Whistler's own title is not known. Only one title has been suggested:
The Willis family's liking for gin (the drink flavoured with juniper) undoubtedly suggested the title. 3 Lizzie Willis's mother, said Whistler, 'would go drunk to the gallows - silent, sodden and uncomplaining', and he recorded a conversation with Lizzie where she admitted having drunk gin and rum but actually preferred whisky! 4
An unfinished head and shoulders portrait of a young girl in vertical format. She has short curly brown hair, and wears a fluffy black scarf over a frill- or lace-trimmed high-neck blouse. She has a narrow elliptical face, delicate features and large brown eyes, and stares straight at the viewer. Much of the lower half of the canvas is bare.
Whistler painted three pictures of Lizzie (this portrait, Little Lizzie Willis [YMSM 476] and The Little London Sparrow [YMSM 477]). She was the daughter of Mrs Willis, who was housekeeper at 8 Fitzroy Street from the summer of 1896. By the winter of 1896-1897 she had proved unsatisfactory, and Whistler complained: 'The studio was like a cellar - and this after Mrs Willis had promised to light my fire for me early in the morning.' 5 However, Whistler recorded a wonderful conversation with young Lizzie Willis:
'Studio awful - Conversation this afternoon with Lizzie - simple English child - . . . . . . "Yes - and we had another New Years present last night! - - . . a quarter bottle of Whisky" - . . Oh - I said, and who had that? - "Why Daddy and Mother of course" - . Well, I said, but what should you know about it? - "Why I had some too of course!" - Did you indeed? and how much? - "Well I had a glass to myself - Scotch it was - t'was good! I always has it - and gin sometimes - and rum - but I likes whisky best I does - " . . . But I said doesn't it make you tipsy! - "Oh - gigle! gigle [sic] - I was drunk once!!" . . . and then the infant became inarticulate in the merriment of her recollections.' 6
There is a pen drawing of Lizzie Willis, not related to the oil portraits of her, in a letter. 7
1: Hunterian files.
3: Spencer, Robin, James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), Nationalgalerie, Berlin, 1969 (cat. no. 47).
Last updated: 2nd November 2020 by Margaret