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

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A White Note

A White Note probably dates from 1862. It is signed and dated very faintly, possibly reading 'Whistler / 1862'.

A White Note, Colby College Museum of Art
A White Note, Colby College Museum of Art

1861: Whistler's biographers, the Pennells, assumed, probably wrongly, that 'Joe, Note Blanche' was painted in Whistler's studio in Paris, 'in the Boulevard des Batignolles in 1861.' 1

1862: Whistler wrote at some time in late October from Guéthary in the Basses-Pyrénées to Ignace-Henri-Jean-Théodore Fantin-Latour (1836-1904), asking Fantin to send him some materials from a supplier of artist's materials, P. Hardy-Alan (fl. 1860-1903), possibly for this canvas:

'Maintenant sois assez gentil pour aller immediatement chez Hardy faire partir de suite les deux toiles en question, ... Dis a Hardy aussi qu'il me faut deux tubes du beau vermillion!! 2. Jaune Citron, et puis n'y a-t-il pas de jaune Garance? il doit avoir Garance jaune, ou jaune de Maro - Deux tubes de chaque s'il y en a.' 2

Translation: 'Now will you be nice enough to go straight to Hardy's and have him send right away the two canvasses in question; ... Tell Hardy that I also need two tubes of beautiful vermilion!! 2 Lemon Yellow, and also, is there not some Madder-Root Yellow? He ought to have Madder-Root Yellow, or Màro Yellow. Two tubes of each if he has it.'

These colours suggest a richly coloured figure or landscape subject: Joanna Hiffernan's red hair and fair skin against an autumn landscape might qualify. However, he also told Fantin that he was having trouble completing a painting:

'il fait un temps de tous les diables! Je regrette la petite toile de [20?]. C'est une tranchée de chemin de fer - mais il semble impossible de pouvoir la finir, car chaque fois qu'il pleut on est obligé d'attendre trois jours pour que la terre seche avant de pouvoir y travailler!' 3

Translation: 'the weather is devilish! I am sad about the little canvas of [20?]. It is a railway cutting - but it seems impossible to finish, because every time it rains one has to wait three days for the ground to dry before being able to work on it!'

By the end of November winter had set in, forcing him to leave Guéthary, as he told Fantin:

'Ah mon cher decidement tu as raison - la peinture d'apres nature! on doit la faire chez soi! Il n'y a que la petite toile de vingt que je rapporte et de ça je ne suis pas trop content - L'hiver ici me serait impossible et je perds mon temps inutilement.' 4

Translation: 'Ah my dear fellow you are right - painting from nature! needs to be done at home! I shall only be bringing back the little size twenty canvas and I am not too pleased with it - Winter here would be impossible for me and I am wasting my time uselessly.'


1: Pennell 1908 [more], vol. 1, p. 95.

2: [21/28 October 1862], GUW #08030.

3: [24/31 October 1862], or possibly earlier in October, GUW #08029. It is not absolutely certain that it says '20', an alternative reading is 'Jo'.

4: [12/19 November 1862], GUW #07952.

Last updated: 31st January 2022 by Margaret