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

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Symphony in Flesh Colour and Pink: Portrait of Mrs Frances Leyland

Symphony in Flesh Colour and Pink: Portrait of Mrs Frances Leyland was started in 1871. 1 According to the Pennells, it was commissioned by Frederick Richards Leyland (1832-1892), the sitter's husband. 2

1871: On 3 November 1871 Whistler’s mother Anna Matilda Whistler (1804-1881), wrote that it had just been started at Speke Hall, near Liverpool, 'Mrs. Leyland writes me that she thinks the full length Portrait he has begun of herself will be as lifelike as she is sure mine is!' 3

1872: In March Whistler was hoping to complete the Leyland portraits for the Royal Academy, as his mother reported:

'We are in the pressure of the Season, & he begins work directly after our eight ocl breakfast regularly. he is ... trying to finish a beautiful life size of Mrs L, the pictures must be sent to the Royal Academy the 1st or 2nd day of April, though the Exhibition is not to be til a month later. I will not build castles or anticipate rewards to Jemie's diligence.' 4

On their return to London Mrs Leyland continued to pose daily through March-April 1872 at Whistler's house in Lindsey Row. On 12 April, for instance, Whistler's mother wrote, 'when Mrs Leyland came last week to stand day after day in the Studio for her Portrait, she of course came up to my room first, as I was yet confined to it', and on 7 May, 'I am particularly required here, while a lady is daily coming to the Studio I must be here to receive Mrs Leyland.' 5 The cook, Lucy Slater, helped Mrs Leyland get ready to pose, and when Lucy left, as Anna Whistler said,

'one or two of our lady friends surprised her by valuable gifts, as she had been attentive to them in no ordinary way. Mrs Leyland having always need of her at her toilette, for the Portrait, which her illness last Summer prevented Jemies finishing there, but he hopes to Exhibit it in the R A next Season with Mr Leylands.' 6

1874: Whistler told Mrs Leyland he was not satisfied with the portrait:

'I, to whom you are so continually indulgent seem doomed to disappointment in every effort that I make to show at all my gratitude - The thought of your portrait is upon me! - Well do I remember the persevering kindness with which you so patiently bore the fatigue of those many tiring days! ... And I am now so unhappy to know that the work itself is not worthy of the weariness it caused you - It should have been so beautiful! ... I sometimes dare to hope that still it may be saved - The strange little something, that stands between a master-piece in its perfection, and failure, might at any moment yield - and a mornings work bring with it the bright life that is now smouldering with in - So lovely is the conception too! … it is not only selfish glorification or ambition that still frets me in my disappointment - It would have been my pride to in some measure through my work thank the kind hostess who has I fear been often vexed by the waywardness and tiresome eccentricities of a never ending guest!' 7

Symphony in Flesh Colour and Pink: Portrait of Mrs Frances Leyland, The Frick Collection
Symphony in Flesh Colour and Pink: Portrait of Mrs Frances Leyland, The Frick Collection

It was exhibited in Mr Whistler's Exhibition, Flemish Gallery, 48 Pall Mall, London, 1874 (cat. no. 2) as 'Portrait, "Symphony in Flesh Colour and Pink".' Leyland paid for it in June 1874. 8 It is not, however, clear if he actually had it in his possession.

1876: After F. R. Leyland and Whistler quarrelled over payment for Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room [YMSM 178], Mrs Leyland was not able to sit again for the portrait.

1877: After their quarrel, Whistler wrote to Leyland on 25 July, 'I have in my possession two portraits which, though publicly approved of, my own artistic scruples alone have prevented me from forwarding to you who are their owner.' 9 Leyland replied:

'I quite appreciate your "artistic scruples" to deliver the two portraits which you consider finished and I must say these scruples are uncommonly well founded. I am however willing to receive them as they are ...' 10

Alan Summerly Cole (1846-1934) wrote in his diary that he had seen the portrait in Whistler's studio on 29 July 1877. 11

1878/1879: The portrait was seen by Thomas Robert Way (1861-1913) at Whistler's White House in Chelsea. 12

1884: It is unlikely that it was worked on after 1876, although Jacques Émile Blanche (1861-1942) claimed that he saw 'les Leyland', a series of arrangements 'en noir et brun', at Whistler's Tite Street studio in about 1884. Possibly he meant the canvases Arrangement in Black: Portrait of F. R. Leyland [YMSM 097], Symphony in Flesh Colour and Pink: Portrait of Mrs Frances Leyland [YMSM 106], and Portrait of Miss Florence Leyland [YMSM 107] and other works, but he may simply have misremembered the date. 13


1: YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 106).

2: Pennell 1908 [more], p. 175.

3: A. M. Whistler to K. Palmer, 3 November 1871, GUW #10071, and to J. H. Gamble, 29 November 1871, GUW #06547.

4: A. M. Whistler to J. H. Gamble, 13 March 1872, GUW #06548.

5: A. M. Whistler to J. H. Gamble, 10-12 April 1872, GUW #06549, and to Mrs Wann, 7 May [1872], GUW #06551.

6: A. M. Whistler to J. H. Gamble, 5 & 22 November 1872, GUW #06553.

7: [1/6 January 1874], GUW #10867.

8: Whistler to F. R. Leyland, 12 June 1874, GUW #11868.

9: 25 July [1877], GUW #02596.

10: 27 July 1877, GUW #02598.

11: Ms copy, Ms copy, 27 March 1872-18 April 1885, GUW #13132.

12: Way 1912 [more], p. 29.

13: Blanche 1905 [more], p. 358.

Last updated: 27th April 2021 by Margaret