John James Cowan was an Edinburgh paper manufacturer who began collecting around 1880. He married Sophy Gillespie in 1869. The couple had eleven children, four boys and seven girls, of whom seven survived to their golden wedding anniversary in 1919.
Cowan became friendly with a number of Scottish painters including John Lavery. It was through Lavery that Whistler received a commission on 18 January 1893 to paint Cowan's portrait (Arrangement in Grey and Green: Portrait of J. J. Cowan y402). It was begun in Paris in May 1893. During the sittings, Sophy Cowan would read Treasure Island to them. However, although Whistler accepted a cheque for 600 guineas, the portrait never came into Cowan's possession and remained incomplete, even though Cowan posed at intervals for ten years. Cowan recorded his sixty plus sittings in the memoir which he had published in 1933. In 1896, following the death of his wife Beatrice, Whistler declared himself to be 'greatly touched' by 'the warm friendship' expressed to him in Cowan's letters (see #00714).
Cowan's collection was predominantly made up of modern British and European art. He owned a number of Whistler's works including At the Piano y024, The Thames in Ice y036, Variations in Pink and Grey: Chelsea y105, Nocturne: Grey and Gold - Chelsea Snow y174, Nocturne: Black and Gold - Rag Shop, Chelsea y204, Nocturne: Blue and Gold - St Mark's, Venice y213, The Angry Sea y282, White and Grey: La Cour de l'hôtel, Dieppe y325, Chelsea Shop y374, Alice Butt (2) y438, The Little Nurse: Lyme Regis y443, Brown and Gold: The Curé's Little Class y455 and Brown and Gold: Lillie 'In our Alley!' y464, Study of a Girl's Head y487.
He also owned drawings: Nude with parasol m0446, A nude study m0451, and watercolours: Amsterdam in Winter m0877, Moreby Hall m0908, Red and brown - Hoxton m1004, Note in green - The Garden Laundry m1007, Rose and Pink - the Mother's sleep m1300, Rose and Silver: Portrait of Mrs Whibley m1415.
Cowan, John J., From 1846 to 1932, Edinburgh, 1933; Young, Andrew McLaren, Margaret F. MacDonald, Robin Spencer, and Hamish Miles, The Paintings of James McNeill Whistler, New Haven and London, 1980 .
The Correspondence of James McNeill Whistler, 1855-1903, edited by Margaret F. MacDonald, Patricia de Montfort and Nigel Thorp. University of Glasgow, 2003.