnson removed the old varnish and retouching, and treated it with some inpainting and a final varnish.

Frame

Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Little Blue Girl, Freer Gallery of Art
Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Little Blue Girl, Freer Gallery of Art

Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Little Blue Girl, frame
Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Little Blue Girl, frame

Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Little Blue Girl, frame
Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Little Blue Girl, frame

Frame, two panels with a chequered pattern, signed with a butterfly. The design was painted, according to a note by C. L. Freer, some time between 1894 and 1903; however, the black and white chequered pattern was a symbol of Whistler's mourning for the death of his wife Beatrice Philip (Mrs E. W. Godwin, Mrs J. McN. Whistler) (1857-1896) in 1896. 16

It is unusual in Whistler's work in having the frame signed, but not the picture. The pattern on the frame continues the pattern of the matting on the floor, and the signature emphasizes the fact that the frame is an integral part of the design. It is the last picture to have a frame decorated by Whistler. 17

History

Provenance

C. L. Freer bought 'Harmony in Blue and Gold - The Little Blue Girl' with three drawings from Whistler on 23 November 1894 for 1300 guineas, and expected Whistler to send the painting to him after exhibition at the Paris Salon in the following year. 18 Whistler replied, 'I am delighted as I told you to know that my little Blue Girl is to be always in your care!' 19

Freer eventually asked if it could be sent before April 1897, to avoid paying 25 per cent duty; then he apologised, 'When the work is done to your satisfaction, we shall hope for the arrival of you and it together.' 20

Over two years later, Whistler told Freer not to pay for other pictures until he received it, adding, 'I think I may tell you without the least chance of being misunderstood, that I wish you to have a fine collection of Whistlers!! - perhaps The collection.' 21 This indeed came to be so: Freer's unique collection hangs in the Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC.

However, in June 1902 Freer was still trying to obtain this painting and offered Whistler more money:

' "The Little Blue Girl" Paid for 1894 - 1000 gs but the amount £1000 was credited in settlement made during June 1902. so I still owe him for the pictures - I offered in June to make the price 1500 gs.' 22

To no avail: it was in Whistler's studio at his death in 1903, and finally sent by his executrix, Rosalind Birnie Philip (1873-1958), to Freer in August 1903.

Exhibitions

It was not exhibited in Whistler's lifetime.

By the terms of C. L. Freer's bequest to the Freer Gallery of Art, the painting cannot be lent to another venue.

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: YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 421).

2: Eddy to Whistler, 4 October 1895, GUW #01025.

3: Freer to Whistler, 23 November [1894], GUW #01509.

4: 23 September 1895, GUW #01512.

5: [24 March 1897], GUW #11571.

6: [6 April 1897], GUW #01514.

7: Whistler to R. Birnie Philip, 27 January [1901], GUW #04787 and 8 March 1901, GUW #04797.

8: GUW #01518, #01524.

9: n.d., Freer Diaries, Bk 12, Freer Gallery Archives. Note, 18 June 1902, GUW #11698.

10: 23 November 1894, receipt in Freer Gallery Archives.

11: Freer to Whistler, 23 September 1895, GUW #01512.

12: Whistler to Freer, [24 March 1897], GUW #11571.

13: Oil Paintings, Water Colors, Pastels and Drawings: Memorial Exhibition of the Works of Mr. J. McNeill Whistler, Copley Society, Boston, 1904 (cat. no. 26).

14: YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 421).

15: Whistler to R. Birnie Philip, [30 October 1900], 27 January [1901] and 8 March 1901, GUW #04780, #04787, #04797.

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

17: See Curry 2004 [more], pp. 204, 207, frame repr. p. 206.

18: Freer to Whistler, 23 November [1894], GUW #01509; receipt of payment in Freer Gallery Archives.

19: 23 November 1894, GUW #03195.

20: [31 March 1897], GUW #13817; [5 April 1897], GUW #13795.

21: [29 July 1899], GUW #03196; see also Freer's note of purchases, 31 August 1899, GUW #11702.

22: Note, 18 June 1902, GUW #11698.