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

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Scherzo in Blue: The Blue Girl

Scherzo in Blue: The Blue Girl probably dates from between 1882 and 1884. 1

According to Thomas Robert Way (1861-1913), it was painted at some time after Whistler returned from Venice in 1880. 2

                Scherzo in Blue: The Blue Girl, photograph
Scherzo in Blue: The Blue Girl, photograph

However, Edith Emma Marzetti (1865-1924) said that her sister, Maud Mary Waller (1862-1942), began posing in 1882:

'the sittings commenced in the early part of 1882. We went two or three times, and then Whistler painted the face out, as it was not to his liking, although most people thought it excellent. In those days Maud was very beautiful. The painting was started on a canvas that already had a figure on it, and it was turned upside down, and the Blue Girl's head painted in between the legs. The dress was made by Mme. Alias, the theatrical costumier, to Whistler's design, and I believe cost a good deal. In the end the picture was finished from another model (I do not know who).' 3

Sarah, the wife of Charles Alias (b. ca 1853-d. 1921), was the costumier mentioned in this letter.

On 2 May 1882 Alan Summerly Cole (1846-1934) noted in his diary that Whistler was 'painting his "Blue Girl". Eldon [sic] there - as a kind of claque, calling out "splendid" on each of Jimmy's strokes and touches on canvas.' 4 He meant Matthew Robinson Elden (1839-1885) who frequented Whistler's studio.

In an undated letter Whistler apologised to the sitter's mother, Emma Waller, 'that this week I ... have to devote myself to my other work and have to put off the delight of painting the pretty Maud - for it is a delight.' 5 He also wrote to Edith, the sitter's sister, blaming Walter Richard Sickert (1860-1942) for some mistake (which Sickert said was 'a libel'), and suggesting 2 pm for a sitting. 6 Sickert later stated he had 'painted a sketch of the Blue Girl, actually taking the mixtures off Whistler's palette.' 7 This oil has not been located but Sickert painted a small watercolour, Whistler's studio, of Maud in a blue dress standing on a dais before a blue curtain. This watercolour shows Maud posing at right, the full-length framed painting to left, and Whistler's table palette in the left foreground. The painting is tilted forward, and behind it there is a fireplace. 8

The sitter's uncle, Pickford Robert Waller (1849-1930), remembered that 'when the portrait was halfway through it was put aside, but it was sent to the Grosvenor Gallery for the private view and taken away directly after.' 9 It was exhibited, very briefly, at the VI Summer Exhibition, Grosvenor Gallery, London, 1882 (cat. no. 67). 10 Whistler may well have worked on it after the show. Then in 1884 it was shown at 'Notes' - 'Harmonies' - 'Nocturnes', Messrs Dowdeswell, London, 1884 (cat. no. 31). According to Mortimer Luddington Menpes (1860-1938), at the press view 'Whistler was still attempting to repaint the mouth.' 11

According to Pickford Waller,

'I think it was nearly two years after that Whistler wanted to resume work on it, but my niece had in the meantime grown so rapidly that she could not get into the costume ... The portrait was never finished and a new model and a fresh canvas was started for the blue girl now known. What became of the original I never knew.' 12

About 1886 Whistler twice listed a 'Blue Girl' among his pictures, but it is not absolutely sure that he meant this one. 13


1: '1880' according to YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 226).

2: Way 1912 [more] , p. 30.

3: Quoted by Pennell 1908 [more] , vol. 1, pp. 303-05.

4: Ms copies, GUW #13132, and, with variations, GUW #03432.

5: [1882/1884], GUW #10073.

6: Whistler to E. E. Marzetti, [1883/1884], GUW #09592; Sickert to E. E. Marzetti, GUW #11338.

7: Sickert, Walter, 'L'Affaire Greaves', New Age, 15 June 1911, pp. 159-60, at p. 160; W. Sickert 2000 [more] , p. 284.

8: Watercolour and gouache, 20.5 cm square, sold at Christie's, South Kensington, 14 July 2016 (lot 47) dated ca 1884. See also Baron 1973 [more] , watercolour by Sickert, pp. 13 (n. 13), 298 (12).

9: Waller to Pennell, 19 November 1906, LC PC.

10: Pennell 1908, op. cit., vol. 1, pp. 303-05.

11: Menpes 1904 A [more] , pp. 116-17.

12: Waller to Pennell, op. cit.

13: Note on letter to the Hoboken Etching Club, [May/December 1886], GUW #07432; Whistler to D.C. Thomson, [1886], formerly dated [4/11 January 1892], GUW #06795.

Last updated: 31st December 2020 by Margaret