Detail from The Canal, Amsterdam, 1889, James McNeill Whistler, The Hunterian, University of Glasgow

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Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl


  • 1866: sold by the artist to his half-brother, George William Whistler (1822-1869), although Whistler retained possession;
  • 1869: bequeathed to G. W. Whistler's widow, Julia de Kay Whistler (1825-1875);
  • 1875: bequeathed to her son, Thomas Delano Whistler (1857-1921), Baltimore, Maryland, and sent by the artist to him;
  • 1896: sold on 28 February 1896 for T. D. Whistler by Boussod, Valadon & Cie, New York, to Harris Whittemore (1864-1927), Naugatuck, CT;
  • 1897: sold to his father, John Howard Whittemore (1837-1910), Naugatuck, CT;
  • 1910: bequeathed to the J. H. Whittemore Company, Naugatuck, Connecticut, with life interest to J. H. Whittemore's daughter, Gertrude Buckingham Whittemore (1874-1941), Naugatuck, CT;
  • 1943: given by the J. H. Whittemore Company to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

At the time of the Salon des Refusés in 1863 the painting interested several collectors, including, according to Etienne Joseph Théophile Thoré (1807-1869), the critic Francois Arsène Housset (1815-1896). 1 P. Hardy-Alan (fl. 1860-1903) told Whistler that someone was interested in buying 'la fille blanche' and the artist asked Fantin-Latour to try and find out who this was, saying, 'j'aimerais bien la vendre à Paris.' 2 Whistler told Anthony Frederick Augustus Sandys (1829-1904): 'You will perhaps be pleased to hear that the "White Girl" is a real success in Paris - and already I have had a letter to know if it may be possessed for gold!', and he added, 'Jo says many things aimables - and if ever I lent her to anyone to paint, it should certainly be to you mon ami.' 3

However, it was not until late 1866 that the painting was finally bought by Whistler's step-brother, who obviously cared very much about how he was to hang it, as well as its condition:

'I received two days ago your letter of the 29th Nov. & in this you will find a draft for £200. - which with the £50. - sent a few weeks since will pay you for the White Girl. I dont much like its going to the Exposition, I fear it will be injured, or lost. How about its size? the very extreme length my rooms will afford is 8. feet. if the picture is longer I shall be unable to hang it except in the small blue room, between dining & large salon … & the light falls upon the left side as you look at it if hung in this small room.' 4

Despite this objection, Whistler did exhibit it at the Exposition Universelle. George wrote again from St Petersburg in 1868, 'I hope you will find time before next Spring to finish my picture'. 5 In fact Whistler never sent it to his brother; it was his nephew, Thomas Delano Whistler (1857-1921), who eventually received it, and who later sold it. In November 1894, Edward Guthrie Kennedy (1849-1932) asked if the painting was worth £1500.0.0, and in January of the following year told Whistler that it was for sale: ' "The White Girl" is for sale, but I have not heard the price asked. I am under the impression that $15,000 is demanded, but what would be accepted by the owner is another matter. No one here takes the amount seriously as far as I can learn.' 6 In March 1896 Kennedy reported, 'I hear that Tom Whistler has sold the White Girl to a Mass. man', but in fact it was to a Connecticut man: H. Whittemore of Naugatuck, who had bought it through Boussod, Valadon & Co., New York, on 28 February 1896, for $6500. 7

Robert Goodloe Harper Pennington (1854 or 1855-d. 1920) told Whistler that he had tried to dissuade 'that silly Tom' from selling, 'begged him not to sell the picture - tried my best to make him understand the wonder of it & the honor it was to own such a work, to pass it down as an heirloom.' 8 Whistler drafted an acid letter to his nephew:

'Now that you too in your turn, have sold so happily "the White Girl", and so completely rid your family of all future [participation] in the tradition of your Fathers brother, I do not, for the life of me, see how I could, by any ordinary intercourse, supply affection at the enthusiastic rate this last excellent commercial transaction seems to have evolved.' 9

Meanwhile, H. Whittemore had immediately sold it to his father, John Howard Whittemore (1837-1910), in May 1897.

Apparently the painting was also considered for purchase for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but the proposal failed, as the New-York-based artist Julian Alden Weir (1852-1919) explained to Whistler, because Samuel Putnam Avery (1822-1904) 'said that at that time (which was only three or four years ago.) that better pictures of Mr W. could be had cheaper & that he was now aware that he had made a mistake.' 10

On J. H. Whittemore's death in 1910 it became the property of the J. H. Whittemore Co., with a life interest to Gertrude Buckingham Whittemore (1874-1941). On her death it went on loan to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC., and was presented to that Gallery in 1943 by the J. H. Whittemore Company. 11


  • 1862: [Exhibition], Morgan's Gallery, Berner's Street, London, 1862 (cat. no. 42) as 'The Woman in White' (catalogue untraced).
  • 1863: The Artists' and Amateur's Conversazione, Willis's Rooms, London, 1863, (on 26 March) as 'The Woman in White' (catalogue untraced).
  • 1863: Ouvrage de peinture, sculpture, gravure, lithographie et architecture, refusés par le Jury de 1863, et exposés, par décision de S.M. l'Empereur, au salon annexi, Salon des Refusés, Palais des Champs-Elysées, Paris, 1863 (cat. no. 596) as 'Dame blanche'.
  • 1863: Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, Martinet's Gallery, Paris, 1863 (no catalogue).
  • 1867: Exposition Universelle/ Universal Exhibition, Paris, 1867, USA Section, two catalogues (cat. nos. 68 and 75) as 'The White Girl'.
  • 1876: Academy Charity Exhibition, Academy of Music, Baltimore, March 1876 (cat. no. 43) as 'A Girl in White'.
  • 1881: Loan Collection of Paintings, in the West Galleries, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1881 (cat. no. 60) as 'The White Girl'.
  • 1881: Exhibition of Pictures, Union League Club, New York, 1881 (no cat. no.) as 'Woman in White' (according to a press cutting, 10 April 1881, GUL Whistler PC 4, p. 61).
  • 1893: World's Columbian Exposition, Department of Fine Arts, Chicago, 1893 (ex. cat.).
  • 1894: Loan Collections, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1894 (cat. no. 252) as 'The White Girl'.
  • 1895: Loan Collections, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1895 (cat. no. 253) as 'The White Girl'.
  • 1898: Loan Exhibition of Portraits for the Benefit of the Orthopædic Hospital, National Academy of Design, New York, 1898-1899 (cat. no. 254) as 'The Woman in White'.
  • 1904: Oil Paintings, Water Colors, Pastels and Drawings: Memorial Exhibition of the Works of Mr. J. McNeill Whistler, Copley Society, Boston, 1904 (cat. no. 71) as 'WHITE GIRL'.
  • 1905: Memorial Exhibition of the Works of the late James McNeill Whistler, First President of The International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers, New Gallery, Regent Street, London, 1905 (cat. no. 37) as 'The Woman in White, Symphony in White, No. 1' in illustrated edition, and as 'The White Girl' (3rd edition et seq.).
  • 1905: Œuvres de James McNeill Whistler, Palais de l'Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris, 1905 (cat. no. 4) as 'Symphonie en blanc No 1 "La fille blanche" (Symphony in White No. 1. The White Girl.)'.

1862, LONDON:

Whistler regarded Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl as an important picture, which he hoped would find official recognition, first in London and then in Paris. The sitter, Joanna Hiffernan, wrote that before being sent to the Royal Academy, it was shown to their friends including John Everett Millais (1829-1896):

'[T]he W[h]ite Girl has made a great sensation - for and against. Some stupid painters dont understand it at all while Millais for instance thinks it spleandid, [sic] more like Titian and those old swells than anything he [h]as seen - but Jim says that for all that, [perhaps] the old duffers may refuse it altogether.' 12

Unfortunately Whistler was right and the 'duffers' did indeed reject it. Some years later, the circumstances of finding the painting rejected were described by Whistler to the American artist Harper Pennington:

'I went on Varnishing Day, to see where they had put her. She was not in the first room, nor the second, nor the third - I felt a little anxious - but I wandered on, and on, and on, through room after room, and when I came to the last of them I knew she was rejected. Still, I thought I might have missed her, somewhere in the crowd of pictures; so I went all over them again, growing positively sick. And then I went downstairs and poked about until I found her leaning against a wall … and I knew that she was beautiful and was consoled.' 13

' "Ye Whyte Ladye" ' was shown instead in a small gallery in Berners Street, described by Whistler as 'a stunning place', run by Matthew Somerville Morgan (1839-1890). 14 The Lady's Own Paper of 5 July 1862 considered that 'The Woman in White', rejected by the Royal Academy, was the 'most prominent' work in the Berners Street exhibition. Although Whistler objected to the title 'The Woman in White' given to it in the gallery, he was pleased by the effect which the picture created. It attracted a certain amount of publicity, partly generated by Whistler.

The Woman in White, pen, Wadsworth Athenaeum
The Woman in White, pen, Wadsworth Athenaeum

He sketched a bill-board advertising the painting – 'The Woman in White' [M.0303] – and wrote to George Aloysius Lucas (1824-1909) describing it:

' "The White Girl" was refused at the Academy where they only hung the Brittany Sea piece and the Thames Ice Sketch! … Nothing daunted I am now exhibiting the White Child at another exposition where she shows herself proudly to all London! that is to all London who goes to see her! She looks grandly in her frame and creates an excitement in the Artistic World here ... In the catalogue of this exhibition it is marked

"Rejected at the Academy"

What do you say to that! isn't that the way to fight 'em! Besides which it is affiched all over the Town as

[drawing] Whistler's Extraordinary picture the WOMAN IN WHITE.

That is done of course by the Directors but certainly it is waging an open war with the Academy, eh?' 15


According to William Michael Rossetti (1829-1919), 'The Woman in White' was shown at The Artists' and Amateurs' Conversazione, in Willis's Rooms (the old Almack's Assembly Rooms in St James Square), on 26 March 1863. 16

Whistler had already written to the patient George A. Lucas in Paris, expressing hopes for its success at the Salon:

'I am going to send the "White Girl," to the exhibition there and see if better luck awaits it and whether it may not be by chance accepted by the Jury -

Do receive it for me and see it safely into the Palais de L'Industrie and make me more grateful than ever for the jolly lot of trouble you have taken for me -

I have set my heart upon this succeeding, and it would be a crusher for the Royal Academy here, if what they refused were received at the Salon in Paris and thought well of - so my dear Lucas let us do all we can to succeed. I am touching the painting up a little, so that it will be fresh when it reaches the Custom House and therefore I beg above all things that you will meet it and prevent any harm coming to it when they open the Case - … I shall of course write when I send it, and by what agency so that you can warn the Company at their office to let you know directly the case arrives so that you may be by, when opened, and from the Custom House you might have the Picture taken directly to the Palais de L'industrie without bringing it home or any further trouble - In your answer send me the printed forms necessary to be filled up for the "Salon".' 17

It is to be hoped that Lucas enjoyed Whistler's suggestion that this would cause no 'further trouble'! Furthermore, Whistler told Fantin-Latour that, if rejected, it should be shown at the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. 18 However, when it was rejected at the Salon, Whistler cancelled this authorisation so that the 'Dame blanche' could be shown in the Salon des Refusés in Paris instead. 19 'The White Girl' was among many works rejected by the tradition-bound jury of the Paris Salon. So many paintings were rejected, and there was such an outcry, that Napoleon III invited artists who had been rejected to show their paintings in a 'Salon des Refusés'. The exhibition triggered much controversy and publicity. 20 Fantin-Latour sent Whistler a vivid account of the furore, in his distinctive literary style:

'[L]e Jury très sévère refusant tout ce qui n'était pas dans ces idées … de telle façon que le mecontement [sic] était général. alors L'Empereur va au palais de L'industrie veut voir les tableaux refusées, les regardent et ordonne d'exposer tous les tableaux refusées!! quel coup d'état, les tableaux jujé d'un coté, les refusées de l'autre dans le même palais. on laisse libre ceux qui sont refusées de retirer leurs tableaux,

Ton tableau est refusées, tes Eaux fortes reçues … ton refus et a été assez curieux et prouve que malgré tout l'on s'occupe beaucoup des gens qui font la Peinture a leurs guise. le fils ma dit qu'il a Vu devant ta toile (avant le jugement) Mr de Chenevieres et Mr de Nieuwerkerke qui disaient il a exposé deja ici, et on l'a refusé son tableau était très bien, et Mr de Nieuwekerke voyant les Eaux fortes a dit quil en avait, et trouvait cela superbe et lorsqu'il a passé devant le Jury ces deux messieu[r]s l'on beaucoup defendu et la derniere chose qui etait dite la est, ces Messieurs ne la trouve pas plaisante. cela a été très Durs et très difficile a refuser

il faut laisser ce tableau parmi tous les tableaux refusés nous le ferons tous. On dit que les meilleures choses seront bien placées et exposée ensemble, et certainement l'on s'occuperas de te bien placer, l'administration est obligé de s'occuper de cela avec soin, …

Manet est refusé completement et l'on ne parle que de lui dans ce moment vraiment cela est degoutant le refus il y a un portrait vraiment très bien et qui sera très bon pour lui au salon des refusés Bracquemond completement refusé … Astruc fait un salon journal. Oh viens donc à Paris dans ce mois, il y a tant à causé, ces deux Salons cela ne c'est jamais vue.' 21

Translation (with no attempt to correct Fantin's punctuation): 'The Jury [was] very strict rejecting everything that did not conform to its ideas … to such an extent that there was general dissatisfaction. then the Emperor goes to the palais de L'industrie wants to see the rejected pictures, looks at them and decrees that all the rejected pictures should be exhibited!! what a coup d'etat, the accepted pictures on one side, the rejects on the other in the same building. those who have been rejected are free to withdraw their pictures.

Your picture was rejected, your Etchings accepted … your rejected painting was quite strange and proves that in spite of everything people who do paintings in their own way are receiving careful consideration. The son told me that he saw Mr de Chenevieres and Mr de Nieuwerkerke in front of your canvas (before the judging) who were saying he has already exhibited here, and he was rejected [,] his picture was very good, and Mr de Nieuwekerke on seeing the Etchings said that he had some, and thought it was superb and when it went before the Jury these two gentlemen strongly defended it and the last thing said there was, these Gentlemen do not find it pleasing. that was very Hard and very difficult to reject

you must leave this picture amongst all the rejected pictures we are all doing the same. They say that the best things will be well placed and exhibited together, and certainly they are going to ensure that you are well placed, the administration is obliged to deal carefully with that, …

Manet was completely rejected and all the talk is about him at the moment really the rejection is disgusting there is a really good portrait which will be very good for him at the salon of rejects[,] Bracquemond completely rejected, ... Astruc is doing a newspaper for the salon. Oh do come to Paris this month, there is so much to discuss, these two Salons there has never been anything like it.'

The Salon des Refusés opened at the Palais des Champs-Elysées on 15 May 1863. Whistler's 'Dame blanche' hung in the same room as several paintings by Edouard Manet (1832-1883), including Déjeuner sur l'herbe (then called 'Le Bain' ). 22 Critics writing about the Salon des Refusés agreed that the paintings of Manet and Whistler were the 'succès de scandale' of the exhibition. Whistler pressed Fantin-Latour to obtain press cuttings for him: 'Les journaux doivent encore parler de nous - envoies donc quelques uns - le Figaro de Graham doit avoir été bien sur La Fille Blanche - et la Gazette des beaux Arts - et Teophile [sic] Gautier et tout ça.' 23 Fantin reported that 'le fameux Graham c'est refroidi il n'y a pas eu d'articles pour les Refusées il a dit je n'ai plus de temps.' 24 However, eventually, on 16 July 1863, Arthur Stevens (1825-1899) wrote favourably in Le Figaro: 'Je considère ce tableau comme l'une des oeuvres les plus saisissantes de l'Exposition, bien qu'il se trouve dans la salle des refusés, circonstance évidemment due à une inadvertence du jury.'

Both Edmond Duranty (1833-1880) in his 1872 novel Le Peintre Louis Martin, and Émile Édouard Charles Antoine Zola (1840-1902) in L'Œuvre (1886) introduced incidents based on the reception given to Manet's and Whistler's pictures in Paris. 25

Whistler himself described the impact of the picture: ' "The White Girl" (Symphony in White No. 1). Paris - most notorious'. 26 This was a slight exaggeration: according to Fantin-Latour, writing to Whistler on the opening day of the Salon des Refusés in 1863, the painting had been hung by M. de Tourmeline, director of the Musée du Luxembourg and was much admired:

'[T]e voila celèbre! ton tableaux est très bien placé, tout le monde le voit - tu as le plus grand succès. … Nous trouvions les blancs très bien ils sont superbe, a la distance (le plus grand juje) ils fonts très bien tu ne peux t'imaginer le rideau le succès est un succès de distingtion tous le trouve très fin, très distingué. Courbet appelle ton tableau une apparition, du spiritisme et (cela l'embête) il dit c'est bien (cela l'embête lui qui à fait mauvais). Baudelaire trouve cela charmant, charmant, Exquise delicatesse dit-il, Legros, Manet, Bracquemond de Balleroy, … trouve cela très bien. (Mr de Tournemine t'a fait placer lui même) il est le directeur du Musée du Luxembourg. J'ai été très heureux de voir toutes les fois que j'entrais dans la salle un attroupement autour de ton tableau, hier pendant que l'on vermissait j'y ai Vu toute l'administration. Viens vite ici, c'est assez interessant pour toi, car j'oublie, je ne saurais dire combien cela est excellent, pour toi, … Cette Exposition est excellente pour Nous.' 27

Translation: 'Now you are famous! your picture is very well hung, everyone can see it - you are having the greatest success. … We thought the whites very good they are superb, from a distance (the best judge) they look very good you cannot imagine the curtain the success is one of distinction everyone thinks it very fine very superior. Courbet calls your picture an apparition, spiritualistic and (this annoys him) he says it is good (it annoys him, he had been sulking). Baudelaire think it is charming, charming, exquisite delicacy he says, Legros, Manet, Bracquemond de Balleroy, … think it is very good. Mr de Tournemine placed you himself, he is the director of the Luxembourg Museum. I was very happy to see a great crowd round your picture every time I went into the room, yesterday during the varnishing I saw all the officials there. … this Exhibition is excellent for us.'

Thus the admirers of Whistler's painting included Albert de Balleroy (1828-1873), Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), Joseph Auguste Bracquemond (1813-1914), Alphonse Legros (1837-1911), and Edouard Manet (1832-1883).

In the Gazette des Beaux-Arts Paul Mantz (1821-1895) complimented Whistler, 'il se dégage de l'oeuvre de M. Whistler un charme étrange; pour nous la Femme en blanc est le morceau capital du salon des hérétiques':

'La Femme en blanc de M. James Whistler est un morceau plein de saveur, et cette figure est à la fois très-goùtée et très-discutée dans le groupe, moins nombreux qu'on ne croit, des amoureux de la peinture. …

La Femme en blanc est aussi d'un aspect un peu singulier; mais il faut ignorer l'historie de la peinture pour oser prétendre que M. Whistler est un excentrique, alors qu'il a, au contaire, des précédents et une tradition qu'il ne faudrait pas méconnaître, surtout en France. De quoi s'agit-il dans son tableau? D'une jeune dame qui, vétue de blanc de pied en cap, se détache sur un rideau blanc: je ne sais si M. Whistler a lu la vie d'Oudry racontée par l'abbé Gougenot, mais il aurait pu y voir que l'habile maître s'exerça bien des fois à grouper, comme dit l'historien, "divers objets blancs," et qu'il exposa entre autres, au Salon de 1753, un assez-grand tableau "représentant, sur un fond blanc, divers objets blancs …" Ces associations de nuances analogues étaient comprises de tout le monde il y a cent ans, et cette difficulté, qui embarasserait aujourd'hui plus d'un maître, passait alors pour un jeu d'écolier: en cherchant un effet pareil, M. Whistler continue donc la tradition française, et ce n'était pas une raison pour refuser son tableau. Mais l'artiste américain a eu tort peut-être de semer de tons bleus le tapis sur lequel marche son charmant fantôme; il est là en dehors de son principe, et presque de son sujet, qu'il n'est pas autre chose que la symphonie du blanc. Ajoutons que la tête de la jeune femme est peinte d'un pinceau trop rugueux, et qu'elle n'est pas jolie; mais l'œuvre a un grand accent personnel. Il ne s'agit pas seulement, dans le tableau de M. Whistler, d'une association de tons qui peut-être ne séduira que les raffinés; la poésie y trouve aussi son compte. D'où vient cette blanche apparition? Que nous veut-elle avec ses cheveux dénoués, ses grands yeux noyés dans l'extase, son attitude alanguie et cette fleur sans pétales aux doigts de sa main pendante? Nul ne peut le dire: la vérité, c'est qu'il se dégage de l'œuvre de M. Whistler un charme étrange: pour nous, la Femme en blanc est le morceau capital du salon des hérétiques.' 28

Translation: 'The Woman in white by Mr James Whistler is a piece full of interest, and this figure is at once very tasteful and much discussed among the surprisingly small group of lovers of painting. The Woman in white is also somewhat singular; but one would have to ignore the history of painting in order to dare claim that Mr. Whistler is an eccentric, whereas he has, on the other hand, precedents and a tradition that should not be ignored, especially in France. What is in his painting? A young lady, dressed in white from head to foot, stands in front of a white curtain: I do not know if Mr. Whistler has read the life of Oudry told by the Abbe Gougenot, but he could have seen there how that skilful master often, as the historian says, grouped together "various white objects," and that he exhibited, among others, at the Salon of 1753, a rather large picture "representing, on a white background, various white objects …” These combinations of similar shades were understood by all the world a hundred years ago, and this difficulty, which would embarrass more than one master to-day, was then considered like a game at school. In seeking such an effect, Mr. Whistler thus continues the French tradition, and this was no reason to refuse his picture. But the American artist was perhaps wrong in scattering blue tones across the carpet on which his charming phantom stands; this is alien to his principle, and almost his subject, that is nothing less than a symphony in white. Let us add that the head of the young woman is painted with too a coarse a brush, and that she is not pretty; but the work has great personal individuality. There is not merely, in Mr. Whistler's picture, an association of tones which, perhaps, will only seduce the refined; poetry is also found there. Where does this white apparition come from? What does she want with her loose hair, her big eyes drowned in ecstasy, her languid attitude and that flower without petals on the fingers of her hanging hand? No one can say: the truth is that Mr. Whistler's work has a strange charm: for us, the Woman in White is the finest piece in the salon of heretics.'

Mantz, in calling the painting 'la symphonie du blanc', was the first to make a connection between Whistler's art and music, a correlation that Whistler would affirm in later years. In 1867, he exhibited the third of his white 'Symphonies' with the title Symphony in White, No. 3 [YMSM 061], and went on to produce further series of 'Symphonies', 'Nocturnes', 'Arrangements', and 'Harmonies'.

Meanwhile, back in London, Whistler saw the success of the original 'White Girl' in terms of a challenge to the Royal Academy, and to such establishment artists as John Calcott Horsley (1817-1903). Hearing that a likely purchaser had been found for the picture in Paris, he wrote to Fantin-Latour from London: 'si tu savais quel effet aussi cette nouvelle a produit ici! Il sont pas mal degoutés les Horseley et autres de penser que la fille blanche soit bien vue à Paris apres l'avoir maltraité ici - !' 29 However, this purchase fell through.

In the summer of 1863, after the end of the Salon des Refusés, the painting was still in Paris and Whistler tried to retrieve it from Hardy-Alan, stating again that he did not wish it to be exhibited by Louis Martinet (1814-1895) at the Société Nationale, but, according to Fantin-Latour, 'la fille Blanche' was hanging there, 'haut et mal', by 19 July 1863. 30

1866: LONDON.

In January 1866 Charles Samuel Keene (1823-1891) told Edwin Edwards (1823-1879) that 'Whistler's Paris Picture' was on view at the gallery owned by Ernest Gambart (1814-1902), of Ernest Gambart & Co. 31

1867: PARIS.

The painting hung in the American section of the Exposition Universelle in Paris. According to William Michael Rossetti (1829-1919), '[Whistler] says that he never from first to last received any invitation to contribute to the British section of the Paris Exhibition. This might seem invidious, but the result is that he gets in the American section much more space than could have been allotted him in the British.' 32 Whistler, on the contrary, claimed that his works were ill-displayed in the cramped entrance corridor 'where they have been more or less damned by every body and now [I] will have to pay for getting them back again!' 33 It is true that Paul Mantz was now more critical of 'la fameuse Femme en blanc', finding the head unbearably ugly, despite the appealing harmony of colour in the white of the dress and blue of the carpet. 34

1872: LONDON.

It was probably early in 1872 that the picture was somehow damaged but Whistler hoped to repair it in time for the London International Exhibition. 35 On 27 March he called on Alan Summerly Cole 'about his picture for the Exhibition (The White Girl.)' 36 Despite Whistler's assurance that 'the picture is now all right - and you can insert it in the Catalogue without fear and really have it on Wednesday morning,' some ten days later he apologised profusely, 'I am very sorry that it should not this year be exhibited but I am afraid that it is impossible - so it will be best not to insert it in the Catalogue.' 37 It was too late: the catalogue was already printed and contains an entry for 'The White Girl' (cat. no. 260). 38 As a substitute, Whistler sent Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl [YMSM 052] instead. 39


It was several years before the painting found a purchaser, Whistler's own step-brother, and it was several years after that before George's family actually received it in America, where it was shown in the Academy Charity Exhibition in Baltimore in 1876. S. P. Avery sent Whistler a copy of a review of the show:

'The Charity Art Exhibition opened upon last Thursday evening, and in spite of the wretched weather, established itself as an unqualified success. …

There are some pictures exhibited which we are glad to see, since they afford us an opportunity of becoming acquainted with the work of a very remarkable artist, Mr. James McNeill Whistler of London, formerly of this city. Mr. Whistler has long been a bone of critical contention in England, and ever since his difficulty with the Royal Academy has been an Independent annual exhibitor. His work finds many to earnestly condemn it and quite as many to sincerely praise it. Leading English critics have now for several years devoted themselves to the earnest discussion of it, and their opinions are about evenly divided. It is not of a kind to elicit anything but positive opinions; and does not readily admit of negative comment. We would suggest to our readers that they take the pictures at the Academy into careful consideration, refrain from condemning them off-band, and determine upon acquaintance and study, if they do not reveal some deeper and truer artistic signification than they may at the first glance have seemed to possess. Mr. Whistler is an artist who is nothing if not sincere, and who has earnestly sought to convey honest and truthful impressions without any regard to technical or conventional requirements. He is wholly original; and he has sought by original and unaffected methods to affect very simple and unpretentious creations. In his appreciation and mastery of color values he is not to be surpassed, and the very naturalness and rugged directness of his efforts renders them startling where really they are the least designed to be so.

There are five of his pictures at the Academy on the central screen in the auditorium, "The Thames at Wapping Stairs;" "The Girl In the White Dress;" "On the Brittany sea-coast;" "Portrait of a Lady and Child" and a "Portrait" of the artist, by himself. These pictures are just at present eliciting a great deal of criticism of a very diversified order: some of it quite just, some of it conservatively appreciative, and not a little of it irrational and absurd. It is entirely certain, however, that the group is the "sensation" of the Exhibition and that while the latter lasts it will be a standpoint of constantly increasing interest. ...

With regard to the "Girl In a White Dress," a title which Mr. Whistler is particular about as opposed to the "Woman In White," which he says is not the name of the picture, we may reproduce the following, published in these columns last year: "It is a full-length, life-size study of a woman, dressed in a plain white dress with no vestige of ornament, holding a spray of flowers in her hand, relieved against a grey background of inexplicable tone and standing upon a wolf skin with preserved head of the animal. She has a profusion of red hair falling in unkempt waves on each side of a strange, weird face; and eyes which, when examined closely, reveal a positive green color similar to that of a cat's, reflecting a pale light at evening. The treatment of the subject is brusque and rugged, marked by no delicacy of handling or refinement of method, but, on the contrary, disclosing an art purpose almost primitive in its unaffected, unconscious strength, hampered by no considerations of detail or polish, but striding on to accomplish a broad general result in the simplest way possible, and with as little ceremony or respect for material as may be practicable, Mr. Whistler's genius is severely original, and we fancy it must be a very uncongenial thing to him to do any thing that anybody else ever did on canvas before him, or by the same method. His "Girl in a White Dress" is not a beautiful woman nor of conspicuous symmetry of person, hut there is that in her which makes her face to be indelibly impressed upon one's memory, every lineament of it, as it were, ineffaceably photographed there. It is a singular and an indescribable face, full of the strangest and subtlest expression; and indeed one could not confront a face that should be less satisfactory or reveal as little. Of the artistic merits of the picture it is very difficult to speak with confidence, so contradictory is their nature. One can, however, understand from it how London artists should have regarded it with such perturbation of spirit and how London criticism about it was not unmixed. Mr. Whistler is like any one else of conspicuous genius who makes a 'new departure' in art. Wagner has done something analogous in music, and Hunt and his modern Preraphaelites were more than mere innovators of style. He is a sort of Wagner in painting – a Wagner who is always composing beautiful themes, exquisite conceptions of harmony, and leaving them unfinished.' 40

Another local newspaper commented:

'Probably no part of the exhibition has attracted so much attention as the panel where hang the works of Mr. Whistler. His paintings call forth such extreme expressions of liking and disliking, as to show, if nothing else did, that they are not mediocre performances. The presence of these bizarre works of art, in the midst of far better and far worse pictures, has a very happy educating influence. They force themselves on the attention; it is impossible to escape them. Some find in them a strange and weird fascination; others are violently repelled. Some consider them masterworks of technical skill; others look upon them as mere daubs. But this at least is taught by these pictures, that the aim of art is not mere prettiness. Mr. Whistler had a perfectly definite aim, and an original path to reach that aim.

'His works may not be pleasing, but they nevertheless are poetic. People who are at first repelled by that white lady, and who fly out at it and call it hard names, sometimes to their surprise find their attention riveted by the spectre when they catch an accidental view of her. The seeming faults of the drawing and color are so obvious, in fact so obtrusive, that some people will look at nothing else, until chance leads them to take another view of it. They begin to find then that this work is not lunacy, and that its apparent negligence and lack of finish are not carelessness, but profound study. It is very elaborate unfinish; and the artist has aimed at effects attainable in no other way. One has taken a long step in art culture, when he has learned this much.' 41

1881: NEW YORK.

It was shown in New York in two exhibitions in 1881. At the Union League Club an exhibition that was probably organised by Samuel Putnam Avery (1822-1904) included what was unenthusiastically described by one newspaper critic as 'Whistler's eccentric picture, the "Woman in White" ':

'... a tall. slender woman with reddish hair; and, herself, "as white as a sheet," clothed in plain white. A lily is held in or rather lolls from her hand, which hangs listlessly by her side, as if she were expecting the poet Postlethwayte to lunch. The figure is silhouetted by a vague difference in tone upon the white drapery before which it stands, and the feet are set on what seems to be the skin of some animal unknown to zoology. The painting is so high that it cannot be hung in a good light.' 42

1893: CHICAGO.

The art dealer E. G. Kennedy hoped that the painting could be borrowed for the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and Edwin Austin Abbey (1852-1911) reported that, according to Halsey Cooley Ives (1847-1911), 'you are well represented … Your old "White girl" is there'; however, for some reason it is not in the catalogue. 43

1895: NEW YORK.

The print collector Howard Mansfield (1849-1938), writing from New York, told Whistler, 'You have been much in evidence in two cities this side of the ocean during the last month. At our Metropolitan Museum, "The White Girl" still holds her splendid supremacy.' 44

1904: BOSTON.

Whistler Memorial Exhibition, Boston, 1904, photograph, GUL Whistler PH6/13
Whistler Memorial Exhibition, Boston, 1904, photograph, GUL Whistler PH6/13

In Boston in 1904, as the photograph reproduced above shows, Symphony in White, No. I: The White Girl held a place of honour.


1: Bürger 1863 [more], at p. 2; repr. Bürger 1870 [more], vol. 1, p. 420, and Bürger 1893 [more], vol. 2, p. 420.

2: [25 May/10 June 1863], GUW #08044.

3: [31 May/June 1863], GUW #09455.

4: 25 November and 7 December 1866, GUW #06679. The 'Exposition' referred to is the Exposition Universelle of 1867 in Paris.

5: 25 August and 6 September 1868, GUW #06684.

6: 2 November 1894, GUW #07240; 29 January 1895, GUW #07246.

7: Kennedy to Whistler, 24 March 1896, GUW #07275; F. W. Coburn to J. Revillon, 23 July 1945, GUL Revillon LB 1/154, Rev 1955.

8: 16 April [1903], GUW #04622.

9: October 1897, GUW #02678.

10: Weir to Whistler, 30 December 1901, GUW #06292.

11: The National Gallery website explains that the 1980 catalogue raisonné, 'lists the last owners of the painting as Harris Whittemore's son and daughter, Harris Whittemore, Jr., and Mrs Charles S. Upson. They were officers of the J. H. Whittemore Company (Harris Whittemore, Jr., was President), which was the actual owner of the painting.'

12: J. Hiffernan to G. A. Lucas, [9 April 1862], GUW #09186.

13: Reminiscences of Whistler by Harper Pennington, Pennell Collection, Library of Congress.

14: Whistler to E. Edwards, [10/20 June 1862], GUW #09079: he begged Edwards to lend some still life paintings by Fantin-Latour to the same show.

15: 26 June [1862], GUW #11977. See also Spencer 1998 [more], pp. 302-05.

16: Rossetti 1863a [more]; press cutting in GUL PC1, p. 37.

17: 16 March [1863], GUW #10693.

18: Whistler to L. Martinet, and to Fantin-Latour, [22 and 23 April 1863], GUW #08034 and #08033.

19: Whistler to Fantin-Latour, [3 May 1863], GUW #08035.

20: The literature on the subject is abundant; selected contributions with more extensive bibliographies include D. Wildenstein 1965 [more], Boime 1969[more], and Wilson-Bareau 2007 [more].

21: 1 May 1863, GUW #01079.

22: Fink 1990 [more], pp. 230-31, 264, 79-83, 102.

23: Translated: 'The papers must still be talking about us - so send us some - Graham's Figaro certainly must have been good on the White Girl - and the Gazette des beaux Arts - and [Théophile] Gautier and all that', [6/10 July 1863], GUW #08043.

24: Translated: 'the famous Graham has cooled down again he has not had any articles about the Rejects he said I have no more time', [11 July 1863], GUW #01078.

25: Spencer 1998 [more], at p. 300.

26: Whistler to J. A. Rose, [November 1878], GUW #08784.

27: [15 May 1863], GUW #01081; Whistler not only kept this letter but annotated it, 'The White Girl / Symphony in White No 1. ... Letter from Fantin The well known painter who had portrait in this years Academy and whose flower pictures are known to all the World.'

28: Mantz 1863 C [more], at pp. 60-61.

29: Translated: 'if only you knew the effect this news has also had here! They are not a little disgusted the Horsleys and others to think that the white girl should be well received in Paris after having been badly treated here - !', [25 May/10 June 1863], GUW #08044.

30: Whistler to Fantin-Latour, [12/17 July 1863], GUW #08031, and reply, 19 July 1863, GUW #01082.

31: [10 January 1866], GUW #12427.

32: Pennell 1908 [more], vol. 1, pp. 139-41.

33: Whistler to G. A. Lucas, [6 April 1867], and 20 November 1867, GUW #09192 and #09194.

34: 'Nous nous sommes jadis fort compromis au service de cette dame: la tête est d'une laideur insupportable; mais dans la note blanche de la robe et dans le tapis à ramages bleus, il y a des accords charmants et rares.' Mantz 1867 C [more], at p. 230.

35: London International Exhibition of 1872, the Second of a Series Held under the Direction of Her Majesty’s Commissioners for the Exhibition of 1851, London, [in the building for the Exhibition of 1862], 1872.

36: On 15 April, A. S. Cole noted 'White Girl not forthcoming.' Diary, partial transcript, 27 March and 15 April 1872, GUW #13132.

37: [14 April 1872], GUW #09021; [25 April 1872], GUW #09011.

38: Catalogue London International Exhibition 1872 [more]. Not only that, but at least one newspaper, Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 30 April 1872, announced that the "White Girl" , "A Symphony in White" was in the show! .

39: There is no doubt about this, since the exhibited painting was described very clearly in The Times; see Taylor, Tom, The Times, 14 May 1872 [more].

40: Anon., 'Mr Whistler's Paintings,' Baltimore American and Commercial Advertiser, 20 March 1876; press cutting in GUL Whistler PC1, p. 75.

41: Anon., 'Art Culture', unidentified Baltimore newspaper, [March 1876] press cutting in GUL Whistler PC1, p. 77.

42: Anon., 'The Union League', unidentified press cutting, New York, [10 April 1881], GUL Whistler PC 4, p. 61.

43: E. G. Kennedy to Whistler, 12 November 1892, GUW #07206; Abbey to Whistler, [10/25 January 1893], GUW #00001.

44: 1 January 1895, GUW #04007.

Last updated: 19th October 2021 by Margaret