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

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Purple and Gold: Phryne the Superb! - Builder of Temples


  • 1902: bought from Whistler by Charles Lang Freer (1856-1919) , Detroit;
  • 1919: bequeathed by C. L. Freer to the Freer Gallery of Art.

It was sold by Whistler to Freer in May 1902 for 800 guineas (£840) according to the records of the Company of the Butterfly, Whistler's short-lived and inefficient business outlet. 1 Miss Birnie Philip kept a note of Freer's purchases and recorded 'Phryne' as sold for £420.0.0 but this appears to he wrong: another account gives the price as 600 guineas, and Freer is recorded as paying Whistler 600 guineas in June 1902. 2

The portrait was still in Whistler's studio at his death in 1903 and lent by his ward and executrix, Rosalind Birnie Philip (1873-1958) to an exhibition in Venice before it was sent to Freer.


  • 1901: 3rd Exhibition, Pictures, Drawings, Prints and Sculptures, International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers, Galleries of the Royal Institute, London, 1901 (cat. no. 37) as 'Purple and Gold – Phryne the Superb ! – Builder of Temples'.
  • 1902: Douzième Exposition, Ouvrages de Peintures, Sculpture, Dessin, Gravure, Architecture et Objets d'Art, Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, Grand Palais, Paris, 1902 (cat. no. 1194).
  • 1903: V Esposizione Internazionale d'Arte della Città di Venezia, Venice, 1903 (cat. no. 39).

                    Plan of a panel of pictures for the ISSPG, Tate Archive, London
Plan of a panel of pictures for the ISSPG, Tate Archive, London

                    Paintings at the ISSPG, Glasgow University Library
Paintings at the ISSPG, Glasgow University Library

Whistler intended to send it to the 2nd Exhibition, Pictures, Drawings, Prints and Sculptures, International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers, London, 1899, and sketched possible arrangements of his pictures for John Lavery (1856-1941), but in the end he did not send it. 3

Instead he sent it to the third ISSPG exhibition in 1901 where The Athenaeum called it 'delightful and capricious'. 4 The Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer on 7 October grouped this with Gold and Orange: The Neighbours [YMSM 423] as 'pictures of exceptional beauty and striking for their colour arrangements'. Employing similar wording, the Globe praised it as a 'small picture with exceptional beauty of colour arrangement, and with considerable dignity of style.' 5 At the same time, Truth, while praising the painting, queried the classical title:

'In this study of the nude we have quietness of colour and lowness of tone in a marked degree. That such a Phryne would have disarmed her judges by the simple process of disrobing herself I am not quite convinced. This particular one is just a little bit too massive, perhaps.' 6

The London Daily News of 12 October had similar reservations: 'A nude, scarcely embodying the title, Phryne, the Superb, has fine passages of colour, with that dull curtain that is a foil the luminous flesh.'

After this it travelled to the Salon of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1902, and again, Whistler roughly sketched out his preferred arrangement of his works, in Panel of five paintings [M.1706]. 7 According to the Western Mail, the 'delightful little Phryne' was 'a veritable chef d'oeuvre' and 'the centre of a group of admirers' in the Paris exhibition. 8

According to the terms of Freer's gift to the Freer Gallery of Art, the painting cannot be lent.


1: Company of the Butterfly to C. L. Freer, [23 March/May 1902], GUW #04332; Whistler's account, [23 March 1900/June 1902] GUW #11672.

2: R. B. Philip, 'May 1902' in account, [June 1902], GUW #04333; Whistler to Freer, May 1902, in account [23 March 1900/June 1902], GUW #13883. Note by Freer, 18 June 1902, GUW #11698; confirmed in another account by Whistler to Freer, June 1902, GUW #09089.

3: Whistler to J. Lavery, [April/May 1899], GUW #09988, and list #12718; Plan of a panel of pictures for the ISSPG [M.1582]; Paintings at the ISSPG [M.1583]

4: 'Fine Arts. The International Society's Exhibition', The Athenaeum, London, 2 November 1901, pp. 601-02 at p. 601.

5: The International Society', Globe, London, 10 October 1901, p. 6.

6: Truth, London, 10 October 1901, p. 43.

7: Draft of letter to the Société Nationale des Beaux Arts, [17/20 April 1902], GUW #12720. It is not certain that this letter was posted.

8: 'Our Paris Letter. Paintings and Sculpture', Western Mail, Glamorgan, 17 May 1902, p. 8.

Last updated: 17th December 2020 by Margaret