Infinite variations on the title have been suggested, including:
'Harmony in Grey and Green: Miss Cicely Alexander' is the preferred title.
A full length portrait of a girl, in vertical format. She stands in three-quarter view to left, her left leg pointing forward toward the lower left corner. There is a black bow in her long blonde hair. Her right arm is not seen, but in her left hand she holds a wide-brimmed hat. She wears white stockings and black pumps or dancing shoes. Her dress is white, with a grey scarf round her neck and a swathe of grey material below her waist. A large black rosette adorns her waist. Her sleeves are close-fitting at the top, and wider above the wrist. Her skirt is wide, falling to just below the knee. A grey cloak with a gold tassel sits on a stool behind her at left. A grey wall with a black dado and, at left, a narrow pilaster, are behind her. The floor is also grey. White blossom and butterflies are seen in the background.
It was painted in Whistler's studio at 2 Lindsey Row, Chelsea. 14
Cicely Henrietta Alexander (1864-1932) was the second daughter of the London banker and collector, William Cleverly Alexander (1840-1916), and Rachel Agnes Lucas (Mrs W. C. Alexander) (1837-1900). She married Bernard Wilfred Spring Rice (1869-1953) in 1906. Mrs Spring Rice described her sittings:
'I'm afraid I rather considered that I was a victim all through the sittings, or rather standings, for he never let me change my position, and I believe I used to get very tired and cross and often finished the day in tears. This was especially when he had promised to release me at a given time to go to a dancing class, but when the time came I was still standing, and the minutes slipped away, and he was quite absorbed and had forgotten all about his promise, and never noticed the tears; he used to stand a good way from his canvas, and then dart at it, and then dart back, and he often turned round to look in a looking-glass that hung over the mantlepiece at his back I suppose to see the reflection of his painting ... I was painted at the little house in Chelsea ... Mrs. Whistler [the artist's mother] was living then, and used to preside at delightful American luncheons ... a servant used to be sent to tell him lunch was ready, and then we went on again as before. He painted, and despair filled my soul, and I believe it was generally tea-time before we went to those lunches ... I didn't appreciate ... being painted by Mr. Whistler, and I'm afraid all my memories only show that I was a very grumbling, disagreeable little girl ... I was too young to appreciate Mr. Whistler himself, though afterwards we were very good friends when I grew older, and when he used to come to my father's house and make at once for the portrait with his eye-glass up.' 15
'Imaginez une petite fille, d'un blond cendré, vêtue de blanc, tenant, à la main, un feutre gris, empanaché d'une plume et s'enlevant sur un panneau d'un gris ambré par le noir pur d'une plinthe; une blondine, aristocratique et anémiée, cavalière et douce, une infante anglaise se mouvant dans une atmosphère d'un gris doré par dessous, d'un or affacé de vieux vermeil. C'est encore, dans son large fini, peint à peine, et autant que les Vélasquez, brossés d'une si belle pâte dans la gamme des gris d'argent, cela vit d'une vie intense!' 16
George Moore (1852-1933) raved about the painting:
'Truly, this picture seems to me to be the most beautiful in the world. I know very well that it has not the profound beauty of the Infantas by Velasquez in the Louvre; but for the pure magic of inspiration, is it not more delightful? … the portrait of Miss Alexander enchants with the harmony of colour, with the melody of composition.
Strangely original, a rare and unique thing, is this picture, yet we know whence it came, and may easily appreciate the influences that brought it into being. Exquisite and happy combination of the art of an entire nation and the genius of one man – the soul of Japan incarnate in the body of the immortal Spaniard.' 17
The rich and subtle colours, and the results of his study of Japanese art, the 'imperative necessity of selection' from Nature and from the model, were, said Moore, what distinguished Whistler's work. It was, Moore asserted, 'the culminating point of Mr. Whistler's art.' 18
In 1886 and 1887, Theodore Child (1846-1892) wrote praising Whistler's work while criticising his 'Ten o'clock Lecture':
'Here in Paris we only know Whistler the etcher of the Thames and of Venice, and Whistler the painter of "The White Girl," exhibited in the Salon of 1863, of the Japanese fantasie "On The Balcony," of "At the Piano," and of the portraits of Miss Alexander, of Thomas Carlyle, and of the artist's mother – half a dozen works which are as near masterpieces as anything which this century has produced.' 19
Whistler presumably liked the praise but, as usual, objected to the criticism. 20
1: Mr Whistler's Exhibition, Flemish Gallery, 48 Pall Mall, London, 1874 (cat. no. 5).
2: V Summer Exhibition, Grosvenor Gallery, London, 1881 (cat. no. 113).
4: Ouvrages de peinture, sculpture, architecture, gravure et lithographie des artistes vivants, 102nd exhibition, Salon de la Société des artistes français, Palais des Champs Elysées, Paris, 1884 (cat. no. 2454).
5: Exposition internationale de peinture et de sculpture, Société des XX, Brussels, 1884 (cat. no. 4). Whistler specified the exact title, ' "Arrangement en Gris et vert - Portrait de Mlle Alexandre" ', Whistler to C.W. Deschamps, [17 January 1884], GUW #07911.
6: III. Internationale Kunst-Ausstellung, Königlicher Glaspalast, Munich, 1888 (cat. no. 2454).
7: 1st exhibition, Society of Portrait Painters, London, 1891 (cat. no. 223).
8: Nocturnes, Marines & Chevalet Pieces, Goupil Gallery, London, 1892 (cat. no. 23).
9: Fair Children, Grafton Galleries, London, 1895 (cat. no. 207).
10: A Loan Collection of Modern Paintings, Leinster Hall, Dublin, 1899 (cat. no. 79).
11: Œuvres de James McNeill Whistler, Palais de l'Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris, 1905 (cat. no. 18).
12: 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. 32).
16: Huysmans 1889 [more] , pp. 68-69; partial translation, 'its broad finish makes it appear barely painted, and it lives an intense life of its own, just like a Velázquez, painted boldly with such beautiful impasto in a range of silver greys', in Spencer 1990 [more] , p. 76.
18: Ibid., pp. 14-15.
Last updated: 5th June 2021 by Margaret