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

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Harmony in Red: Lamplight

Composition


                    Harmony in Red: Lamplight, The Hunterian
Harmony in Red: Lamplight, The Hunterian
J. Bernard Partridge, Whistler as Harmony in Black, No. 10, caricature
J. Bernard Partridge, Whistler as Harmony in Black, No. 10, caricature

A similarly assertive pose, of a woman standing with hand on hips, was seen first in a portrait of Maud Franklin (1857-ca 1941), Arrangement in White and Black [YMSM 185], and was re-used both in the portrait of Beatrice and another of Maud, Harmony in Black, No. 10 [YMSM 357]. The latter is seen in the caricature by J. Bernard Partridge (1861-1945) reproduced above. 1

Technique

It was painted on a coarse-textured, fairly open tabby weave canvas, later lined with a fine tightly-woven fabric. It was primed with a light grey ground. 2

Malcolm Charles Salaman (1855-1940) visited the studio when this portrait was in progress. He described it as follows:

'The plain white-washed walls, the unadorned wooden rafters, which partly form a loft for the stowing away of numerous canvases, panels, &c., the vast space unencumbered by furniture, and the large table-palette, all give the appearance of the working place ... Mr. Whistler ... in the black clothes of his ordinary wear, straight from the street or the garden, he stands at work at his easel. To those accustomed to studios the completeness of the arrangement of model, background, and surroundings exactly in accordance with the scheme of the picture that is in progress is striking, as striking indeed as the actual personality (always remarkable) of the talented artist. For his whole body seems instinct with energy and enthusiasm for his work, his face lit up with flashes of quick and strong thought, as that of a man who sees with his brains as well as with his eyes, and his brush-hand electric in sympathy with both.

... Mr. Whistler's palette, ... As I saw it the other day, the colours were systematically arranged, almost with the appearance of a picture. In the centre was white and on one side were the various reds leading up to black, while on the other side were the yellows leading up to blue. ...

And now a few words about some of the pictures which the master has almost ready for exhibition, ...

A superb portrait of Mrs. Godwin, wife of the well-known architect, will rank among Mr. Whistler's chefs-d'oeuvre. The lady stands in an ample red cloak over a black dress, against red draperies, and in her bonnet is a red plume. Her hands rest on her hips, and her attitude is singularly vivacious. The colour is simply wonderful, and is another positive proof of Mr. Whistler's pre-eminence as a colourist. This picture has been painted in artificial light, as has also another one of a lady seated in a graceful attitude, with one hand leaning over the back of a chair, while the other holds a fan. She wears a white evening dress, and is seen against a light background.' 3

In Whistler, Women and Fashion, MacDonald commented:

'Seen by gaslight, the cloak, with its long vertical armholes, appeared a tawny rust red. Her face, modeled with flickering soft brush strokes, looked at Whistler with amused tolerance. The dramatic cloak made the sitter's face and small, feathered bonnet seem delicate in proportion … [it] was never sold, perhaps because it was too personal; the record of their developing relationship.' 4

Robins comments in A Fragile Modernism. Whistler and his Impressionist Followers, that 'Probably the gaslight made Beatrice's cloak appear red, making her sexual and gender identity ambiguous' and she adds that red, 'one of the cheapest of the new synthetic colours', had become 'a suspect colour that quickly became identified with common, unformed "primitive" taste.' 5

Conservation History

It was treated by Harry Woolford in 1960, and may have been cleaned, retouched, and varnished at that time. It appears to have been extensively retouched in the background. There are extensive areas of craquelure and drying cracks, particularly on the left and at lower right. The varnish is thick, glossy, and slightly discoloured and cracked. The painting is however, structurally stable. 6

Frame

Whistler Memorial Exhibition, Boston 1904, photograph, GUL Whistler PH6/9
Whistler Memorial Exhibition, Boston 1904, photograph, GUL Whistler PH6/9

                    Harmony in Red: Lamplight, framed, The Hunterian
Harmony in Red: Lamplight, framed, The Hunterian

                    Harmony in Red: Lamplight, frame detail
Harmony in Red: Lamplight, frame detail

Convex Whistler frame with no liner, dating from 1884/1886. 7 Size: 203.0 x 103.0 x 7.5 cm.

Notes:

1: MacDonald 2003 [more] , p. 146.

2: Clare Meredith, condition report, 23 April 2001, Hunterian files.

3: Salaman 1886 B [more] ; quoted in Pennell 1908 [more] , vol. 2, pp. 25-26; the other portrait mentioned by Salaman was Lady with a Fan [YMSM 352].

4: MacDonald 2003 [more] , p. 187.

5: Robins 2007 [more] , p. 80.

6: Clare Meredith, op. cit..

7: Dr S. L. Parkerson Day, Report on frames, 2017; see also Parkerson 2007 [more] .

Last updated: 31st December 2020 by Margaret