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

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Arrangement in Grey and Green: Portrait of J. J. Cowan

Arrangement in Grey and Green: Portrait of J. J. Cowan was started in 1893, and sittings continued throughout the 1890s. 1

1892: Whistler wrote to the painter John Lavery (1856-1941) that he could paint John James Cowan (1846-1936):

'I think I could make a good picture out of the man whose head you send me, and would therefore be very well pleased to paint Mr Cowan, only I dont see how it can be managed unless he runs over to Paris ...

I cannot quite see my way to a journey to Scotland in the depths of the winter, although I certainly hope to have the pleasure later on of visiting the city that has done me so much honour.

As to the price Mr Cowan wishes to know, a full length portrait for a thousand guineas, if he comes over here for it. Of course for a head or half length there would be another price.' 2

1893: On 18 January Cowan agreed to come to Paris and pose for 'a head only, or half length at most.' 3 On 15 February 1893 Whistler suggested sittings should start mid-May in Paris for a half- or small full-length at 600 guineas, or a head at 400 guineas. 4 According to Cowan, for a period of four weeks in May and June he had eighteen sittings of three hours or more in Paris; during the sittings Mrs Cowan read R. L. Stevenson's Treasure Island to them, and Whistler 'later on ... was inclined to blame the reading as a cause of his failure to complete the picture'; Cowan recorded that 'on the last day ... in his studio in 1893, he signed the picture and promised to send it after us but it never came. When I saw it again the signature had gone.' 5 On 24 June 1893 Whistler acknowledged receipt of a cheque for 600 guineas for 'Arrangement in Grey & Green'. 6 However, on 28 June he wrote to Cowan:

'No work is really produced without trouble - and in this case you have had quite as much as I have ...

Now when you find that you have time - and there is no hurry - hurry is an abominable thing - you will come over again and we will quite complete in all details, the "Arrangement in Grey & Green" - which meanwhile I continue to be on very good terms with.' 7

On 10 September 1893 Whistler told the Glasgow art dealer Alexander Reid (1854-1928) that Cowan had come to Paris specially to pose and had a sitting at 2 p.m. 8 Whistler suggested they had 'our first couple of sittings in solemn solitude! before we ask Mrs Cowan to come and look at what we have done in her absence.' 9

1894: Whistler proposed to complete certain details from the shoes and cap left by Cowan, and send the portrait to Mrs Cowan until Cowan returned from a trip to Australia, 'and when you return you might perhaps run back some day with it that I may put a few further touches upon the head.' 10 However, according to Cowan he did not pose during the year. 11 Instead, it is possible that Edmund Henry Wuerpel (1866-1958) posed in Cowan's clothes. 12

1895: Whistler suggested sittings from 15 May on. 13 Cowan noted Whistler's comments during one particular sitting, on 4 June 1895. According to Cowan, he had some fourteen more sittings of four hours each in Paris from the middle of May 1895 until 4 June when Marion Peck (Mrs W. R. Farquhar) (1872-1942) arrived to sit to Whistler for Portrait of Miss Marion Peck [YMSM 439]. 14

1896: Sittings continued on 'The Grey Man' through 1896, according to the Pennells:

'he must have given Whistler about sixty sittings, averaging each three to four hours. He, like Whistler, was not in a hurry. The last sittings were in London, three years after the picture was begun. It always seemed as if the head needed just the one touch, with the sitter there, so that perfection might be assured.' 15

Despite the serious illness of his wife, Beatrice Philip (Mrs E. W. Godwin, Mrs J. McN. Whistler) (1857-1896), Whistler suggested sittings in London the spring of 1896. 16 After her death, he suggested further sittings: 'if you give me a couple of mornings for a little further delicate lingering on the head, you can take away the picture with you!' 17 But in November he apologised:

'If when at length it hangs in your house, Mrs. Cowan thinks it looks at all like my distinguished friend her husband, I shall be more than delighted and probably not venture to be just, and offer him golden guineas for the endless sittings I undoubtedly owe so uncomplaining a model!' 18

1897: In January D. C. Thomson wrote that Whistler was at work on a full-length portrait 'of a Midlothian gentleman', presumably Cowan. 19 However, on 27 December Cowan wrote 'I rather despair of ever seeing it at all!' 20

1898: Francis Howard (1874-1954) suggested Whistler exhibit the portrait with the ISSPG. 21

1899: In January 'A Gentleman in Grey' was still not finished, but Whistler sold Cowan two other paintings to set against Cowan's earlier payment:

'As to the two pictures, we said 400 for the Nocturne and 500 for the head, didn't we? - So if you like to send me 300, we will be quite squared until you get the Gentleman in Grey - who will I am sure come to you all the sooner and fresher when relieved of the premature check - which somehow or other has always been unlucky! - It will all come right though my dear Cowan and everything will be charming - for I am beginning to know a little more about painting, and when you have your picture you will have gained by it, and the time will be as nothing!' 22

According to Albert Ludovici, Jr (1852-1932), Whistler found a man of similar build to pose in Cowan's tweeds, which he did every Sunday for three months. 23 According to the sitter, Whistler's sister-in-law also posed in the suit, but 'she was not the same shape.' 24

The Pennells record:

'[Cowan], like Whistler, was not in a hurry, but, unlike Whistler, he eventually got tired, and a model was called in and posed in Mr. Cowan's clothes. The last sittings were in London, three years after. Even then Whistler wrote Mr. Cowan that the head needed just the one touch, with the sitter there, so that perfection might be assured.' 25

1900: Cowan calculated having given upwards of sixty sittings in all, after having sat each year from 1893 to about 1900, 1894 excepted. 26

1901: On 5 November 1901 Whistler asked his sister-in-law to send the green curtains he had used as background for his portrait of Cowan from 110 rue du Bac to London. 27


1: YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 402).

2: 2 December 1892, GUW #02482.

3: Cowan to Whistler, GUW #00700.

4: Whistler to Cowan, GUW #00701.

5: Cowan 1933 [more], pp. 156-57, 168-73.

6: GUW #00703.

7: GUW #00704.

8: GUW #03247.

9: [10 September 1893], GUW #00702.

10: Whistler to Cowan, [2 January 1894], GUW #00706.

11: Cowan 1933, op. cit.

12: Whistler to Wuerpel, [January / June 1894], GUW #12848.

13: [21 April 1895], GUW #00711.

14: Cowan 1933, op. cit.

15: Pennell 1908 [more], vol. 2, pp. 156-57, 170.

16: Whistler to Cowan, [4 April 1896], GUW #00712; [29 April 1896], GUW #00713.

17: [21 October 1896], GUW #00716; see also 28 October [1896], GUW #11222.

18: [19 November 1896], GUW #00719.

19: Thomson 1897 [more], at p. 11.

20: GUW #00723.

21: [19 April 1898], GUW #02306.

22: Whistler to Cowan, [9] January 1899, GUW #00728.

23: Ludovici 1926 [more], p. 102.

24: Information from Stanley Cursiter, National Gallery of Scotland, 1945, GUL WPP.

25: Pennell 1911 A [more], pp. 320-21.

26: Cowan 1933, op. cit.

27: Whistler to R. Birnie Philip, [5 November 1901], GUW #04826.

Last updated: 16th October 2020 by Margaret