According to Colby, Alexander refused an offer of £10,000 from a collector in America in 1913. 1
1874: Mr Whistler's Exhibition.
The York Herald on 9 June 1874 described it as 'the most beautiful work in the collection', among fifty works in the show by the 'universally admired' Mr. Whistler.
It was among the first paintings by Whistler to be compared with the work of Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velázquez (1599-1660). Whistler had occasion to write to one art critic:
'Permit me to reassure him, for the paintings he speaks of in glowing terms - notably "the full-length portrait of a young girl," which he overwhelms me by comparing to Velasquez, as well as the two life-size portraits in black, "in which there is an almost entire negation of colour" (though I, who am, he says, a colourist, did not know it) - are my latest works, and but just completed.' 2
Sidney Starr (1857-1925) quotes an exchange between Whistler and Tom Taylor, the art critic of The Times, regarding the portrait, possibly in 1874:
'[Taylor] remarked that the upright line in the panelling of the wall was wrong, and the picture would be better without it, adding, "Of course it's a matter of taste". To which Whistler replied, "I thought that perhaps for once, you were going to get away without having said anything foolish; but remember, so that you may not make the mistake again, it's not a matter of taste at all, it is a matter of knowledge. Good-by." ' 3
1881: The Grosvenor Gallery.
Critics continued to reference Velasquez: The Athenaeum, for instance, praised it as follows:
'There is at least one memorable example painted by Velasquez in the fashion which has been happily and powerfully illustrated in the life-size, whole-length portrait of Miss Alexander (113), a thoroughly artistic and scientific exercise in white, olive green, "gold," and grey, with black accents. The apposition of the grey felt hat and white muslin dress, which is itself a grey, is but one of many good points in this picture.' 4
A drawing, Sketch of 'Harmony in Grey and Green: Miss Cicely Alexander' [M.0843], reproduced above, was probably drawn at the time of the exhibition of the painting at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1881. A second pen drawing, Sketch of 'Harmony in Grey and Green: Miss Cicely Alexander' [M.0845], signed with a butterfly and 'J McN W', was reproduced in Society on 11 June 1881.
A less flattering image was that of Harry Furniss (1854-1925), whose little cartoon in Punch showed the portrait of a girl with dark face and hands, and bushy hair, with beetles crawling on the wall; it was entitled 'Whistler's "Early Mourning" Advertisement Picture; or, "A Thing of Beauty is a Jay for ever!" ' 5
1884: Brussels and Paris
Throughout Whistler's career Alexander was a tolerant and generous patron. Asked to lend the portrait to Brussels, he replied: 'There never was it seems to me a young ladie's [sic] portrait so often from home and her frame is already shabby & dirty from her tours but she shall go on the round again as you so very much desire it, and will take all care, and see to the insurance.' 6 Whistler then asked Charles William Deschamps (1848-1908) to arrange the loan, 'This you will have properly rubbed up with silk handkerchief etc. and finally pack and send to the Société des XX Brussels.' 7 Whistler assured Alexander it had been well received, 'Do you follow at all the splendid success of Miss Cissie abroad? - too delightful!' 8 Recognising the Old Master association, on 17 June 1884 Indépendence Belge commented, 'Le portrait de Miss Alexander est celui d'un infante de Vélasquez élevée sur les bords de la Tamise, fleur de brouillard.' 9
The painting went straight on to the Salon, where again it was well received. Joseph Edgar Boehm (1834-1890) remarked that he kept returning to 'old Carlyle & the sweet girl in grey, to cleanse my eyes & then home - & old Heilbuth I could have hugged when he said - "Das Einzige dort ist Der Whistlers!["]' 10 For Brussels in 1884 it was insured for 300 guineas, and for Munich in 1888, for £1000. 11
On the verso of a letter from Robert Koehler (1850-1917) of the American Artists' Club, Munich, begging Whistler to exhibit with his 'illustrious countrymen', Whistler sketched various objects, Fireplace and flowers, pattern and paintings [M.1168], including the portrait of Cicely. 12 Whistler used the argument that 'Mr Alexander makes no objection to my sending the full length life size portrait of his daughter', to try and persuade another patron – probably Alfred Chapman (1839-1917) – to lend to the Munich exhibition. 13
Whistler managed to get together a substantial group: thirteen oils, twenty watercolours, seven pastels and thirty etchings. He told Koehler that he was willing to have these hung in the American section if there were guarantees they would be properly shown, and furthermore, 'If ... you think it fair to my American Contempories that I should thus overrun your walls.' 14 But when Whistler finally told them how much wall-space his works would require, there was simply not enough room, so it was decided to hang them in the British section, organised by the painter Fritz Georg Papperitz (1846-1918) and Adolf Paulus (1851-1924), business manager of the Künstlergenossenschaft. 15 Whistler's success at the exhibition was marked with honours, as he told W. C. Alexander, while at the same time begging – unsuccessfully as it turned out – for it to be lent again, to the Exposition Universelle, Champs de Mars, Paris, 1889:
'Miss Cicey's portrait is here now ... and [has] brought me back all sorts of honours from the thoughtless ones Abroad!
They have made me Hon. Member of the Royal Academy of Bavaria - and conferred upon me the Cross of St Michael ...
All of which you have delighted in and helped to bring about! - How shall I really ever thank you! - ... I want your help again - Yet I scarcely venture to ask! - but does it not seem absurd that the great Exposition Internationale should be without the beautiful little White & Grey Lady?' 16
1892: The frame was cleaned and regilded by Frederick Henry Grau (1859-1892) in March 1892, and the painting was cleaned and varnished by Stephen Richards (1844-1900), after which Whistler wrote asking David Croal Thomson (1855-1930) to approach W. C. Alexander about lending it to Whistler's one-man exhibition at Goupil's.
'I think you might go yourself and see Mr. Alexander- (Aubrey House) and ask him if, now that the large portrait of his daughter is cleaned and varnished, he will not be pleased to let you have it for the short space of four weeks - so that the people may see it in its splendid condition - and propose that he himself would like to see it there, now that it is so much envied.' 17
The Alexanders gave their consent. 18 Whistler then asked to see the their collection of press cuttings, from which he planned to select unfavourable reviews of ' "Ciceys" portrait' to publish in the Goupil catalogue, as he told the sitter's mother: 'what I asked for is all the vituperation and execration of the press at the time of its exhibition, of which you have so complete a collection.' 19 The painting was undoubtedly highly regarded by this time. Thomson himself reported to Beatrice Philip (Mrs E. W. Godwin, Mrs J. McN. Whistler) (1857-1896):
'First it must be recorded that the Exhibition is a great & legitimate artistic success. To those who have eyes to see, & fortunately they are increasing in number, the collection is the most notable event that has taken place in London for many many years & it will stand out for all future times as one of the epochs of art in this country.
... At the end of the gallery are the Miss Alexander[,] Battersea Bridge & Chelsea Battersea reach being on each side[.] The Miss Alexander is the most masterly work of all the collection & comment is useless before it. That it would & will take its place as one of the great portraits of the world there is not the least doubt.' 20
Despite it being 'useless' the press did comment. The Graphic described 'the charming picture of Miss Alexander in seventeenth century costume' as showing 'clearly the influence of Velasquez', and The Queen also commented on the old-fashioned (though not several centuries old) appearance of the painting, 'looking as if it had been painted a hundred years ago'. 21
1893-1894: A further loan of the portrait was suggested to Edward Guthrie Kennedy (1849-1932) and Edwin Austin Abbey (1852-1911) for the World's Columbian Exposition, Department of Fine Arts, Chicago, 1893, but the owner did not, apparently, agree. 22
Seeing it at the Guildhall in 1894, the Times described Whistler as among the 'newer men' compared to the Pre-Raphaelites (which must have amused the 50 year old painter), and praised the portrait as 'a delightful harmony in gray and silver, an absolutely unaffected portrait of a child'. 23 The American art dealer Edward Guthrie Kennedy (1849-1932), who probably saw it at the Guildhall, commented courageously:
'I set out merely to express my admiration for your masterly portrait of Miss Alexander. I take off my hat Sir, & salute you. It is a great piece of painting & most lovely in Colour and arrangement. Don't explode now, and say "They are all like that". They're not. All Whistler's are fine or interesting, but some are better than others & this is one of them.' 24
1898: 'Grey & Green Miss Alexander' is included in a list of paintings for the Vereinigung Bildender Künstler Österreichs, Vienna, 1898: it is not clear if this is a definitive list or a wish list, but if the portrait of Cicely was included in the show, it was certainly not in the catalogue. 25
1899: Harmony in Grey and Green: Miss Cicely Alexander had a busy year. It was sent to Dublin, where a local newspaper commented, 'The little girl ... is, of course, enchanting, in colour, pose, painting—everything'. 26 It may have been at this time that it was seen and sketched by the Irish painter, Walter Frederick Osborne (1859-1903). 27
The owner of the portrait, W. C. Alexander, while usually supportive of Whistler, objected to withdrawing the portrait from exhibition in Dublin, in order to lend it to the III Esposizione Internazionale d'Arte della Città di Venezia, Venice, 1899. 28 In an attempt to persuade him, Whistler exaggerated the negativity of early reviews of the portrait, comparing them with recent complimentary reviews of the portrait of her sister, Miss May Alexander [YMSM 127], and wrote to Alexander:
'Do you suppose the comic grovelling this year before her sister's portrait, barely begun, wipes away poor little Miss Cissie's tears, and her Father's blank looks at the coarse ribaldry and vile abuse that was brayed throughout the land where her own beautiful picture was shown?' 29
Apparently the Mayor of Venice himself begged the Committee to withdraw the portrait from the Dublin Art Loan Exhibition and send it to Venice, but this was said to be impossible. 30 It is not entirely clear if it did eventually travel to Venice, but it is not in the catalogue.
In 1899, when Whistler was President of the ISSPG, he wrote to John Lavery (1856-1941) asking for both recent and early reviews of the portrait of Cicely Alexander to be included in the catalogue entry for his recent portrait of a young girl, Rose and Gold: The Little Lady Sophie of Soho [YMSM 504]:
'To come after 138 in Catalogue
Times of today: ... "The vanished hand which drew the 'Symphony in White' and 'Miss Alexander' " -
Times of the moment of the "Symphony in White" and "Miss Alexander" - :
"His portrait of Miss Alexander is certainly one of the strangest and most excentric [sic] specimens of portraiture. ... We should imagine he had merely made a sketch and left it, before the colours were dry, in a room where the chimney sweep's are were at work ..."
"A child's portrait ... uncompromisingly vulgar." -
"Before such pictures as the full length portraits by Mr Whistler, critic and spectator are alike puzzled! ..... After all, there are certain canons about what constitutes good drawing, good colour, and good painting, and when an artist deliberately sets himself to ignore or violate all of these, it is desirable that his work should not be classed with that of ordinary artists." (sic!) The Times.
"Other Times, other lines!" ' 31
Lavery was the patient and efficient secretary of the ISSPG during Whistler's Presidency, and he acknowledged the influence of Whistler's portrait on his painting, Her First Communion (1901, National Gallery of Ireland). Kenneth McConkey, in his excellent discussion of Lavery's portrait, quotes Lavery's account of an evening when Whistler viewed this painting
'looking at a portrait of a little girl in white – certainly influenced by his Miss Alexander he remarked that the white frock was too high in key for the flesh tone and asking for some charcoal he rubbed it in the hollow of his hand, then rubbing his finger in this proceeded to tone the white paint on the picture in the most delicate manner possible.' 32
The charcoal has not survived, and there is no proof of any alteration made to Lavery's painting, one of several showing the influence of the portrait of Cicely. Margaret Helen Sowerby (known as Helen Sowerby) (1882, National Galleries of Scotland) by James Guthrie (1859-1930) is an earlier example of the pervading influence of the portrait of Cicely Alexander, while Lavery's Alice Fulton (ca 1900, Paisley Museum and Art Galleries) and The White Queen (ca 1901, private collection), as well as Cathleen (1907, National Gallery of Ireland) by William Orpen (1878-1931) are among several later works influenced by Whistler's portrait, and cited by McConkey. 33
1905: Harmony in Grey and Green: Miss Cicely Alexander was one of the paintings in the Whistler memorial exhibition in Paris that was recommended by Antonin Proust (1832-1905) to his mother. 34 Proust had met Whistler once, probably through Robert de Montesquiou-Fezensac (1855-1921). In 1906 (the year after the memorial show), Proust started to write À la recherche du temps perdu in which the character 'Elstir' was in part inspired by Whistler.
2: Whistler to the Editor of The Hour, 10 June 1874, GUW #11384. 'Mr Whistler's Pictures', The Hour, 11 June 1874, p. 7; reprinted in Whistler 1890 [more] , pp. 47-48, under the heading ' "Confidences" with an Editor.'
5: Anon., 'The G. G. G., or Grosvenor Gallery Guide,' Punch, 25 June 1881, vol. 80, p. 300.
9: Translation: 'The portrait of Miss Alexander is that of a Vélasquez Infanta (princess) brought up on the banks of the Thames, a flower of fog.'
21: 'Mr Whistler's Works', The Graphic, 26 March 1892, p. 26; 'Mr. Whistler's Pictures, The Queen, 26 March 1892, p. 38.
23: 'The Guildhall Pictures', The Times, London, 2 April 1894, p. 11.
26: Dublin Daily Express, Dublin, 22 April 1899, p. 3.
28: Whistler to W. C. Alexander, [9/16 February 1899], GUW #07568, and [17 March 1899], GUW #07569; see also Whistler to F. Grimani,  February , GUW #09500; A. Fradeletto to Whistler, 15 March 1899, GUW #05954; Whistler to Alexander, [17 March 1899], GUW #07569; an undated note written in Venice by C. L. Freer, says 'Portrait of Miss Alexander ... will not come', [April/May 1899], GUW #11696.
30: 'Dublin Art Loan Exhibition. An Appeal from the Mayor of Venice', Dublin Daily Nation, Dublin, 31 March 1899, p. 5.
32: Unpublished MS, 1924 Diary, private collection, quoted in McConkey, Kenneth, 'No tampering, no faking, no artifice. Her First Communion by John Lavery', The British Art Journal, vol. 21, no. 1, Spring 2020, pp. 54-59, at p. 54.
33: McConkey 2020, op. cit.
34: [13 or 14 June 1905], quoted by Painter, George D. (ed.), Marcel Proust - Letters to his mother, London, 1956.
Last updated: 5th June 2021 by Margaret