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

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Symphony in White, No. 3

Provenance

  • 1865: sold by Whistler to Louis Huth (1821-1905), London;
  • 1899: sold by Huth through Agnew, London dealers, to Edmund Davis (1861-1939), London;
  • 1939: after his death, sold at auction, Christie's, London, 7 July 1939 (lot 100), and bought by the Barber Institute of Fine Arts.

Louis Huth had bought 'the Sofa' by 25 November 1865, before it was completed. 1 It is not at all clear when it was completed. In 1873, Whistler told Louis Huth that the 'two figures' painting would cost 'at least 8 hundred or a thousand' and was one 'I intend now to take up directly the Academy work is over - and you can see as they progress whether you like to keep them for yourself.' 2 Huth agreed on 1 February 1873 that he would 'postpone my final decision in regard to them until they are further advanced.' 3 However, it is not entirely clear which picture he meant.

On 21 December 1915 Ricketts (quoted by Lewis) noted that Davis had been offered £30,000 for this painting, which he had originally bought for about £2000 'reluctantly on our suggestion'; in 1939 it fetched 3300 gns at auction. 4

Exhibitions

  • 1867: 99th Exhibition of the Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1867 (cat. no. 233) as 'Symphony in White No. 3'.
  • 1873: Sixth Exhibition of the Society of French Artists [Summer Exhibition], Deschamps Gallery, London, 1873 (cat. no. 112).
  • 1884: Exposition internationale de peinture et de sculpture, Société des XX, Brussels, 1884 (cat. no. 3).
  • 1892: Nocturnes, Marines & Chevalet Pieces, Goupil Gallery, London, 1892 (cat. no. 2) as 'Symphony in White, No. III'.
  • 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. 7).

1865: Martinet.

Whistler wrote cryptically to Fantin-Latour, 'J'ai fait encore un petit tableau Japonais qui est ravissant! - Je l'enverrai chez Martinet avec celui de Huth.' 5 However, since it is not known when Louis Huth (1821-1905) bought Symphony in White, No. 3 [YMSM 061], it is not certain that this indicated the intention of sending the picture to be exhibited in Paris; certainly the other painting mentioned, Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen [YMSM 060] went to the Royal Academy in 1865 (cat. no. 90).

1867: Paris.

Whistler wrote to the Belgian artist Alfred Émile-Léopold Stevens (1823-1906), probably in 1867:

'Mon frère raporte avec lui le petit tableau - je serai bien aise de le savoir dans le salon du Club - Si vous avez le temps j'aimerai bien avoir de vous un petit mot pour me dire si il vous plait … comme tableau, ensemble, etc., c'est assez pour être vu par les artistes.' 6 Translation: 'My brother is bringing the little painting with him. I would be very glad to know that it was in the salon of the Club. If you have time I would very much like to have a little word from you to tell me if you like it ... as a painting, composition, etc., it's enough for it to be seen by artists.'

Since two of Whistler's 'Symphonies in White' Symphony in White, No. I: The White Girl [YMSM 038], Symphony in White, No. 3 [YMSM 061]) were in Paris in 1867 it is not entirely clear to which Fantin-Latour was referring when he wrote to Whistler on 12 February 1867, but it was probably Symphony in White, No. 3 [YMSM 061]:

'Ton tableau ... m a plu enormément. c'est bien etrange, je ne m'en doutais pas de son aspect. quand le matin je suis entrer [sic] chez ton frère j'ai fait un Ah!. qu'il est bien et original la tête de la femme en blanc est la meilleure tête que je t'ai jamais vu faire. ma critique est que c'est un peu nuage, c'est comme un rêve l'aspect général du tableau, mais ce n'est pas une critique serieuse, c'est evident que c'est ta personnalité devant la mienne qui est choquée, l'opinion des autres. Manet ne l'a pas vu mais il m'a dit que Stevens le trouvait très bien, et que Tissot est comme un fou de ce tableau il en sautait de joie - attends toi donc de la part de ces 2 messieurs a des imitations. il parait que tu n'as pas été exposé parce que il fallait être invité par le Comité ... Stevens m a dit quil [sic] fallait pour être du club avoir un autre parrain et que quand tu serais a Paris il faudrait aller voir un membre du club. Puis il a dit ensuite a ton frère qu'il fallait des mois de séjour a Paris en somme il me semble que ... Stevens ne t'a pas été très utile.' 7

Translation: 'Your picture ... gave me enormous pleasure, it is really strange, I had no doubt about its appearance. in the morning when I went to your brother's I said Ah!. it is so good and original the head of the woman in white is the best head I have ever seen you do, my criticism is that it is a little cloud-like, the general appearance of the picture is like a dream, but this is not a serious criticism, it is evident that it is your personality meeting mine which struck me, other people's opinions. Manet has not seen it but he told me that Stevens thought it very good, and Tissot is mad over the picture he was jumping for joy about it - so expect imitations from these 2 gentlemen. it appears that you were not exhibited because you had to be invited by the Committee ... Stevens told me that to be a member of the club you need another sponsor and that when you come to Paris you would have to meet a member of the club. Then he told your brother afterwards that you will need to stay in Paris for several months altogether ... Stevens has not been very useful.'

So, the painting was not exhibited at the 'Club', but it was admired by Jacques Joseph Tissot (1836-1902) and Stevens.

1867: Royal Academy.

Instead, Symphony in White, No. 3 [YMSM 061] went to the Royal Academy, where, said Whistler, 'My pictures are pretty well hung ... only on a crowded day cannot be seen because of the crinolines.' 8 It seems from the reviews that Whistler's pictures and titles aroused both praise and irritation. The Chronicle, in a long press cutting kept by Whistler, wrote:

'Mr. Whistler’s pictures ... like their predecessors of some years past, look odd and even irritating to most people, chiefly for two reasons : – First, that most people are devoid of this sense of intrinsic art, and proportionately dull to the signs of it; and, second, that the pictures are painted in a key very different from that of the works which surround them, and with a neglect or rejection of many of those executive qualities which are commonly – and in some instances rightly – understood to go to professional competence and presentableness. Admitting that Mr. Whistler does not grapple with all the difficulties which an artist is fairly expected to quell, and that his pictures form a dangerous precedent, we must still acknowledge, and that not on compulsion but with alacrity and delight, the supreme artistic charm of his work; its exquisite refinement and felicity even amid some degree of offhandedness, and its implication of many a subtlety of art, caught with an almost evanescent nicety, yet in a truly final and triumphant manner. Mr. Whistler's figure picture of the present year is named "Symphony in White, No. 3," evidently indicating that both this and two previous works, which will dwell in many memories, were painted partly as studies of harmony in various tinges and affinities of white. From that point of view the picture is simply delicious, and hardly to be outdone.' 9

Philip Gilbert Hamerton (1834-1894) wrote in the Saturday Review:

'Mr Whistler is anything but a robust and balanced genius. No mental force was ever more curiously irregular and capricious in its application than his, but the gifts that he has are truly artistic gifts ... in the "Symphony in White, No. III" there are many dainty varieties of tint, but it is not precisely a symphony in white.' 10

Frederick George Stephens (1828-1907) commented on the title, 'which, by borrowing a musical phrase, doubtless casts reflected light upon former studies or "symphonies" of the same kind' and described it as 'an exquisite chromatic study.' 11

1873: Dudley Gallery.

A review of the Dudley show from the London Standard sent to Whistler in 1873 described it as '"Symphony in White" ... pale picture of two graceful, indolent girls in white, in a white chamber, where white blossoms come clustering in at the window.' 12

1884: Brussels.

Whistler asked Charles William Deschamps (1848-1908) to help organise his exhibits for Brussels:

'I want you to undertake and carry out thoroughly the sending, for me, of some pictures to Brussels - You doubtless know that there is to be an Exposition there almost immediately after the manner of the one in the Rue de Sèze - To this I have been invited as "representing English Painting!"

... will you call on Mr Huth and persuade him for me to lend the little Symphony in White No. 3 ... and explain my anxiety that this work should be seen abroad where it would be so well understood - also say that the Exhibition only lasts a month and he would have back his picture on the first days of March.' 13

For the exhibition it was insured for 500 guineas at the owner's request, and Whistler suggested his exhibits would be improved by being 'well rubbed up and polished' and even re-varnished. 14

1892: Goupil Gallery.

Symphony in White, No. 3, photograph, Goupil Album, 1892; GUL Whistler PH5/2
Symphony in White, No. 3, photograph, Goupil Album, 1892; GUL Whistler PH5/2

Louis Huth at first refused to lend the painting. Whistler wrote that he only had 'temporary charge of it', and elaborated on the relationship between artist and patron: 'effectively the picture is only entrusted to him, and is in reality the property of the whole world - or rather of the few other artists who, in future generations, shall require it of his stewardship.' 15 Eventually Huth agreed to lend, and to have 'his picture overhauled' and it was cleaned and varnished for the show, and photographed for the Goupil Album. 16 In the catalogue designed by Whistler, he selected several earlier reviews including the notorious one by Philip Gilbert Hamerton (1834-1894) and ending with one from John Ruskin (1819-1900), as follows:

' "It is not precisely a symphony in white – one lady has a yellowish dress and brown hair and a bit of blue ribbon, the other has a red fan, and there are flowers and green leaves. There is a girl in white on a white sofa, but even this girl has reddish hair; and of course there is the flesh colour of the complexions." P. G. Hamerton, "Saturday Review."

"Mr. Whistler appears as eccentrically as ever. ... Art is not served by freaks of resentment. ... We hold him deeply to blame that these figures are badly drawn.

"... 'Taste,' which is mind working in Art, would, even if it could at all conceive them, utterly reject the vulgarities of Mr. Whistler with regard to form, and never be content with what suffices him in composition." – Athenæum.

"Painting, or art generally, as such, with all its technicalities, difficulties, and particular ends, is nothing but a noble and expressive language, invaluable as the vehicle of thought, but by itself nothing." John Ruskin, Esq., Art Professor, "Modern Painters." ' 17

Whistler immediately wanted to borrow the painting for a forthcoming exhibition in Paris, but Huth would not lend the picture again, writing, 'During the few remaining years left to me I mean to be in undisturbed possession of my pictures.' 18 Despite this, Whistler put it – in vain – on his wish list for World's Columbian Exposition, Department of Fine Arts, Chicago, 1893. 19

Notes:

1: A. M. Whistler to J. Whistler, 25 November [1865], GUW #06526.

2: [31 January 1873], GUW #02242.

3: GUW #02243.

4: Lewis, Cecil (ed.), Self Portrait taken from the Letters and Journals of Charles Ricketts, R.A., London, 1939, pp. 21, 248.

5: 'I have done another small Japanese picture which is delightful! - I shall send it to Martinet along with Huth's', [February/March 1865], GUW #08040.

6: [13/20 February 1867], GUW #08145.

7: 12 February 1867, GUW #01083.

8: Whistler to L. Ionides, [May/June 1867], GUW #10827.

9: Anon., 'The Royal Academy Exhibition. Second Notice', The Chronicle, 25 May 1867 (GUL Whistler PC1, p. 33).

10: Anon., 'Pictures of the Year: IX,' The Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science and Art, vol. 23, no. 605, 1 June 1867, pp. 690-91.

11: Stephens, F. G., 'Fine Arts. Royal Academy', The Athenaeum, 18 May 1867.

12: GUL Whistler PC 1, p. 1.

13: [8 January 1884], GUW #07908.

14: Whistler to Deschamps, [11 January 1884] and [29 January 1884], GUW #07909 and #07913.

15: Draft, [February/March 1892], GUW #02244.

16: D. C. Thomson to Whistler, 2 March 1892, GUW #05693; Whistler to E. G. Kennedy, 4 February 1894, GUW #09715.

17: Nocturnes, Marines & Chevalet Pieces, Goupil Gallery, London, 1892 (cat. no. 2) reprinted in Whistler 1892 [more], pp. 298-99.

18: Whistler to D. C. Thomson, [10 April 1892], GUW #08343; L. Huth to Whistler, 20 April 1892, GUW #02245.

19: Whistler to E. A. Abbey, GUW #03181.

Last updated: 15th March 2019 by Margaret