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

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Blue and Silver: Blue Wave, Biarritz


Several possible titles have been suggested:

  • 'Blue Wave' (1881, Whistler). 1
  • 'Waves Biarritz' (1892, Whistler). 2
  • 'The Blue Wave' (1892, Beatrice Whistler). 3
  • 'Blue and Silver. Blue Wave Biarritz' (1892, Goupil). 4
  • 'The Blue Wave' (1898, Society of American Artists, New York). 5
  • 'The Blue Wave' and 'Blue and Silver, The Blue Wave, Biarritz' (1905, ISSPG). 6
  • 'Blue and Silver: Blue Wave, Biarritz' (1980, YMSM). 7

'Blue and Silver: Blue Wave, Biarritz' is the preferred title.


                    Blue and Silver: Blue Wave, Biarritz, Hill-Stead Museum
Blue and Silver: Blue Wave, Biarritz, Hill-Stead Museum

A seascape in horizontal format. In the foreground, great breakers crash on the shore; the blue waves beyond are flecked with white. The sky above is cloudy, slightly threatening.


Guéthary, some four miles to the south of Biarritz, Basses-Pyrénées. Whistler appears to have had several pictures in progress during his stay in Guéthary, during October/November 1862, but only Blue and Silver: Blue Wave, Biarritz and A White Note [YMSM 044] have survived.

Whistler sent Fantin-Latour his address: 'Maison de la Croix. Chez Mons. Louis Daguerre. Guethary Basses Pyrenées. - Voici mon cher Fantin l'adresse du petit village, où depuis un mois je travaille à mes tableaux.' 8


                    Sketch of 'Blue and Silver: Blue Wave, Biarritz', pen, Library of Congress
Sketch of 'Blue and Silver: Blue Wave, Biarritz', pen, Library of Congress

Whistler originally included a Spanish sailor and several women, describing them as: 'Le matelot en Chemise rouge ... il a les jambes nues - parmi les femmes il y aura Jo toute claire et rose, aupres d'elle une vielle toute en noir.' 9

None of these figures appear in the final version, though there are traces of the figures just visible under the completed painting. 'Jo' was Joanna Hiffernan (b. ca 1843-d.1886). During the same stay on the coast, Joanna Hiffernan modelled for A White Note [YMSM 044].

In the same letter to Fantin-Latour Whistler described how, while at work on this painting, he was swept out to sea and nearly drowned, but saved by one of his models, 'mon modèle à la chemise rouge'; he described it vividly to Fantin:

'[J]e me suis presque noyé l'autre jour! ... Je fus emporté par un courant feroce, qui m'entrainait dans ces brisants ... et si il n'avait pas été pour mon modele à la chemise rouge, je laisait la toile inachevée ... Je cris ... je disparais trois quatre fois - enfin on comprend! ... "le baigneur", (mon modele) entend appeler, arrive au galop, saute dans la mer comme un "terre neuve," parvient a m'attraper une patte, et les deux me retirent!' 10
Translation: 'I nearly drowned the other day! ... I was carried off by a strong current that dragged me into the breakers ... and if it hadn't been for my model in the red shirt, I would have left the painting unfinished ... I cried out ... I disappeared three or four times. Finally someone understood! ... The "bather" (my model) heard the call, came at a gallop, and jumped into the sea like a Newfoundland, managed to grab me by the "paw" and the two pulled me out!'

In 1862 a man wrote to Whistler from Bordeaux, thanking him for his kindness ('la bienveillance que vous voulez bien me montrer.') This letter was annotated (not very legibly) by Beatrice Philip (Mrs E. W. Godwin, Mrs J. McN. Whistler) (1857-1896): 'Letter from Baptiste Fagonde, the man who saved Jimmie's life at 1862?' 11 Unfortunately the model has not been identified. It is possible that Whistler had hoped to re-hire Baptiste as a model in the following year.


In his letter to Fantin-Latour, cited above, Whistler cited 'Hook' as a painter of highly finished marine subjects executed in the studio. 12 James Clarke Hook (1819-1907) was a successful marine painter, elected RA in 1860. His oil paintings had the required amount of 'finish' demanded by the critics. Although he painted some pure seascapes his subjects usually had a strong 'genre' interest reflected in titles like O well for the sailor lad, That he sings in his boat in the bay, exhibited in the Royal Academy in 1860 (cat. no. 408). It is probable that Whistler, in spite of his taunts, regarded Hook as a rival, and was also to some degree influenced by him. In 1859 Whistler and Fantin-Latour could have seen Hook's 'Luff; Boy' (Private collection) at the RA, and the composition, dominated by the foreground figures, may have influenced the composition of Wapping [YMSM 035].


1: Note on letter to H. Faraday, 12 March 1881, GUW #13354.

2: Whistler to D. C. Thomson, 9 February 1892, GUW #05683.

3: B. Whistler to D. C. Thomson, [22 October / November 1892], GUW #09703.

4: Nocturnes, Marines & Chevalet Pieces, Goupil Gallery, London, 1892 (cat. no. 21).

5: Twentieth Annual Exhibition of the Society of American Artists at the Galleries of the American Fine Arts Society, New York, 1898 (cat. no. 285); also Oil Paintings, Water Colors, Pastels and Drawings: Memorial Exhibition of the Works of Mr. J. McNeill Whistler, Copley Society, Boston, 1904 (cat. no. 54).

6: Memorial Exhibition of the Works of the late James McNeill Whistler, First President of The International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers, New Gallery, Regent Street, London, 1905 (cat. no. 29) in ordinary and deluxe edition respectively.

7: YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 41).

8: [1/5 October 1862], GUW #07951.

9: Whistler to Fantin-Latour, [1/5 October 1862], GUW #07951.

10: Ibid.

11: 28 December 1862, GUW #02398.

12: [14/21 October 1862], GUW #08028.

Last updated: 31st December 2020 by Margaret