In October 1895, when the portrait was on exhibition with the Society of Portrait Painters, Whistler told David Croal Thomson (1855-1930) of Goupil's, 'The little head in The Gallery is a beauty! - I shall want a pretty cheque for that let me tell you - and "no Britisher need apply"!' 1 He urged several people to see it: Joseph Pennell (1860-1926) liked it and John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) thought it 'charming.' 2 Whistler told David Croal Thomson (1855-1930), 'It is a beauty - and when two or three years have gone over it the people will begin to see it - like all the rest.' 3
Whistler, desperate for money, because of the expenses incurred in treating his wife's serious illness, sent the portrait through Thomson to his principal art dealer in New York, Edward Guthrie Kennedy (1849-1932) of Wunderlich & Co., offering to sell it outright for 250 guineas:
'you will have received a head ... called "A Crimson Note, Carmen" - an oil painting marked on the invoice at £299 - with one pound for the frame - It was exhibited here at the New Gallery this autumn and made a good deal of noise - Send for Stanford White first and show it to him - He was most anxious to see it - for MacMonnies had told him all about it - He probably will see that it is bought - You ought to like it - It is a fine Whistler - a lovely colour -
Of course get a glass for it, first, and dust and polish the painting with a beautiful old soft silk handkerchief - You know - You ought to get me 300 guineas for it - & you to have 10. per cent. as usual - or under these circumstances ... I will take 250 gs. down - & you shall ask what you like for the picture.' 4
On 18 February 1896 Kennedy replied without much enthusiasm: 'I'll try a shy at the museum with the La Petrolleuse - Carmen. I'd hate to meet her on a dark night, to tell you the truth. She is the most cut-throat looking person I've seen for many a day. Good painting though.' 5 Whistler then reduced the price to £200 in hopes of a quick sale. 6 Kennedy explained that he had tried to persuade A. A. Pope to buy it:
'I was in hope that by this post I might report the Sale of the painting to Mr. Pope (Carmen), but at the last moment he says that the painting is not finished, it is not signed and it is a disagreable [sic] subject. I offered to let him have it, subject to exchange for some thing he might like better, so that is how matters stand at present. He may reconsider it, but it is doubtful. It certainly is a most unpleasant subject, and as long as you were sending something, you might have sent a more agreable [sic] female than the Petroleuse, and, at any rate, signed it.' 7
Whistler asked if Kennedy could send him £200, keeping the portrait of Carmen 'as a sort of guarantee.' 8 Kennedy commented that ' "Carmen" ' was 'a powerful study, but not finished and not signed. If it had been signed, I'm almost sure that Mr. Pope 'might have bought it.' 9 Stanford White (1853-1906) complained that it showed the young woman as an older, mature woman. 10 Whistler eventually replied to the criticisms:
'Now about "Carmen" -
So you think her a disagreeable young person do you! Well I suppose she had better come back - We had rather a fancy for her in Paris - where she was believed to be a rare piece of work! Well - "autres gens" - you know -
And Mr. Pope ...thinks the gipsy Carmen, with her eyes alive, incomplete - and "unsigned"! - And you couldn't help him to see the broad Butterfly on her sleeve! - It is too big! - that's all O K - right across the arm - as though worked in the dress - Never mind - Send her back.' 11
Kennedy replied 'No, I did not see the Signature on Carmen which I am going to send to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where it may be productive of good.' 12 Pope then took the portrait to his house in Cleveland, where, Kennedy commented, 'I hope he will find enough resolution to keep it.' 13 Months later, in September, Kennedy wrote 'I thought that I had sold your "Carmen" again for £300 /- /- … but it seems people buy pictures nowadays to suit the spaces or lights in their houses.' 14 On 14 November 1896 Kennedy tried to negotiate a deal with Whistler to obtain several pictures, offering '£270 /- /- for the much talked of "Carmen" which I expect to sell.' 15 Finally A. A. Pope did buy the picture, and on 31 December H. Wunderlich & Co., reported to the artist that they had sold it. 16 Kennedy noted that 'I sent him a cheque for £1200/-/- that is £900/-/- for Sarasate and 270/-/- for Carmen [a] rough study.' 17 This is not quite the same sum recorded in the Hill-Stead archives:
'A receipt from Whistler’s dealer in New York, E.G. Kennedy of Wunderlich & Co., shows that Mr. Pope returned another Whistler portrait, Little Rose of Lyme Regis (now at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, in the American Wing) in 1896 for a credit of $3,500 in exchange for Carmen Rossi at a cost of $2,100.' 18
After Pope's death, 5 August 1913, the portrait passed to his daughter, Theodate Pope, and on her death, 30 August 1946, her house became the Hill-Stead Museum.
In 1895, the Scotsman cited a correspondent's rather dismissive praise of the portrait:
'The Whistler has little of the painter's eccentricity in it, apart from the title, "Crimson Note Carmen," which is more enigmatic than usual. It is a study of a gipsy-like maiden's head, wrapped in dark red draper. The face is a trifle dirty, but the richness of tone and the depth of colour reconcile one to any little oddity of that kind.' 19
Similarly, the art critic of the Graphic was uncomplimentary to the model while admiring the colour, writing, ''The only contribution of Mr. Whistler, "Crimson Note Carmen," representing a swarthy, coarse-featured girl, with a red shawl bound round her head, though not likely to prove generally attractive, has rare beauty of colour, and shows throughout the handiwork of the master.' 20 As is seen in Whistler's correspondence with the art dealer E. G. Kennedy, quoted above, these viewers were not alone in their dislike of the model, but Whistler was passionate in his defence of the model and painting. 21
The photograph reproduced above shows it on display in Boston in 1904.
19: 'Latest News. From Private Correspondence', The Scotsman, Edinburgh, 11 October 1895, p. 5.
20: Anon, 'Society of Portrait Painters', Graphic, London, 19 October 1895, p. 19.
Last updated: 21st November 2020 by Margaret