The Paintings of James McNeill Whistler

YMSM 493
Study of the Nude

Study of the Nude

Artist: James McNeill Whistler
Date: 1898/1899
Collection: The Hunterian, University of Glasgow
Accession Number: GLAHA 46384
Medium: oil
Support: canvas
Size: 74.0 x 35.4 cm (29 1/8 x 14")
Signature: none
Inscription: none

Date

Study of the Nude probably dates from between 1898 and 1899. 1 It is painted over a reclining nude figure, lying on a sofa, with the top of the canvas corresponding to the left side (the head is just visible to left of the standing nude's right arm). This figure could have dated from several years earlier.

Study of the nude, The Hunterian
Study of the nude, The Hunterian

Study of the nude may have been part of the series planned by Whistler to follow Purple and Gold: Phryne the Superb! - Builder of Temples y490. Whistler was working on a series of classical, mythological, biblical, historical and exotic subjects in 1898, as he told William Heinemann (1863-1920):

'I sit in the studio and could almost laugh at the extraordinary progress I am making and the lovely things I am inventing! - I have now in the studio a Phryne - a Dannae [sic] - an Eve - an Odalisque - and a Bathsheba ... I must not allow small ordinary considerations of Exhibition ... to interfere with work of this character which I always looked forward to and was sure would one of these days announce itself - bursting forth suddenly as the result of much preparation! All these inventions are since you left me the other day!' 2

The partial label of Bourlet & Sons, London frame-makers and exhibition agents, on the verso of this Study of the Nude, suggests it was framed in London.

It may have been one of 'two pictures ... in their new frames' that Whistler asked Rosalind Birnie Philip (1873-1958) to send through Goupil's, the London art dealers, to him in Paris in December 1899. His letter reads:

'[I]f Ronnie [Birnie Philip] think of coming over, you may as well put his picture in with the others for the Goupils to send - Also a nude figure begun from Lillie Pettigrew - a sort of Eve with an Apple in her hand ... Indeed while you are about it, there are two pictures similar in shape from the Lillie in their new frames - may as well both come.' 3

The model mentioned was Lilian Pettigrew (b. 1870) and 'a sort of Eve' is Eve y491.

Two paintings of nudes, GUL MS Whistler P404
Two paintings of nudes, GUL MS Whistler P404

The letter is illustrated with pencil sketches of Two paintings of nudes m1601, which may have included this oil but are too small to identify the subjects with certainty. 4

Another possibility is that the study of the nude was used as a demonstration piece to show students at the Academie Carmen in Paris, where Whistler attended occasionally in 1899.

Images

Study of the nude, The Hunterian
Study of the nude, The Hunterian

Study of the nude, infrared reflectogram
Study of the nude, infrared reflectogram

Study of the nude,  infrared reflectogram, showing reclining nude
Study of the nude, infrared reflectogram, showing reclining nude

Study of the nude, mouth rubbed down, showing canvas; microscopic image x 2
Study of the nude, mouth rubbed down, showing canvas; microscopic image x 2

Two paintings of nudes, GUL MS Whistler P404
Two paintings of nudes, GUL MS Whistler P404

A nude model adjusting her hair, The Hunterian
A nude model adjusting her hair, The Hunterian

The Arabian, The Hunterian
The Arabian, The Hunterian

Ethel Warwick holding an apple, The Hunterian
Ethel Warwick holding an apple, The Hunterian

Subject

Titles

Only one title has been suggested:

Description

Study of the nude, The Hunterian
Study of the nude, The Hunterian

A nude young woman standing, facing the viewer, depicted in vertical format. She is very slim, with short brown hair, cut in a rough fringe. She has a cap or scarf on her head. She stands against a brown, shadowy background. Alterations and additions have been indicated in white: her raised right hand is clenched as if holding something, her left arm is by her side, and she appears to be holding drapery in her left hand. At right, beside the figure but separate from it, is an unidentified object, possibly a sword, staff, torch, or pedestal, very loosely drawn in crayon.

Sitter

The model has not been identified. It may have been one of the Pettigrew sisters, possibly Lilian Pettigrew (b. 1870) or Rose Amy Pettigrew (1872-1958). However, if Whistler continued the painting in Paris, it was presumably from a French model.

Technique

Composition

The reclining nude:

Study of the nude, infrared reflectogram
Study of the nude, infrared reflectogram

Study of the nude,  infrared reflectogram, showing reclining nude
Study of the nude, infrared reflectogram, showing reclining nude

Beneath the standing nude there are traces of an earlier painting of a reclining nude, with the head at right, resting on her raised arms and leaning against cushions. The head is seen in profile, turned towards the right shoulder. The head is still just discernible to left of the later nude's right hand, but is more clearly seen in the infrared reflectogram. The two figures overlap over the body and legs. The original canvas must have been larger by at least 10mm on both sides and at the top, because it has lost the cusping (the deformations in the canvas caused by tacking the canvas to its stretcher before painting) on these sides. At the bottom, this margin for attaching the canvas has been brought into the plane of the image, to make the feet appear more grounded. The cutting down at the left went through the head and raised arms of the underlying figure.

The reclining nude is unusual in having the head to right, where most drawings of the nude have the head to left, which is slightly easier for a right handed artist, working from left to right. This was not an easy pose to hold, but it had advantages in showing off the raised breasts and long curve of the body.

A nude model adjusting her hair, The Hunterian
A nude model adjusting her hair, The Hunterian

A similar pose, with raised arms, is seen in a vigorous sketch of a standing figure, A nude model adjusting her hair, dating from about 1893. 7

The Arabian, The Hunterian
The Arabian, The Hunterian

Ethel Warwick holding an apple, The Hunterian
Ethel Warwick holding an apple, The Hunterian

The pose, except for the raised arms, could be compared to several reclining nude studies, such as The Arabian m1273, where the model's head is at right, and which dates from the early 1890s, and others dating from around 1900, including Ethel Warwick holding an apple m1605, which show a model in various poses, but all with the head at left.

It is just possible that La maja desnuda (The naked maja), painted in 1800 by Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828), and now in the Museo del Prado, inspired this pose, although in Goya's famous work, the woman is looking directly at the viewer. 8

The standing nude:

Study of the nude, The Hunterian
Study of the nude, The Hunterian

On the standing Study of the nude, corrections or additions were indicated in what appears to be white crayon: her raised right hand is clenched as if holding something, her left arm is by her side, and could have been holding drapery. To right of the figure, standing upright, unsupported, is the outline of a vertical object, which may possibly be a rod, sword, pedestal or torch.

The composition may have been intended to form part of a series of nude figures depicting a mythical, biblical, or other subject, similar to Purple and Gold: Phryne the Superb! - Builder of Temples y490 and Eve y491.

Technique

Study of the nude, infrared reflectogram
Study of the nude, infrared reflectogram

A full technical examination of this painting was carried out in the School of Culture and Creative Arts Technical Art History laboratory in the Hunterian at Kelvin Hall in February 2020. Professors Joyce H. Townsend and Margaret F. MacDonald examined the paintings under a microscope. A high resolution camera for infra-red reflectography (IRR) was operated by Tess Visser, a PhD student supervised by Professor Christina Young, assisted by Alicia Hughes, Hunterian curatorial assistant; images were also made of the recto in normal, raking, and ultraviolet light, and of the verso.

Study of the nude, The Hunterian
Study of the nude, The Hunterian

It was painted on a machine woven canvas, probably British, of a fine weave, densely woven and apparently unprimed. It is a thinly painted monochromatic study in shades of cream and brown for the shadowy and undifferentiated interior over a mid-grey priming made mostly from lead white.

All the paint includes lead white; the background including traces of cool brown umber and red vermilion. The paint is extremely thin, and it does not conceal the plain weave of the canvas. The cool tones of the pale flesh include umber and bone black, relieved only by the pink of her cheeks, applied with red ochre, and a touch of vermilion on her lips, complemented by red ochre and umber on the cap, and her hair, painted with warm and transparent brown ochre rather than umber.

Study of the nude, mouth rubbed down, showing canvas; microscopic image x 2
Study of the nude, mouth rubbed down, showing canvas; microscopic image x 2

The paint was rubbed down as part of the painting process, in some areas after each brushstroke was added and had dried, creating a soft, blurred image: the weave of the canvas is clearly visible through the paint with magnification, modifying the overall colour and specific details such as the lips, as seen in the image above. Some areas were rubbed more lightly, locally and selectively than others. Shadows, such as the shadow between her breast and that under her cap, were rubbed more heavily than surrounding areas.

The figure, and the suggestion of drapery in her left hand, and of something held in her right hand, as well as the unidentified object at right, are all vaguely outlined with white crayon (a wax- or oil-based crayon, possibly including lithopone or zinc white), as if correcting or suggesting additions to the original, thinly painted figure. These outlines lie beneath the varnish that was applied to the whole image after the canvas had been altered in format, lined to another canvas, and attached to the present, non-original stretcher. Thus they may well be Whistler’s. No other painting by Whistler is known to have been worked on like this. It has been suggested that these rather crude additions were added much later, but given the history of the work, this seems unlikely.

The varnish associated with the change of format is thick and the earlier varnish thinner. Both have become yellow with age, and now suppress the contrast between the pearly flesh and the pink lips.

Conservation History

Professor Townsend comments:

'The canvas is glue lined, and it is not clear whether that was done on Whistler’s instructions or posthumously, to bring the lower tacking margin, which is unpainted, into the picture plane. The edges are unevenly cut, and at the top, the canvas is short of the edge by 5 mm. All these aspects are unusual among lined Whistler oils. None of the cut edges show cusping, implying the canvas has lost 8-10 mm on the sides and top, or else was cut from a larger one. This format does make the unresolved feet look more plausible though.' 9

Frame

107.3 x 67.5 x 7.7 cm. The remains of the label of James Bourlet & Sons, London frame-makers and exhibition agents, on the verso, suggests it was framed in London.

History

Provenance

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: Dated 'about 1898/1902' in YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 493).

2: Whistler to W. Heinemann, [31 January 1898], GUW #10803.

3: GUW #04764.

4: MacDonald 1995 (cat. rais.) [more] (cat. no. 1601).

5: Rosalind Birnie Philip, list for probate, Glasgow, 1958.

6: YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 493).

7: r.: A nude model adjusting her hair; v.: A woman in a toga m1383.

8: Prints after the painting were available, for instance, La Maja, by the French reproductive etcher, Charles Albert Waltner (1846-1925).

9: Technical examination, 2020, cited above. In addition, the condition report by Clare Meredith, 21 May 2001, Hunterian files, commented that the canvas had been double-lined and its overall condition was poor; the varnish was applied vertically, had sunk in and discoloured; the paint might have darkened, possibly from the lining process; but the stretcher was in good condition.