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

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The Coast of Brittany


Several alternative titles have been suggested:

  • 'Seule' (1861, Ernest Gilloneau (fl. 1861). 1
  • 'Brittany Sea piece' (1862, Whistler). 2
  • 'Alone with the Tide' (1862, Royal Academy of Arts). 3
  • 'Scene on the Coast of Brittany' (1874, National Academy of Design, New York). 4
  • 'Coast Scene – Brittany' (1876, Charity Art Exhibition, Baltimore). 5
  • 'On the Brittany Coast' (1876, Baltimore ... Advertiser). 6
  • 'Coast of Brittany' (1878, Society of American Artists, New York). 7
  • 'The Brittany Coast' (1881, Union League Club, New York). 8
  • 'On the Coast of Brittany' (1881, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). 9
  • 'Alone with the Tide' (1899, Whistler). 10
  • 'The Coast of Brittany' (1980, YMSM). 11

The variations on the title are confusing but the painting is generally accepted as 'The Coast of Brittany'.


                    The Coast of Brittany, Wadsworth Atheneum
The Coast of Brittany, Wadsworth Atheneum

On 13 August 1899 Whistler described this as 'A beautiful thing - painted in Brittany - blue sea - long wave breaking - black and brown rocks - great foreground of sand - and wonderful girl asleep.' 12

It is a beach scene in horizontal format, with the horizon placed over two thirds of the way up the canvas. There are a few clouds in a pale blue sky. The girl, sitting on the sand, leaning back on the rocks at left, is dressed in Breton costume: a black dress with large white collar and white bonnet. The rocks are, as Whistler described, mainly a rich brown, with a band of nearly black rocks, dramatically contrasting with the vivid blue sea and white waves splashing on the shore.


In 1862 Whistler described the painting as the 'Brittany Sea piece.' 13 On 13 August 1899 he said it had been 'painted in Brittany.' 14 It almost certainly shows the coast near Perros-Guirec in Brittany, in north-western France, where pink granite rocks surround the sandy bays.

Whistler made one etching at Perros-Guirec in Brittany in 1861, The Forge [86].


The model is unidentified: Whistler described her as a 'wonderful girl asleep.' 15

She is definitely not Whistler's partner, Joanna Hiffernan (b. ca 1843-d.1886), who was living with him in Greenwich in March 1861, while they were presumably working on Wapping [YMSM 035]. Hiffernan could not possibly have stayed with the Hadens while Whistler was ill, and it is not known where she spent the autumn. By December they were both in Paris, and sittings began for Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl [YMSM 038].


It has been suggested that it recalls many English paintings of genre figures by the edge of the sea, for example those by James Clarke Hook (1819-1907) (see Seascape with Figures [YMSM 040]). 16


1: Receipt from E. Gilloneau or Guilloneau, 26 December 1861, GUW #01664.

2: Whistler to G. A. Lucas, 26 June [1862], GUW #11977.

3: RA Exhibition catalogue 1862 [more] (cat. no. 670).

4: Forty-Ninth Annual Exhibition, National Academy of Design, New York, 1874 (cat. no. 325).

5: Exhibition catalogue Charity Art Exhibition, Baltimore 1876 [more] (cat. no. 44).

6: Baltimore American and Commercial Advertiser, 20 March 1876.

7: First Annual Exhibition, Society of American Artists, Kurtz Gallery, New York, 1878 (cat. no. 76).

8: Anon., 'The Union League', unidentified newspaper, New York, [10 April 1881] (press cutting, GUL Whistler PC 4, p. 61).

9: Loan Collection of Paintings, in the West Galleries, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1881 (cat. no. 204).

10: Whistler to E. G. Kennedy, [3 August 1899], GUW #09796.

11: YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 37).

12: Whistler to E. G. Kennedy, [3 August 1899], GUW #09796.

13: Whistler to G. A. Lucas, 26 June [1862], GUW #11977.

14: Whistler to Kennedy, [3 August 1899], op. cit.

15: Whistler to Kennedy, [3 August 1899], ibid.

16: Staley, Alan (ed.), From Realism to Symbolism: Whistler and His World, Wildenstein, New York, and Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1971 (cat. no. 11).

Last updated: 4th June 2021 by Margaret