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

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The White Symphony: Three Girls

The White Symphony: Three Girls was probably painted in 1867. It is possible that it was worked on later. It bears a rectangular field or cartouche at left, which, if it is intended for a butterfly signature, indicates a date of 1869 or later.

The White Symphony: Three Girls, Freer Gallery of Art
The White Symphony: Three Girls, Freer Gallery of Art

The White Symphony: Three Girls is a preparatory sketch for The Three Girls [YMSM 088], a large painting commissioned by Frederick Richards Leyland (1832-1892) for his London house. On 5 October 1867 Whistler wrote to Leyland, asking for an advance of £100 and stating, 'I think that you will be pleased with the final oil sketch of your picture.' 1

The White Symphony: Three Girls, is one of several oil sketches known as the 'Six Projects' (of which, confusingly, there are only five). 2 The 'Six Projects' comprise Venus [YMSM 082], Symphony in Green and Violet [YMSM 083], Variations in Blue and Green [YMSM 084], Symphony in White and Red [YMSM 085] and Symphony in Blue and Pink [YMSM 086] and The White Symphony: Three Girls [YMSM 087].

In the spring of 1868 Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909) visited Whistler's studio, and wrote afterwards, 'Of three slighter works lately painted I may set down a few rapid notes ... in one, a sketch for the great picture the soft brilliant floor-work and wall-work of a garden balcony serve ... to set forth the flowers and figures of flowerlike women.' 3

William Michael Rossetti (1829-1919) wrote in his diary for 28 July 1868 that Whistler was 'doing on a largish scale for Leyland the subject of women and flowers.' 4

Judging by the sketches relating to The White Symphony: Three Girls and the larger version, The Three Girls [YMSM 088], the composition was evolved over several years, from about 1867 to 1873. 5 A sketch of the whole composition, Study of 'The Three Girls' [M.0361], is signed with a butterfly that probably dates from between 1871 and 1874.

The White Symphony: Three Girls was first exhibited in Mr Whistler's Exhibition, Flemish Gallery, 48 Pall Mall, London, 1874 (cat. no. 13).


1: GUW #08793.

2: YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 87).

3: Swinburne 1875 [more], p. 360.

4: Rossetti 1903 [more], p. 320.

5: e.g. A woman listening to a musician [M.0328], Study for 'Tillie: A Model' [M.0369].

Last updated: 23rd November 2020 by Margaret