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

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Alice Butt (1)

Provenance

  • 1900: with Alexander Reid (1854-1928) , Glasgow art dealer;
  • 1903: sold by Durand-Ruel, Paris, to their branch in New York, 9 January 1903;
  • 1903: bought by Frank Gair Macomber (1849-1941) , Boston;
  • 1941: passed by family descent to his daughter Isabella Ogden Reed Macomber (Mrs Charles F. Lyman) (b. ca 1880, m. 1899) , and subsequently to her daughter Elizabeth L. Robb, Mrs J. Hampden Robb (1901-1987) ;
  • 1970: auctioned by her, Christie's, London, 11 December 1970 (lot 162) 'Une Jeune Fille des rues', bought in by Sieff at 10,000 guineas;
  • By 1972: passed to Mrs Robb's daughter, Mrs Jackson, and to her son, William H. Jackson (dates unknown) , Washington, DC;
  • 1978: sold by him to Petersen Galleries, CA, on 1 September 1978;
  • 1980: still with Petersen Galleries;
  • Date unknown: sold to a private collector.

According to Frank Gair Macomber (as reported by a later owner, his daughter, Mrs J. H. Robb), the portrait had been given by Whistler to Théodore Duret (1838-1927) , Paris, in 1883, but the technique and butterfly signature suggest it was painted later, in the mid-1890s. 1 The painting was reproduced by Duret in his book on Whistler in 1904, but there is no proof that he owned it, and indeed this clashes with documentary evidence on the provenance. 2

Although the sequence of events is by no means clear it seems that Whistler thought Carmen Rossi (b. ca 1878 had removed canvasses from his Paris studio and these had gone to 'Hessel' or 'Hessell' and 'Bernheim' – probably Charles Hessele (fl. 1892-1914), and Alexandre Bernheim (1839-1915) or Gaston Bernheim-Jeune (1870-1953) – and thence to the Glasgow art dealer Alexander Reid (1854-1928). All this was conjecture on Whistler's part: he lacked proof and was hampered by his fondness for Carmen Rossi.

Alexander Reid may have sent this portrait on approval to the London dealers, Goupil's, where it was probably the 'Young Girl's head' on exhibition in March 1900. 3 John James Cowan (1846-1936) later confirmed this, telling Whistler: 'I think the other "Alice Butt" may have been sent by Reid to Goupils on approval & that it had come back from London when I saw it.' 4 He described it as a duplicate of his portrait of the same sitter, Alice Butt (2) [YMSM 438]. The web becomes increasingly tangled!

Whistler confirmed the existence of the two similar portraits as follows:

'Alice Butt - No. 1.

painted in Chelsea -

Taken from Studio Paris - stolen

Bought by Cowan - from Reid - Spring 1900 - who paid £450. - See Cowans letter

Alice Butt - No. 2.' 5

Whistler asserted that two paintings bought by Cowan, Alice Butt (2) [YMSM 438] and Study of a Girl's Head [YMSM 487], had been stolen from his studio, and Cowan replied:

'I surrender unconditionally and have sent the two girls to your camp, where I hope they will meet with considerate treatment!

… I gladly send you the pictures for this may the better help you to put a stop to any wrongdoing.

I do so knowing that you will protect my interests as well as your own as far as you can. I shall be curious to know if I have been in possession of stolen property ... I have seen another head very similar to the large one - the same model and pose, but slightly different in treatment. &c.' 6

In his reply, Whistler urged Cowan to buy the other picture from Reid at his expense, and added, regarding the two pictures just returned by Cowan:

'the large one - is a study I painted in Chelsea - a little child called "Alice Butt." - charming - quite Italian in type -

I had it, with scores of others, in my studio in Paris -

It has not only been stolen, but it has been painted upon! - that is, cleaned up, as who should say, and put in selling order by the artist of the people who are carrying on this excellent business! ... and, I must say, not without a certain sense of respectful appreciation on his part! as I will show you.' 7

However, Cowan was not keen to buy the second head:

'It would hardly do for me to purchase it, for it was so very like the one I have sent you, Reid would wonder at my buying it. ...

The duplicate of my one turned up in November.

... It is caution on your behalf that prevents my writing him. I gave him £450 for the larger head, & he said to me "I don't want W. to know about it."! Or he may have put it that the man from whom they came didn't wish you to know.

... the impression I undoubtedly formed was that the late owner was some friend of your's who didn't wish you to know that he had parted with what he might have bought from you!

... The large head I am not surprised to hear has been repainted. ...

I think the other "Alice Butt" may have been sent by Reid to Goupils on approval & that it had come back from London when I saw it.' 8

It appears that the Paris art dealer Alexandre Bernheim had gained possession of three paintings, The Girl in Red [YMSM 312], Alice Butt (1) [YMSM 437], and Violet and Blue: The Red Feather [YMSM 503]. It is not at all certain that the pictures had actually been stolen.

Whistler drafted a letter to Cowan explaining that the portrait of Alice Butt had been traced and legal proceedings started:

'the second "Alice Butt" - that is the head like the one you purchased - we have arrested, and so forced Reid to take action!

He has served a writ on the dealer here to whom he had sent the picture to be shown a client - and this dealer will withdraw from the contest by interpleader, and so leave Mr Reid to attack me which is where we wait for him!' 9

Whistler still wanted Cowan to write to challenge Reid on the sale:

'Most of these defective & purloined pictures have passed through Reid's hands - though of course he may be quite square himself! ... you now will write immediately & say that Mr Whistler declares both the pictures Mr Reid has sold to you to have been taken from his studio without his knowledge or consent - He claims them as his own property - and says moreover that they have been tampered with & painted upon - and that you cannot & will not for a moment entertain such a condition of things!' 10

The artist hoped that his lawyer could trap Carmen Rossi into admitting a connection with Hessele, but he failed to do so. A letter explaining the complexities of the case to his lawyer reads as follows:

'Carmens attitude is as I pointed out exactly what was to be expected

She probably believes that we were convinced by her decided statement of the second day, though in direct contradiction to her first declaration. I did not question or deny her assertion so as to give her full play and she certainly went the full length of her rope

There you have the limited cunning of the peasant in her for had she been an old hand or a more gifted criminal she might have thrown over Hessel, but had she stuck to her first admission that Monsr never had allowed these canvases to go out of the Studio in such a condition she would have been quite safe for Hessel could never give her away now, he never could say "why you brought them to me yourself"? - for he has written that he received them direct from my own hands with date and circumstances so that he is tied up for ever. - Doubtless Hessel had frightened her in some way and on her return she would hasten to report to Hessel that it was "allright" ... that her story had been swallowed ... right here ... is our first failure ... for your clerk missed the next morning tracing Carmen to Hessel ... and I had relied on it!

Now in my opinion we can leave both Carmen & Hessel where they are for the present. The action you see is not being brought by me at all. ... Mr Reid is in a manner forced to bring an action against me for stopping one of these canvases which he bought from Bernheim & Bernheim is Hessell. Master Hessell will have to appear in Court here as a witness for Reid. To be cross-examined by us & Carmen [whom] he will probably bring over to testify for him ... there is no question of Paris trial either civil or criminal. ... If you have got that commission examination which Mr Kelly said was easy to obtain then you will have achieved what we want as far as Hessel is concerned. Has Carmen given you the details of her hypothecating the portrait? Is her confession to us? As I have told you I want to know where it is & that I can get it back.' 11

According to Edward Guthrie Kennedy (1849-1932), the Paris dealer Bernheim – Alexandre Bernheim (1839-1915) or Gaston Bernheim-Jeune (1870-1953) – then threatened to sue Whistler for slander and forced Whistler to give up his attempt to retrieve the pictures. Kennedy's explanation is hardly flattering to Whistler:

'à propos of Carmen & picture stealing from the Studio. Of course, the whole was entirely imaginary, ... I mean that the man must have some excitement & he seized on the unfinished pictures which he had disposed of when hard up, to make it. But an icily polite note from the picture dealer Bernheim in Paris made him drop "impounding" pictures, as he had done in Forbes's case.

He was told that B. had paid Hessele for it the picture, that it came from his W's studio, that he had sold it & been paid for it, & that they would bring an action for damages for slander at once unless the picture was released &c. &c. It was released, but W. was careful not to mention this to anyone. He went on however making accusations against anyone or everyone who might happen to have anything of his to dispose of.

Next year the matter was never heard of, the "organised conspiracy" being a Chimera, maybe fostered by that stupid Webb.

... The facts are, that Whistler when pressed for money several years before this (1901), sold to Hessell from time to time a number of incomplete Canvasses. When, afterwards, they turned up in London, (some of them) one at McLean's (sold to Forbes) and one at Marchant's in Regent St. (Goupil's formerly) he noticed how incomplete they were & said that they were incomplete, stolen, &c. but Bernheim stopped that very quickly by threatening to bring suit for slander.' 12

After this the provenance of the painting becomes marginally clearer. It was sent by Durand-Ruel, Paris art dealers, to their branch in New York on 8 January 1903 (it bears their label on the verso) and bought from them by F. G. Macomber, Boston (however, Macomber thought he had bought it in 1902). It was lent by Mrs F. G. Macomber to the Boston Whistler memorial exhibition in 1904. It then passed by family descent to Mrs J. Hampden Robb. After it failed to sell at Christie's in 1970 it passed to Mrs Robb's daughter, Mrs Jackson, and to her son, William H. Jackson, Washington, DC. He lent it to Princeton University Museum in 1972 and sold it to the Petersen Galleries on 1 September 1978.

Exhibitions

  • 1900: possibly Spring Exhibition, Goupil Gallery, London, 1900.
  • 1904: 73rd Annual Exhibition, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, 1904 (cat. no. 29) as 'Une Jeune Fille des Rues'.
  • 1904: Oil Paintings, Water Colors, Pastels and Drawings: Memorial Exhibition of the Works of Mr. J. McNeill Whistler, Copley Society, Boston, 1904 (cat. no. 29) as 'Une Jeune Fille des Rues, 1878-1887'.

It may have been the 'Young Girl's head' on exhibition at Goupil's in March 1900, at which time Whistler complained that he should have been told about the exhibition, 'The proceeding is most unusual - and the fact of your not even sending me a catalogue, would seem to intimate that you yourself feel it to be so!' 13

Notes:

1: Elizabeth L. Robb (Mrs J. Hampden Robb) to A. McL. Young, [1960], GUL WPP files.

2: Duret 1904 [more] , repr. p. 89.

3: Whistler to W. Marchant, [25 March 1900], GUW #04237.

4: 5 July 1901, GUW #00748.

5: Note by Whistler, [March/May 1900], GUW #12717.

6: 30 June 1901, GUW #00745.

7: 2-4 July [1901], GUW #00746.

8: 5 July 1901, GUW #00748.

9: [26/30 October 1901], GUW #00749.

10: [25/30 October [1901], GUW #00751.

11: Incomplete draft, Whistler to Oliver E. Bodington, 12 November 1901, GUW #00317.

12: September 1903, GUW #09875. This is a commentary on a letter dating from the autumn of 1901, when Whistler was in the midst of what he called 'an organised conspiracy', Whistler to E. G. Kennedy, GUW #09822.

13: Whistler to W. Marchant, [25 March 1900], GUW #04237.

Last updated: 5th June 2021 by Margaret