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


Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony

Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony dates from between 1864 and 1873. 1

                Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony, Freer Gallery of Art
Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony, Freer Gallery of Art

1864: Whistler's mother, Anna Matilda Whistler (1804-1881), described him as working on 'a group in Oriental costume on a balcony, a tea equipage of the old china' in February 1864:

'Are you an admirer of old China? this Artistic abode of my son is ornamented by a very rare collection of Japanese & Chinese, he considers the paintings upon them the finest specimens of Art & his companions (Artists) who resort here for an evening relaxation occasionally, get enthusiastic as the[y] handle & examine the curious subjects pourtrayed [sic], some of the pieces more than two centuries old, he has also a Japanese book of painting, unique in their estimation. ... he could not leave his oriental paintings which are ordered & he has several in progress: One portrays a group in Oriental costume on a balcony, a tea equipage of the old China, the[y] look out upon a river, with a town in the distance.' 2

1865: Whistler completed the first state of this painting and signed it 'Whistler. 1865.' 3

1867: In the early summer Whistler wrote to Ignace-Henri-Jean-Théodore Fantin-Latour (1836-1904) about a small study of the 'balcon':

'Je t'envoies une photographie d'apres la petite esquisse du "balcon" - Je vais le faire grand presque comme nature pour le salon - Dis moi ce que [tu] en penses pour composition, lignes etc ... la couleur en est tres éclatante.' 4 (Translation: 'I send you a photograph of the little study of the "balcony" - I am going to make it almost life-size for the salon - Tell me what you think of it as to composition, lines etc ... the colour of it is very brilliant.')

1867: On 31 March 1867 William Michael Rossetti (1829-1919) mentioned in his diary that he had seen this painting, and 'I think the unmitigated tint of the flooring should be gradated but he does not seem to see it.' 5

1870: By the spring of 1870 Whistler had abandoned the idea of enlarging the study for the Salon. Instead he worked on Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony. It was exhibited at the Royal Academy in May (cat. no. 468) as 'The Balcony'.

1870/1872: At some time, Whistler added flowers in the foreground and signed it with a butterfly on a rectangular field.

1870/1878: Whistler made several additions to the painting, as he wrote to John Cavafy (1839-1901): 'I borrowed it several times from your Father - and each time I worked upon it and added to its worth until at last I had more than quadrupled its value - In the end I also ordered for it a new frame - and elaborately painted and ornamented it.' 6 He worked on several paintings, possibly including this one, before they were shown at the II Summer Exhibition, Grosvenor Gallery, London, 1878. 7

For the relationship of this painting to the other paintings of the later 1860s, see Study of Draped Figures [YMSM 058].


1: YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 56).

2: A. M. Whistler to J. H. Gamble, 10-11 February 1864, GUW #06522.

3: Photograph in G. A. Lucas Collection, Baltimore.

4: [June/July 1867], GUW #08045. This letter was formerly dated [September 1867?], but it was probably written shortly after the Royal Academy exhibition, which opened in May.

5: Rossetti 1903 [more] , pp. 228-29.

6: Whistler to J. Cavafy, [July/October 1878], GUW #00549.

7: Whistler to J. A. Rose, [9 April 1878], GUW #10730.

Last updated: 8th June 2021 by Margaret