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

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The Three Girls

The Three Girls dates from between 1867 and 1876. 1 An oil sketch of the composition, The White Symphony: Three Girls [YMSM 087], was probably painted in 1867; it may also have been worked on later. Related drawings date from between about 1867 and 1874.

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

1867: The Three Girls [YMSM 088] was an enlarged version of The White Symphony: Three Girls [YMSM 087] and was one of two large paintings commissioned by Frederick Richards Leyland (1832-1892) for his London house in 1867. Thomas Robert Way (1861-1913) wrote that 'a large space at the opposite end of the room [to La Princesse du pays de la porcelaine [YMSM 050]] ... was reserved for the picture of "The Three Girls", which Mr. Leyland had commissioned Mr. Whistler to paint.' 2

On 27 August 1867 Whistler's mother wrote, 'now he [Whistler] is steadily at work in his Studio, for he has received orders for two pictures at 300 guineas each.' 3 The second of the 'two pictures' has not been identified, but may have related to one of five other sketches (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]), which were regarded by the Pennells as Whistler's first scheme of decoration for Leyland. 4

On 5 October 1867 Whistler wrote to Leyland, asking for £100 'on account', stating, 'I think that you will be pleased with the final oil sketch of your picture - The picture itself is getting on but I may not show for a week yet.' 5 He told George Aloysius Lucas (1824-1909), 'I am hard at work on a large picture', and he hoped to have it 'quite ready' for exhibition at the Royal Academy in the following year. 6

1868: Probably early in the year, Whistler wrote asking Leyland to send him the balance for 'your picture, which is steadily progressing - and depend upon me for it's [sic] completion as soon as possible,' and Leyland responded by paying the 'balance' of 50 gns. 7 A letter from Whistler dated 26 May, and probably written in 1868, acknowledges a cheque from Leyland: 'I have received your kind note of the 25th, enclosing £105. in addition to the price agreed to for the Garden picture.' 8

In the spring of 1868, Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909), mentioned visiting Whistler's studio:

'The great picture which Mr. Whistler has now in hand is not yet finished enough for any critical detail to be possible; it shows already promise of a more majestic and excellent beauty of form than his earlier studies, and of the old delicacy and melody of ineffable colour. ... [in] a sketch for the great picture ... a garden balcony serve to set forth the flowers and figures of flowerlike women.' 9

On 24 July 1868 Whistler wrote to his solicitor, James Anderson Rose (1819-1890), 'Leyland who is in town might be coming to look at his picture and I am rather uncertain about leaving it.' 10 A few days later, on 28 July, William Michael Rossetti (1829-1919) wrote in his diary that Whistler was 'doing on a largish scale for Leyland the subject of women and flowers.' 11

On 26 August Whistler, then recovering from illness, offered to show 'the picture I am working on' to the artist Ford Madox Brown (1821-1893). 12 On 30 October, Whistler's mother mentioned that he worked in his studio all day, but 'we hope he will have more leisure, when his very large paintings are advanced further ... he is so interested in his Studies, he never complains of confinement or fatigue.' 13

Whistler had moved from 2 Lindsey Row, Chelsea, to the studio of Frederick Jameson (1839-1916) at 62 Great Russell Street by 14 December 1868. 14 Charles Samuel Keene (1823-1891) visited 'Jemmy W' in late December and told Edwin Edwards (1823-1879), 'I tried to persuade him to drive at 'em, I don't believe he'll finish em till he does.' 15 Jameson remembered Whistler's seven months in Great Russell Street as 'very unproductive and uneventful'; one picture, he said, was 'apparently completely finished' before being 'shaved down to the bed-rock mercilessly' by the dissatisfied artist. 16

1869: Things were no better in the following year, and on 11 March Mrs Whistler wrote to Leyland on Whistler's behalf:

'Yesterday the conviction was forced upon him that he should only ruin his work by persevering now in vain endeavours to finish your picture & that he must set it aside til he should be in better tone, mortifying tho it be to him, that it is not to be exhibited this Season. he is poor fellow more to be pitied than blamed, if mortal energy & industry could have accomplished it, his might, he has worked so hard night and day to attain his ambition, his first motive to please you who have been so indulgently patient, & also that it might have had a place in the new R Academy[,] he has only tried too hard to make it the perfection of Art, preying upon his mind unceasingly it has become more & and more impossible to satisfy himself.

Yesterday afternoon I was surprised by his coming to see me, as he has been too closely at work to spare time even to cheer me, but he said in explanation, "All Sons I believe come to their Mother in their difficulties, to ask help & find comfort" and then with his characteristic frankness he entered upon the details of his trying position, for he always confides in his Mother, who thus knows intimately all his failings & his virtues. "Leyland must be written to! but I cannot do it! You can dear Mother for me, ... Say to him I feel it right to put again in his hand the £400 he advanced as the price of the first picture, I dare say George will lend me that [amount] ... Say to Leyland that on my return to Chelsea, I will finish the two pictures he has ordered, before I begin any others, only beg him to believe I have not failed to do so before now, from lack of endeavor to gratify his wish and my own. I cannot even shew him the first in its present state.' 17

Leyland replied sympathetically and Whistler thanked him effusively: 'this miserable scrawl - which cannot express the affection I feel - If I am only able to show part of it feebly in the picture one of these days I shall be less pained than I am at present because of its long delay.' 18

In a letter to Thomas de Kay Winans (1820-1878), written after his return to 2 Lindsey Row in mid-1869, Whistler requested a loan of £500, and wrote,

'I have at this moment plenty of commissions for important pictures -... I am sure you will sympathize with my anxiety in my work which will not admit of my being contented with what merely "would sell" - For instance I had a large picture of three figures nearly life size fully under way - indeed far advanced towards completion - the owner delighted - and every one highly pleased with it. - except myself. - Instead of going on with it as it was, I wiped it clean out! scraped it off the canvass [sic] and put it aside that I might perfect myself in certain knowledge that I should overcome imperfections I found in my work, and now I expect shortly to begin it all over again from the very beginning! - But with a certainty that will carry me through in one third of the time! - The results of the education I have been giving myself these two years and more will show themselves in the time gained in my future work.' 19

1871: According to Way, on 'an ordinary white primed canvas ... [Whistler] had traced down a cartoon of the "Three Girls", having pricked it through in the old manner, and then outlined the figures with a red line', but instead of painting it, Whistler painted Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter's Mother [YMSM 101] on the back. 20 There is no way of checking this statement, and even if it is true, no way of telling if it was the canvas for the original, rubbed down, or revised version of The Three Girls.

 Study of 'The Three Girls', 1871/1873, The Hunterian
Study of 'The Three Girls', 1871/1873, The Hunterian

A pen study of the whole composition, Study of 'The Three Girls' [M.0361], is dated (from the signature) 1871/1873.

1872: Whistler wrote to Leyland in November, 'You will I hope be pleased to hear that among other things I am well at work at your large picture of the three Girls and that it is going on with ease and pleasure to myself.' 21 Leyland, who had been posing for Arrangement in Black: Portrait of F. R. Leyland [YMSM 097], replied on 8 November 1872, 'I am glad you are working on the picture of the three Girls and I daresay your late work at life size portraits you will find has done you good and my own martyrdom has not been in vain.' 22

1873: In March Whistler invited Alan S. Cole to come and view 'my three Girls - "SYMPHONY IN WHITE AND RED - full palette"!' 23 About 1872/1873 Whistler designed and painted a frame for The Three Girls [YMSM 088], but about 1879/1880 this frame was given to The Gold Scab [YMSM 208].

1875: Whistler told Frances Leyland (1834-1910) 'I am painting on Leylands big picture - having at last found a beautiful creature to replace the "perfect woman" - though I fear I shall never absolutely believe any other ... her equal.' 24 On 4 September 1875 Whistler wrote to Leyland about his new model,

'I have fallen upon such a grand piece of good fortune in the way of a model with whom I have made an arrangement to sit to me altogether - with a view to at once going on with the two big pictures - She is simply adorable and comes by the way on Monday morning for the three girls.' 25

By 'Altogether' he meant nude. And shortly afterwards he told Mrs Leyland, 'the big picture grows every day in beauty ... my models have been behaving so well that I have been able to accomplish much - and am greatly encouraged.' 26

1876: Yet again, Mrs Leyland was told, 'I believe you will be pleased to hear, that my big picture grows and grows.' 27 On 10 April 1876 Whistler was described in the New York Herald as at work on 'the large picture, "Symphony in Red and White" '. 28 Way & Dennis stated: 'Whistler began to paint the finished picture ... on more than one canvas ... and it was intended to be hung in the Peacock Room' – Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room [YMSM 178] – which Whistler decorated for Leyland in 1876-1877. 29

1877: By summer relations with Leyland had deteriorated completely, in the dispute over the cost of 'The Peacock Room'. Leyland wrote to Whistler on 24 July:

'At various times during the last eight or nine years you have received from me sums amounting to one thousand guineas for pictures, not one of which have ever been delivered; nor indeed during the whole of our acquaintance have you finished for me a single thing for which you have been paid.' 30

Whistler replied, concerning The Three Girls, 'A fourth painting for which you have paid me is an imaginative picture which can only be finished under certain conditions - In regard to this work I will do one of two things - I will either finish it for you - or I will paint it and sell it, and repay you the four hundred guineas which you paid me for it.' 31 Leyland was not satisfied:

'As respects the fourth painting it is difficult to understand what are the conditions you find necessary for its completion.

You have been paid for it nine years ago and however imaginative the work may be, it is high time now that it should be delivered if it is ever to be finished.

Your proposal that I should wait for its completion and then let you sell it is quite unnecessary. I can do that myself.' 32

1878: Walter Theodore Watts-Dunton (1832-1914) wrote on Leyland's behalf asking for clarification of Whistler's intentions with regard to 'the property he has bought and paid for' and Whistler replied that he would repay the 400 gns. as soon as possible. 33

Thomas Robert Way (1861-1913) remembered:

'Just before sending in time for the second Grosvenor Exhibition [1878] he [Whistler] had a show day, and many people came to see his pictures. There were, I think, only three on view ... [including] the unfinished picture of the "Three Girls" ... The figures were at that time nearly in the nude, and I do not think Whistler did much to them afterwards, so that the picture probably never reached the ideal arrived at in the sketch which he afterwards sold to my father, and which is now in Mr. Freer's collection [The White Symphony: Three Girls [YMSM 087]] ... He had been at work upon this subject for years.' 34

1879: A visitor to the White House on 18 March 1879 saw two pictures (The Three Girls and Harmony in Yellow and Gold: The Gold Girl - Connie Gilchrist [YMSM 190]) that 'he [Whistler] is now at work upon for the exhibitions' and described The Three Girls as 'a large one, though the figures are not life-size; it is the interior of a hothouse ... three maidens in light classic raiment are gathered about a flowering aloe.' 35

Whistler was declared bankrupt in May. He destroyed and scraped down many pictures, to prevent them falling into the hands of creditors, or being sold by the official Receiver, James Waddell (1838-1892). 36

An oil copy of The Three Girls, Pink and Grey: Three Figures [YMSM 089], was made by Whistler in early September 1879. The original canvas of The Three Girls was destroyed except for a fragment cut from the left side of the canvas, now known as Girl with Cherry Blossom [YMSM 090].


1: 1872/1875, YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 88).

2: Way & Dennis 1903 [more], p. 100.

3: A. M. Whistler to J. H. Gamble, GUW #06535.

4: Pennell 1908 [more], vol. 1, p. 149.

5: 5 October [1867], GUW #08793.

6: [12 December 1867], GUW #09195.

7: Whistler to Leyland, [1867/1868], GUW #08788.

8: GUW #08789.

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

10: GUW #11849.

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

12: 20 and 29 August [1868], GUW #08997 and #10069.

13: A. M. Whistler to J. H. Gamble, 30 October [1868], GUW #06537.

14: A. M. Whistler to Miss Hill, 14 December 1868, GUW #11473.

15: C. S. Keene to E. Edwards, [20 December 1868] and 1 January 1879, GUW #12711 and #12712.

16: Quoted by Pennell 1908 [more], vol. 1, p. 148.

17: 11 March [1869], GUW #08182.

18: [May/June 1869], GUW #08792.

19: [September/November 1869], GUW #10632.

20: Way 1912 [more], p. 71.

21: [2/9 November 1872], GUW #08794.

22: GUW #02565.

23: [March 1873], GUW #09022.

24: [20 August/4 September 1875], GUW #08052.

25: 4 September [1875], GUW #11866.

26: [18/25 September 1875], GUW #08053.

27: [March/May 1876], GUW #08056.

28: 'American Artists in London, What they have done for Philadelphia', New York Herald, New York, 10 April 1876, p. 5. Press cutting in GUL Whistler PC 2, p. 2.

29: Way & Dennis 1903 [more], p. 31.

30: GUW #02593.

31: Draft, 25 July [1877], GUW #02596.

32: 27 July 1877, GUW #02598.

33: Watts-Dunton to Whistler, 1 February 1878, GUW #06072; reply, 2 February [1878], GUW #09577.

34: Way 1912 [more], pp. 25-28.

35: 'A. De G. S.',unidentified press cutting; GUL Whistler PC9.

36: See MacDonald, Margaret, 'Bankruptcy', online.

Last updated: 1st June 2020 by Margaret