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

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Symphony in White, No. 3

Titles

One principle title is known, but there were some variations:

  • 'the Sofa' (1865, A. M. Whistler). 1
  • 'Symphony in White, No. III. (heretofore named The Two Little White Girls)' (1867, W. M. Rossetti). 2
  • 'Symphony in White No. 3' (1867, Royal Academy of Arts). 3
  • 'Symphonie en blanc no. 3' (1883, Whistler). 4
  • 'Symphony in White, No. III' (1892, Goupil). 5
  • 'Symphony in White, No. 3' (1980, YMSM). 6

The preferred title is 'Symphony in White, No. 3'. It was the first of Whistler's paintings to be exhibited with a musical title, although Paul Mantz (1821-1895) had called Whistler's first 'White Girl' a 'Symphonie du blanc' in 1863 (see Symphony in White, No. I: The White Girl [YMSM 038]). 7 The Pennells point out that this may have been a factor that influenced Whistler in his choice of titles for the third in the series. 8 The first two were renamed later to fit into the sequence (see Symphony in White, No. I: The White Girl [YMSM 038], Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl [YMSM 052]).

Philip Gilbert Hamerton (1834-1894), critic of the Saturday Review, complained, when Symphony in White, No. 3 was first exhibited in 1867, that it was 'not precisely a symphony in white', since yellow, brown, blue, red and green also appeared. 9 Whistler's celebrated reply was published in 1887 and again in 1890 and there dated 'Chelsea, June 1867'. The 1887 version reads:

'And does he then, in his astounding consequence, believe that a symphony in F contains no other note, but shall be a continued repetition of F, F, F?.... Fool!' 10

Although dated 1867 it was probably written later, and most likely in 1878 when it appeared, with variations, written in Whistler's hand in the margin of a press cutting book, and dated 'Nov. 1878'. 11

Description

Symphony in White, No. 3, Barber Institute of Fine Arts
Symphony in White, No. 3, Barber Institute of Fine Arts

A figure composition in horizontal format. A straight backed sofa covered in white sits on a pale blue patterned carpet. At left, a young woman with red hair sits on the sofa, leaning on her right arm, with her left arm stretched along the back of the sofa. At right, another red-haired woman sits on the floor, in profile to left, with her right arm stretched out along the sofa and her left arm relaxed on her knees, with a fan leaning against her knee. There are blossoms in the lower right corner.

The structure of the sofa, and its relationship to the room and to the wall panel at right, is not at all clear. Exactly where the sofa back ends at left is unknown, because it is concealed by the model, but the seat appears to extend further to left than the (invisible) back of the sofa.

Sitter

Two models posed for this painting. The woman on the sofa was Joanna Hiffernan (b. ca 1843-d.1886) and the other sitter was probably Emelie Eyr Jones (b. 1850), who married Stuart Robson (1836-1903) (1836-1903) in 1870. Her sister Augusta also posed for Whistler.

In 1865 Whistler described the figure of Hiffernan as 'tout ce que j'ai fait de plus pur - tête charmante. Le corps, les jambes, etc., se voient parfaitement à travers la robe' and he described the other model as 'tête blonde, robe de soie blanche jaunatre.' 12 Thirty years later he recalled Hiffernan's hair as 'red - or copper coloured - and full of light - and the face is very fair - though golden.' 13

The Pennells suggested that in the intervals of painting Symphony in White, No. 3 [YMSM 061] Whistler painted The Artist's Studio from the same two models. 14 It is possible that sittings for Symphony in White, No. 3 overlapped with those for The Artist's Studio and Whistler in his Studio [YMSM 063].

Albert Moore, sketch after Portrait of a girl, probably Milly Jones, Sotheby's, 2016
Albert Moore, sketch after Portrait of a girl, probably Milly Jones, Sotheby's, 2016

Milly Jones also sat for other artists including Albert Joseph Moore (1841-1893). A drawing after Moore, reproduced above, shows similar features to Whistler's model. It may be a study for the head of one of the girls in A Musician of 1865-1866 (Yale Centre for British Art, New Haven). 15 She also posed nude for Moore's painting Azaleas (1867, Victoria & Albert Museum).

Frederick Sandys,  Gentle Spring, 1863-65, Ashmolean Museum
Frederick Sandys, Gentle Spring, 1863-65, Ashmolean Museum

Other works for which she posed include a chalk drawing, Study for head of Miss Milly Jones, by Edward John Poynter (1836-1919) (Bonham's, 2 March 2016, lot 69) and several paintings by Anthony Frederick Augustus Sandys (1829-1904): Gentle Spring (1863-1965, Ashmolean Museum, reproduced above), May Margaret (1865-1866, Delaware Art Museum), Berenice, Queen of Egypt (1867, Leighton House Museum), and Valkyrie (1868, Williamson Art Gallery and Museum, Birkenhead).

Notes:

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

2: 31 March 1867, quoted in Pennell 1908 [more], vol. 1, pp. 143-44.

3: 99th Exhibition of the Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1867 (cat. no. 233).

4: Whistler to O. Maus, [December 1883], GUW #07910.

5: Nocturnes, Marines & Chevalet Pieces, Goupil Gallery, London, 1892 (cat. no. 2).

6: YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 61).

7: Mantz 1863 C [more].

8: Pennell 1908 [more], vol. 1, p. 144.

9: 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.

10: Whistler 1887 [more].Dowdeswell 1887 [more]; Whistler 1890 [more], p. 45.

11: GUL Whistler PC1, p. 3.

12: Whistler to Fantin-Latour, 16 August [1865], GUW #11477.

13: Whistler to J. J. Shannon, [July] 1895, GUW #09424; Lewis, Cecil (ed.), Self Portrait taken from the Letters and Journals of Charles Ricketts, R.A., London, 1939, pp. 21, 248.

14: Pennell 1908 [more], vol. 1, p. 185.

15: Charcoal on brown paper, 34.5 by 37 cm, Sotheby's, London, 15 December 2016 (lot 4).

Last updated: 15th March 2019 by Margaret