The painting's provenance, as given above, is broadly accurate but the details, given below, reveal that it is complex and sometimes confusing.
In November 1878 Whistler stated that the portrait was in his possession. 1 The Pennells state that Charles Augustus Howell (1840?-1890) bought the portrait from Whistler, and imply that this was at the time of his bankruptcy (he was declared bankrupt in May 1879):
'The portrait was not a commission. It is said that Irving refused the small price Whistler asked for it, but later, seeing his legs sticking out from under a pile of canvases in a Wardour Street shop, recognised them and bought the picture for ten guineas. Mr. Bram Stoker writes that, at the time of the bankruptcy. Whistler sold it to Irving "for either twenty or forty pounds – I forget which." The facts are that Whistler sold the Irving to Howell, for "ten pounds and a sealskin coat," Howell recorded in his diary, and that from him it passed into the hands of Mr. Graves, the printseller in Pall Mall, who sold it to Irving for one hundred pounds. After Irving's death, it came up for sale at Christie's, and fetched five thousand pounds, becoming the property of Mr. Thomas, of Philadelphia.' 2
The Pennells' statement is confirmed in Whistler's bankruptcy papers in 1879, when James Waddell (1838-1892), the trustee, gave Howell permission to remove pictures from Whistler's studio, which Howell listed as including 'full length portrait of Henry Irving '. 3 The printseller Algernon Graves (1845-1922) wrote that it was 'sold at Mr. Howell's sale, after his death' to Sir Henry Irving, but the portrait does not appear in the Howell sale catalogue (Christie's, London, 13 November 1890). Furthermore, the firm of H. Graves & Co. had acquired the portrait by 1885. 4
In May of that same year, Whistler implied that he had the portrait and asked Irving for a few more sittings. 5 However, in August Whistler wrote to the artist William Merritt Chase (1849-1916) that he wanted to retrieve several paintings from Graves; these, according to Chase's biographer, K. M. Roof, included the portrait of Irving. 6
An alternative account derives from Louis Baury, who thought, wrongly, that Whistler had painted Irving in the role of Hamlet. Baury stated that Irving had told him:
'[Whistler] insisted ... upon disregarding both Hamlet and me and treating us simply as an "arrangement." It seemed to me that he made the Prince even more vague than some people seem to imagine the poet has drawn him, but because the portrait was what it was, and partly, too, because it was the work of a celebrated artist – I decided to buy it. Whistler named a price so exorbitant that I doubt if any one would have paid it. When I offered a more modest sum he became indignant ... about four months later I happened to be poking about an out-of-the-way art shop ... what should I come across but Whistler's portrait of me as Hamlet, lying face up on the floor ... the dealer ... named a price that was about one-quarter what I'd offered Whistler, and ... that portrait's hanging in my London home today.' 8
According to Charles Lang Freer (1856-1919), he 'had an opportunity to buy [the portrait] directly from Sir Henry Irving, but Mr. Whistler did not want to see Irving realize any considerable sum ... and ... requested me not to buy, although I could have secured it for almost nothing.' 9 After Irving's death it was offered, through London dealers, to C. L. Freer, but he was not interested, and it was sold at auction, where, Freer said, 'the price scared me off.' 10
After a rapturous reception, and frenzied bidding, it was sold at auction at Christie's on 16 December 1905 (lot 148) for 4800 guineas. 11 It was bought by Stevens & Brown on behalf of the attorney Abraham Howard Ritter of Philadelphia. 12 According to the American Art News, it was acquired by the banker, collector and philanthropist George Clifford Thomas, also of Philadelphia, in the following year. 13 After Thomas's death his heirs put it on exhibition at Blakeslee's sale galleries in New York in 1909, and in March 1910 C. L. Freer made an offer of £2500 for it, which was finally accepted on 14 April. 14 Freer then offered the portrait for the same price to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and after some consideration his offer was accepted. 15 By 20 May 1910 it was recorded as purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The review by Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) in 1877 affords an interesting insight into the appearance of the painting and the realism of the representation:
'No. 7 is called "Arrangement in Black No. 3," apparently some pseudonym for our greatest living actor, for out of black smudgy clouds comes looming the gaunt figure of Mr. Henry Irving, with the yellow hair and pointed beard, the ruff, short cloak, and tight hose in which he appeared as Philip II. in Tennyson’s play of Queen Mary. One hand is thrust into his breast and his legs are stuck wide apart, in a queer stiff position that Mr. Irving often adopts preparatory to one of his long wolf-like strides across the stage. The figure is life-size, and though apparently one-armed, is so ridiculously like the original that one cannot help almost laughing when one sees it. And we may imagine that anyone who had the misfortune to be shut up at night in the Grosvenor Gallery would hear this "Arrangement in Black No. 3" murmuring, in the well-known Lyceum accents –
“By St. James, I do protest / Upon the faith and honour of a Spaniard,/ I am vastly grieved to leave your Majesty./ Simon, is supper ready?” ' 16
The Times enquired 'One would like to know how the actor likes being reduced to a mere arrangement.' and added, 'Mr Whistler's full-length arrangements suggest to us a choice between materialized spirits and figures in a London fog.' 17
Because it was among exhibits at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877, it was discussed during the Ruskin-Whistler trial in 1878, when Whistler, possibly to avoid criticism, described it as 'a large impression – a sketch ... not intended as a finished picture. It was not exhibited as for sale.' 18 Albert Joseph Moore (1841-1893) stated in an affidavit, 'Although he has painted better things than the portrait of the actor both before & since, the picture still possesses, in common with all his work, many fine & instructive qualities.' 19
The unflattering opinion of Whistler's paintings expressed by Henry James (1843-1916) in 1877 – that they had 'no relation whatever to life; they have only relation to painting' – was considerably modified twenty years later when he remarked on Irving's portrait as an 'exquisite image' having 'the charm of a certain degree of melancholy meditation.' 20
It was hung in the Beefsteak Club in Irving's Lyceum Theatre, according to Irving. 21
The photograph reproduced above shows the portrait in a major exhibition in the Cartwright Memorial Hall, Bradford, where it dominates a roomful of much smaller scale works, probably Whistler's etchings and lithographs, which formed an important part of the show. 22
3: 21 August 1879, GUW #02852. Stoker, inaccurately, stated that Irving bought it directly from Whistler's studio at the time of his bankruptcy, Stoker, Bram, Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving, 2 vols., London, 1906, vol. 1, pp. 151-52.
8: Baury, Louis, 'The Story of the Tile Club', Bookman, vol. 35, 1912, p. 389.
9: Freer to W. K. Bixby, 25 April 1910, Freer Gallery Archives.
10: Copies of telegrams from Freer to 'Imagery' and Obach, 28 November 1905, Freer to W. K. Bixby, 4 August 1909, Letterbook vol. 18, Freer Gallery Archives.
11: 'Sir H. Irving's Relics', London Evening Standard, London, 7 December 1905, p. 9; London Evening Standard, London, 18 December 1905, p. 9; 'American takes Whistler's Portrait of Irving', Western Times, 19 December 1905, p. 6.
12: Stevens & Brown to Ritter, 22 December 1905, Metropolitan Museum Archives.
14: Freer to R. Birnie Philip, 15 April 1910, GUL Whistler BP III 4115.
15: Freer to Bixby, 25 April 1910, Freer Gallery Archives; Freer to R. Birnie Philip, 5 April and 29 June 1910, GUL Whistler BP III 4/15, 16.
17: 'The Grosvenor Gallery', The Times, London, 1 May 1877, p. 10.
20: James, Henry, 'The Grosvenor Gallery and the Royal Academy', The Nation, vol. 24, 31 May 1877, pp. 320-21; James, Henry, 'London, June 1st 1897', Harper's Weekly, vol. 41, 26 June 1897, pp. 639-40.
Last updated: 7th June 2021 by Margaret