The provenance of this painting is extensive but not comprehensive. In 1894-1895 Whistler's brother was not well and he and his wife were in serious financial straits. Whistler therefore offered to arrange the sale of this painting, and managed it successfully on their behalf. In a letter to D. C. Thomson on 10 October 1895, offering it for sale, Whistler wrote:
'I told Prange that the "Cottage" is worth at least 300 gs, but that I would take 250. gs. down. net. and that he could ask what more he liked - 3
Now this "Cottage" is as you must know a morsel that has been hitherto missed - It has never been exhibited - It is one of those things that the people who are buying the known Whistlers would jump at - It is in splendid condition - and probably the only "landscape"- not that promise to do no more -
Moreover there are conditions that may trouble you -
1st. It must be sold to Scotsman American German Frenchman whoever you please - but not to an Englishman -
2nd. There must be undertaking written to allow the picture to be exhibited in Paris at next years Champs de Mars - (or where I please) and in London -
Now if you will agree to these conditions, I will take 200 gs. down - net - and you can ask what you like. But I will not take a penny less -
Also, if you are not prepared to do this at once, I will be immensely obliged to you if you will give the picture over to Lauser, Garrick St. to be sent on immediately to Kennedy New York (Messrs. Wunderlich) - Lauser is his agent -- and this is what I told Prange - You and Prange must settle together - If he gives up the picture to you, it becomes I should suppose your affair -
I asked Prange if he saw his way to doing this business at once - & if not to send it on to Lauser -
However the upshot is that I will take 200 gs. down to me - under the above written conditions - or the picture must leave the Country.' 4
It is manifestly not true that Whistler had painted no other landscapes, even if most of the others painted in the 1880s and 1890s were on a smaller scale.
After the sale had been concluded, Whistler wrote again to his sister-in-law:
'Enclosed I send cheque - £210, two hundred guineas, for the little picture of Devonshire cottages you have had hanging in desperate loneliness at the top of the house for all these years -
Not so bad is it - especially as it is bought by Thomson of Goupils - picture dealer! - instantly on sight and the cheque paid down on the nail - and this under rather stringent conditions - one of which was that they undertake that the picture shall not be sold to an Englishman! -
You see the little [picture] up in the bedroom had really no frame to it and you cant really know anything of a painting without a frame - Besides it was lost in dirt! I washed it.' 5
He acknowledged Thomson's cheque ('I have received your very interesting letter and the cheque £210 - for the Devonshire Cottages - Blue & Silver') on 14 October. 6 He must, however, have demanded his pay in guineas for Thomson replied, 'I have not yet sold the 'Cottages' but that is not of any real consequence as we can wait. All the same if guineas you must have I will send the 5% more.' 7 A pound sterling was 20 shillings, a guineas, 21 shillings. To be paid in guineas was both more gentlemanly (tradesmen were paid in pounds) and profitable. And Whistler confirmed that he wanted his guineas, in a letter to D. C. Thomson, on 23 October:
'It isn't fair is it to spoil the look of my little guineas! - What do you think? Look here you have a splendid affair in the "Cottages" - and dont you be in a hurry about it - You will certainly sell it when your American Clients come over for four or five hundred at least - and if you keep it long enough for more.' 8
By 1902 the painting was in the collection of Alexander Young, who lent it to the Whistler Memorial Exhibition in London in 1905. 9
When it was exhibited by Messrs Dowdeswell in 1884, the Kensington News commented: 'How about the palette knife ... has it not played a heavy part?' 10 Whistler rarely used the palette knife to apply or work paint in the 1880s (although he had in the 1860s), and thus it stood out from the rest of the pictures exhibited both by its size and technique.
By the terms of C. L. Freer's bequest to the Freer Gallery of Art, the painting cannot be lent.
9: C. L. Freer, Diary, Bk 12, Freer Gallery Archives; 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. 86).
Last updated: 31st December 2020 by Margaret