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

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Arrangement en couleur chair et noir: Portrait de Théodore Duret

Arrangement en couleur chair et noir: Portrait de Théodore Duret mainly dates from 1883-1884, but may well have been worked on further in 1885. 1

1883: According to Théodore Duret (1838-1927), having attended the opening of an exhibition in 1883, he and Whistler discussed the portraits they had seen, and both of them disapproved of the portraits of contemporary men in classical dress:

'Un soir de l'année 1883, nous [Whistler and Duret] dinions ensemble dans la maison qu'il habitait alors à Londres, Fulham road. Nous avions assisté dans la journée à l'ouverture d'une exposition de peinture et nous passions en revue les tableaux que nous y avions remarqués. Il en vint à critiquer particulièrement le portrait du président d'une société ou corporation. Le personnage était représenté nu-tête, les cheveux séparés par une raie sur le front et frisés, et en même temps vêtu d'une robe rouge de forme antique, insigne de sa charge. Cette combinaison d'une tête coiffée a la mode du jour et de cette vieille robe lui paraissait d'un goût détestable. La conversation roula dès lors sur le costume et la pose à choisir dans le portrait.' 2

The translation published in 1917 reads: 'One evening in 1883 we were dining together at the house which he then inhabited in Fulham Road, London. During the day we had attended the opening of an exhibition of painting and we passed in review the pictures we had remarked there. He began to criticise particularly the portrait of a president of some society or corporation. This personage was represented bareheaded, his hair separated by a parting on the forehead, and frizzed, and at the same time he was garbed in a red robe of an antique character, the emblem of his office. This combination of hair done in the latest fashion and an ancient robe appeared to him to be in detestable taste. Conversation flowed thence to the costume and pose to choose in a portrait. We agreed that the originals ought to be posed variously according to their physique, and that they should be clothed in one of the suits they habitually wore.' 3

Duret then described the result of their conversation:

'Or, l'habit noir, l'evening dress, était un vêtement dans lequel les gentleman en Angleterre passaient une partie de leur vie ... et cependant on ne peignait jamais personne avec. ...

La conclusion fut qu'il fallait peindre "l'habit noir" et, après un instant de réflexion, Whistler me demanda de le poser. Il fut donc entendu qu'il ferait de moi un portrait en habit noir. Il décida successivement qu'il serait en pied, de grandeur naturelle, avec un fond clair. ... enfin quand il fut fixé, il me dit: "Venez tel jour, apportez votre habit et un domino rose." Je fus assez surpris du domino, mais sans faire de réflexions, j'allai chercher l'objet chez un costumier du théâtre de Covent Garden et le jour dit, j'étais dans son atelier de Tite Street.' 4

The 1917 translation reads as follows:

'Now evening dress (l'habit noir) was the suit in which gentlemen in England passed a portion of their life; they wore it at dinner, in society, at the theatre, at a ball, and yet nobody was ever painted in it. Was it then so ungraceful, and did it offer such difficulties of execution that painters must systematically avoid it?

The conclusion reached was that one ought to paint "evening dress," and after a moment's reflection he asked me to pose for him. It was understood then that he should paint my portrait in evening dress. It was successively decided that it should be full length, life size, with a light background. He evidently did not trouble himself about difficulties to come, for the full length against a light background was of all poses the most arduous. After that it was necessary to find an arrangement, an accessory, something which should render less gruff the man in black from head to foot. I confess that I had nothing to suggest. Whistler thought it over for some time. Finally, when he had decided, he said to me: "Come on such and such a day; bring your evening dress and a pink domino." I was surprised enough at the domino, but without making any comment I went to seek the object at a costumier's in Covent Garden, and on the appointed day I was in his studio at Tite Street.' 5

1883-1884: Duret posed repeatedly in 1883-1884, and possibly early in the following year, the canvas being completely repainted at least ten times. On one occasion, for instance, Whistler wrote to Duret reminding him to bring the same costume 'que nous puissions toujours avoir le même effet.' 6

The portrait of Duret was submitted to the Grosvenor Gallery in April 1884 but rejected by Coutts Lindsay (1824-1913) for being 'incomplete & slightly made out.' 7 It is not known if Whistler worked on it before sending it to the Salon in the following year.

Arrangement en couleur chair et noir: Portrait de Théodore Duret, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
Arrangement en couleur chair et noir: Portrait de Théodore Duret, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

1883/1885: In one undated letter he asked Duret to come after lunch, 'nous pourions probablement finir avec une heure de travail' (that is, 'we would probably be able to finish with an hour of work.') 8 Similarly in another letter he asked Duret to come at midday, saying 'nous tacherons de finir le petit portrait' ('we shall try to finish the little portrait') though why he called it 'petit' is unclear. 9

Lady Archibald Campbell was posing at the same time (see Arrangement in Black: La Dame au brodequin jaune - Portrait of Lady Archibald Campbell [YMSM 242]) and, according to the Pennells, when she could not come, Whistler would telegraph for Duret. 10 This implies a date between 1883 and 1885.

1884/1885: According to Walter Richard Sickert (1860-1942), he painted a small panel of Duret while Whistler was painting Duret's portrait, and exhibited it at the SBA. 11

1895: Whistler wrote that he wished that 'poor old Duret' could be touched up and 'made really to live!'; however, he certainly did not work on it further at that time. 12


1: YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 252).

2: Duret 1904 [more], pp. 99-100.

3: Duret 1917 [more], pp. 68-69.

4: Duret 1904, op. cit, pp. 100-01.

5: Duret 1917, op. cit., p. 69.

6: [July 1883/April 1885], GUW #09652.

7: 18 April 1884, GUW #01867.

8: [July 1883/April 1885], GUW #09645.

9: Whistler to Duret, [July 1883/April 1885], GUW #07935.

10: Pennell 1908 [more], vol. 1, pp. 306-08.

11: Sickert, Walter R., ‘L’Affaire Greaves’, New Age, 15 June 1911, pp. 159-60, at p. 160.

12: J. Whistler to B. Whistler, 19 November 1895, GUW #06643.

Last updated: 19th March 2019 by Margaret