Rosalind Birnie, Whistler's sister-in-law. Rosalind was the youngest of the ten children of the sculptor John Birnie Philip and his wife Frances Black.
Rosalind Birnie was twenty-two when her elder sister Beatrice, Whistler's wife, died in 1896, and he thereupon made her his ward and executrix. She acted as companion, model, secretary and kept house for Whistler and her mother until their deaths. She posed for a number of drawings (Rosalind Birnie Philip m1705), and lithographs (K71, 113; L189), as well as paintings (YMSM 478-80, 535, 553). In none was she shown in profile, although one late lithograph (L189) and The Black Hat - Miss Rosalind Birnie Philip y535, showed her in three-quarter profile. His nickname for her, with West Point associations, was 'Major' " Whistler, of course, was the 'General' " and he expected her to be dutiful. His letters to Rosalind are funny, furious, personal, possessive, and businesslike; they reveal an immense amount about Whistler. Unfortunately they say little about Rosalind except as Whistler saw her. He asked for a description of her outfit on some occasion: 'Was it the black dress I like? [...] The pearl necklace Major? around the straight throat " most stately! " to say nothing of the small smooth head, to which I have never done justice!' (18 February 1901, #04790). That may sound like the letter of a man half in love, but if so it was the love of a grandfather for she was nearly 40 years his junior.
Whistler did not really do justice to her appearance. The drawings accentuate her long serious features and lack the warmth of his portraits of Beatrice (see M.1061, 1398), or the vivacious elegance in those of Ethel (see M.1415). Yet it was Rosalind who was left to look after her mother and Whistler as they grew old, and guarded the treasures of Whistler's estate from dealers, collectors, writers and cataloguers.
She inherited Whistler's estate in 1903. Eventually the University of Glasgow persuaded Rosalind to put her trust in them, and found a home for the riches of her collection. Her first gift was made in 1938 and included major paintings, prints, pastels and drawings. It was specified that this primary collection should be retained intact in the University. A second gift, of some six thousand letters, ledgers, books, catalogues and press cuttings, was made in 1955. Her bequest, in 1958, included the residue of Whistler's studio, some important paintings and works on paper, manuscripts and books, and a huge collection of prints. The material also included works by her sister Beatrice, and by her father John Birnie Philip.
Apart from the collection bequeathed to her by Whistler, she continued to collect his letters and literature about Whistler, bought prints by him to round off her unique collection, and arranged for the printing of limited editions of some of his rarer etchings and lithographs before they were cancelled. It is a unique and exciting collection, a treasure house of art, and encyclopedia of information.
Young, Andrew McLaren, Margaret F. MacDonald, Robin Spencer, and Hamish Miles, The Paintings of James McNeill Whistler, New Haven and London, 1980 ; MacDonald, Margaret F., James McNeill Whistler. Drawings, Pastels and Watercolours. A Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven and London, 1995 .