Whistler – Volunteer Presentation – Notes
1. Arrangement in Grey: Portrait of the Painter
1872, oil on canvas, 30” x 21-3/8”, Detroit Institute of Art, Detroit, MI
During the summer of 1871, Rembrandt’s “Self-portrait” of 1659 was exhibited for the first time in
London. Whistler saw the exhibition and greatly admired Rembrandt’s work. In this painting,
Whistler paid special homage to Rembrandt by painting himself in a similar pose, using similar
colors, shading, and shallow, undefined space.
Whistler was skilled in combining both geometric shapes and organic forms in his balanced
compositions. Here, he used geometric lines and shapes to frame, contrast, and emphasize his
organic form. Broad, vertical and diagonal strokes of thinned paint create an overall texture in the
background and triangular shape of his jacket. Whistler added a rectangle of solid black that
silhouettes and emphasizes his hand and brushes and black is then repeated to form the black tie
and beret that frame Whistler’s face. He emphasized his portrait by using more detailed strokes of
brighter flesh tones to form the highlights and shadows of his features. Whistler also used just two
strokes of white paint that draw the viewer’s attention: one stroke hints at his famous lock of white
hair that can be seen peaking out from the edge of his black beret (Whistler always combed and
swept this lock of white hair so that it would stick up like a feather); the other stroke of white paint
he used to indicate his collar. Whistler unified the composition with broad strokes and thin glazes
of color for the background and jacket that contrast with the more clearly modeled features of his
face and hands.
Fun Fact: On the background above his wrist, Whistler included his signature: a butterfly
monogram. When the this painting changed ownership in 1895, the new owner asked Whistler to
sign his name on the painting. Whistler refused, declaring that the butterfly was his signature.
What effect do the repeating, loose brushstrokes on the jacket and in the background have in this
painting? (The muted colors and loose, diagonal and vertical brushstrokes used for both the jacket
and background add a unifying texture to the composition as they frame and emphasize the
brighter details of Whistler’s organic form.)
2. Symphony in White No. 1: The White Girl
1862, oil on canvas, 84-1/4” x 42-1/2”, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
The model for this painting was Joanna Hiffernan, who was Whistler’s mistress for about 10 years,
from 1857 until 1867. When this painting was finally exhibited in Paris in 1863, art critic, Paul
Mantz, described it as, “a symphony in white.” Whistler saw the review and decided to not only
rename the painting, but he also began using musical terms (Symphonies, Arrangements,
Nocturnes, Harmonies, etc.) for the names of all his other works. While this painting was not
accepted by the official Paris Salon, it was showcased at the famous 1863 “Salon des Refuses”
exhibition of all the pictures that the official Salon had rejected. At this time, Whistler also began
adopting the philosophy of “Art for Art’s Sake,” believing that art should not have to tell a story,
teach a lesson, or give moral uplift but that each work of art should be appreciated simply for its
own aesthetic, or purely beautiful, visual qualities.
In this painting, Joanna is depicted full length, dressed in white, as she stands quietly on a wolf
skin placed in front of a curtain. Subtle value changes of white define not only her dress but the
folds of the ivory-white brocade curtain as well. The shallow picture space is emphasized by
minimal value contrasts of white while both the white curtain and dress provide added contrast
with the dark values of Joanna’s deep auburn hair, red lips, and shadowed eyes. The wolf skin
under her feet provides its own ferocious and furry textural contrast next to the flowery patterns of
the underlying carpet.
Unity is achieved not only through the repetition of monochrome white but also by the repetition of
vertical lines throughout the composition: among the folds of the brocade curtain; down the
stitched bodice, sheer striped sleeves, and draped folds of Joanna’s dress; and in her straight,
quiet stance as her arms hang straight down at her sides.
Is this dress pure white? (No. Subtle value changes of white define the dress as well as the folds
of the ivory-white brocade curtain.)
What did Whistler do to make the dress interesting? (He created vertical stitching on the bodice,
and added sleeve puffs above the sheer striped material of the long sleeves, while also arranging
the graceful vertical folds of the skirt.)
3. Rose and Silver: The Princess From the Land of Porcelain
1863-64, oil on canvas, 78-3/4” x 45-3/4”, Freer Gallery of Art,
Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
Whistler, like many of the Impressionist painters in France, was interested in Oriental art. He avidly
collected 17th Century Japanese woodblock prints as well as Chinese blue and white porcelain.
Whistler used an Oriental theme for this portrait of Christine Spartali (daughter of the rich Greek
merchant, Michael Spartali, who later became Greece’s Consul-General in London). Christine
posed in the style of an 18th-century Japanese courtesan, wearing a Japanese silk kimono, and
surrounded by a variety of objects and artifacts from Whistler’s own collection.
The linear perspective created by the left edge of the carpet draws the viewer into the scene. The
composition is a carefully arranged space with many asymmetrically balanced geometrical shapes
and horizontal and vertical lines that contrast with Christine’s graceful form and with the organic
shapes and patterns that decorate her costume, the folding screen, the Chinese porcelain vase, and
While the Oriental theme unifies the composition, Whistler’s limited palette, with its repeated
touches of muted red, blue, yellow, and white used throughout the composition, also unifies and
balances this painting. Whistler also skillfully created the illusion of a much larger space in the room
by carefully cropping the scene.
How does Whistler achieve unity in this scene? (While the Oriental theme unifies the composition,
Whistler’s limited palette, with its repeated touches of muted red, blue, yellow, and white used
throughout the composition, also unifies and balances this painting.)
4. The Peacock Room: Harmony in Blue and Gold (North-East Corner)
1876-77, oil color and gold on leather &wood, Freer Gallery of Art,
Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
This is the only existing example of Whistler’s interior decorations. He often designed interiors and
insisted on controlling every aspect of exhibition space, including the wall color, carpet, lighting, and
accessories used throughout the room, in order to ensure a complimentary setting for his artworks.
This room was decorated for his patron, Frederick Leyland, who wanted his London house transformed
into a showcase for his collections of art. When Leyland purchased Whistler’s painting, “The Princess
from the Land of Porcelain,” to hang above the mantle in the dining room, Whistler declared the
existing colors in the room clashed with his painting. Leyland asked Whistler to suggest a suitable color
scheme for the room, but, while Leyland was out of town, Whistler took it upon himself to completely
re-do the dining room. During Leyland’s absence and without his knowledge or permission, Whistler
repainted everything, and once the room was done, even sent out promotional pamphlets and invited
all the press and his friends to come and view his designs for the new “Peacock Room.” When Leyland
returned, however, he was furious.
The finished room was indeed a striking display, but Whistler and Leyland had not drawn up a contract
describing any work that was to be done. They argued about the fee that Whistler demanded and about
Whistler’s use of Leyland’s house for his own, blatant self-promotion. The dispute effectively ended
their relationship . At one point, however, Whistler did manage to sneak back into the house and
immortalized their quarrel by creating a new scene with two golden peacocks fighting. He added white
paint to the breast of one of the peacocks to resemble the ruffled shirts Leyland always wore as well as
a pile of golden coins that represented the fee Whistler still felt he was owed.
The entire large room became Whistler’s canvas, all four walls, from floor to ceiling. The contrast
between the blue wall color and the highlighted golden peacocks throughout the room was stunning.
This repetition of color as well as motif gave the Peacock Room its unity.
Fun Fact: The Peacock Room exists today thanks to American art collector, Charles Lang Freer, who
began collecting Whistler’s works in the 1890s. In 1904, he was able to purchase the Peacock Room
from an auction house in London. He then had it disassembled, packed, and shipped back to the
United States. Freer’s art collections, including Whistler’s works, were eventually given to the
Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. where they can be seen in the Freer Gallery of Art.
5. Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1: The Artist’s Mother
1871, oil on canvas, 57” x 64”, Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France
This painting is Whistler’s most famous and recognized portrait. Although begun with a standing pose, Mrs.
Whistler was too frail to stand for any length of time and Whistler soon decided to start over, instead portraying
his mother in profile and posed in a comfortable, seated position. This position accentuated Mrs. Whistler’s
piously Protestant appearance that was so much a part of her strong character.
Whistler’s color palette is muted. The grays used for the background and curtain contrast with the stark black
and white of Mrs. Whistler’s costume, silhouette her figure, and also provide darker value contrasts that
emphasize the brighter flesh tones and details of Mrs. Whistler’s pleasant features, expression, and quiet
Whistler masterfully balanced geometric shapes with the organic shape of his mother. The geometrical
horizontal and vertical lines found in this painting also provide a great sense of visual calm and stability.
Although the space is shallow, Whistler created the illusion of space by cropping the scene to give the viewer
the sense of a much larger room. Mrs. Whistler gazes towards the left. leading the viewer to the framed picture
on the wall that is actually one of Whistler’s etchings, entitled, “Black Lion Wharf,” a scene of London along
the Thames River. Visual interest is further enhanced by the repetition of quietly patterned details found
among the floral designs of the dark gray curtain and in the small lace patterns of Mrs. Whistler’s cap and
handkerchief she holds on her lap.
Unity is achieved by the repetition of similar, somber color values, by the repetition of geometrical shapes,
horizontal ,and vertical lines, and by the limited repetition of muted patterns.
Fun Fact: Whistler thought of this painting as “an arrangement of forms and colors.” The original title was
“Arrangement in Gray and Black No. 1.” Only later was it dubbed “Whistler’s Mother.” Years earlier, when his
father had suddenly died, only his mother ‘s unfailing love, kindness, and strength of character had carried
Whistler through the loss. His love, respect, and admiration for her eventually inspired him to add his mother’s
maiden name, McNeill, as his second middle name and his fondness and esteem is clearly evident in this
What purpose do all the geometrical shapes and their horizontal and vertical lines serve? (The geometric
shapes balance with the organic shape of Mrs. Whistler and the geometrical horizontal and vertical lines
found in this painting also provide a great sense of visual calm and stability. )
Whistler’s Nocturnes: The Evening Landscapes
Unlike the Impressionists who sought to capture the effects of sunlight upon a scene, Whistler instead preferred
the mysterious, muted, fugitive effects of light after sunset, when his forms tended to appear blurred in the mists
and hazy atmosphere of evening. Whistler began calling his twilight scenes “Nocturnes,” from a musical term
originally used to describe certain melancholy, dreamy, pensive compositions, especially pieces that were
written to be played on the piano.
6. Nocturne in Blue and Gold: Old Battersea Bridge
1872-75, oil on canvas, 26-1/2” x 19-3/4”, Tate Gallery, London
This painting of the Old Battersea Bridge over the Thames River in London is perhaps Whistler’s most famous
“Nocturne.” The influence of Japanese art is clearly evident in the understated colors and simplified, geometrical
composition. The original bridge, built in 1772, was a heavy, lumbering, and dangerous, wooden structure, but
in this painting, Whistler both heightened and elongated a single, visible wooden bridge pier and he also
exaggerated the curve of the bridge itself in order to give the structure an appearance more like that of the
bridges depicted by Japanese ukiyo-e (oo-key-oh-ĀY, popular woodblock prints) printmaker, Ando Hiroshige
(Heh-ROW-shuh-guh). Whistler also included the simplified diagonal form of a single barge in the foreground
that leads the viewer into the scene. The final result is a unique and original combination of Japanese influences
and Whistler’s carefully simplified composition, muted colors, and mysterious atmospheric effects of the night.
Value contrasts define the dark forms of the bridge and barge that are set before a background of somewhat
brighter values. Subtle values and silhouetted shapes create atmospheric perspective that makes the indistinct
views of Chelsea on the left side and the view of the recently-completed Albert Bridge on the right both seem to
recede into the hazy distance. The simplified figure of the man rowing the barge is the only shape that gives the
viewer some sense of scale in the scene.
Unity was achieved through the horizontal, vertical, and geometrical balance of the composition as well as by
the repetition of a limited palette of blue tones. A pattern of sparkling golden lights is repeated and reflected
among Chelsea’s buildings, across the Albert Bridge structure, and in the sparkling burst of rockets soaring and
exploding in the distant fireworks display out of London’s Cremorne Gardens amusement park.
Where is the area of darkest values? (Following principles of atmospheric perspective, The Old Battersea
Bridge and nearby barge are the closest, and therefore darkest, objects in the scene.)
7. Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket
ca. 1874, oil on wood, Detroit Institute of Arts
The price placed on this particular painting, one of several Whistler displayed in an exhibition,
prompted the noted art critic, John Ruskin, to write in a printed critical review that he had, “…never
expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.”
In 1878, Whistler angrily sued Ruskin for libel, and while winning the lawsuit, received just one
farthing in damages from the jury. Mounting legal costs of the lawsuit and trial defense eventually
This painting was another of Whistler’s mystical “Nocturne” night scenes. This time, he tried to
capture a distant view of London’s Cremorne Gardens, a popular amusement that presented exciting
fireworks displays each evening. Whistler’s composition successfully captured one spectacular,
flashing moment, complete with a falling rocket and other exploding fireworks. Largely a
monochromatic work with a limited color palette, the subtle value changes and patterns of this
painting represent the illuminating and highlighting effects of fireworks exploding in the dark night sky.
The abstract nature of this work can leave the viewer unsure about space, except for the tiny specks
of white and yellow that clearly represent many flashing explosions of fireworks that contrast against
the dark sky of the background. The composition is unified by the overall dark values of the
background and by the repeated patterns of the white and yellow touches throughout the sky.
This painting is a deliberately abstract, yet balanced and pleasing, arrangement of forms and colors
and it has its own aesthetic (meaning, “purely beautiful” ) appeal—similar to the aesthetic enjoyment
one experiences when listening to harmonious music. It is easy to understand why Whistler chose
the title, “Nocturne,” for this twilight painting, and it is a good example of his belief that a painting
should be appreciated as a beautiful work of “art for art’s sake.” It is ironic that Whistler lost his
house, his art collection, and all his money because of his legal squabble over this innovative work.
Why is this called a monochromatic composition? (This is a largely monochromatic work in which
Whistler used a limited color palette, subtle value changes, and patterns that represent the
illuminating and highlighting effects of fireworks exploding the dark night sky.)
After the expenses of the Ruskin libel lawsuit, Whistler was not only out of money but also out of favor
with the public. Then, a London group of art dealers, called the Fine Arts Society, commissioned him to
produce a dozen etchings of Venice and Whistler set off for Venice in September of 1879. Instead of
completing the 12 etchings within the specified three-month time period, however, Whistler found he
enjoyed Venetian social and artistic life and extended his stay to 14 months. Rather than etching
scenes of the typical tourist landmarks of Venice, he chose to depict quiet back streets, hidden
courtyards, and areas where the working people lived. He ended up bringing home 50 copperplates,
several oil and watercolor paintings, and almost 100 pastel drawings. The pastels, in particular, were
stunning—each a beautifully balanced, decorative, romantic vignette of everyday places and activities
in Venice. (A vignette is a scene that does not have a specific edge or border and where the edges of
the scene simply fade into the background.) When he returned to London, Whistler’s Venice etchings
and especially his beautiful pastel works eventually proved to be very successful and helped fully
restore his bank account, the public’s favor, and his artistic reputation.
8. The Storm—Sunset
1880, chalk & pastel, 7-1/4” x 11-3/8”,
Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA
Whistler did not intend to create a picture of famous landmarks of Venice. Although two famous places
are included in this work, his focus for this scene was actually the beautiful colors created by the
approaching storm clouds and the setting sun. By dragging the sides of his pastels across the textured
brown paper, Whistler was able to create the rippling water of the lagoon. Bands of bright pink and
yellow were used to form the colorful sunset while the approaching storm clouds were created with
areas of more somber blues. The simple black silhouette of the gondola draws the viewer into the
scene and its diagonal position leads the eye, first to St. Mark’s Basilica, next along the indistinct
buildings that line the shore, then across to the distant church of Santa Maria della Salute (suh LOO
tay) that can be identified by its domes that are silhouetted by the brilliant yellows and pinks of the
9. The Cemetery—Venice
1879-80, pastel , 8” x 11-7/8”,
The Frick Collection, New York, NY
While taking a gondola ride, Whistler created this lovely view of the Church and Cemetery of Isola di
San Michele (ME-kuh-lay). The Island of Saint Michael is a brick-walled, man-made island on the
northern side of Venice. The Church of San Michele was built between 1469-79 and is noted to be
the first building in Venice that was constructed in an entirely Renaissance classical style. San
Michele was designed by the young, talented architect and former stonemason, Mauro Codussi, for
the Camaldolese (Kuh-mol-doe-LAY-see) monastery, a group of monks who had originally lived in
huts. After the Venetian Republic fell to Napoleon’s Empire in 1797, Napoleon later decreed in 1807
that for Venice’s future safety and sanitation, the Cemetery would thereafter be the official—and
only—place where Venice would be able to bury their dead. That is still true today and the Cemetery
is one of the most beautiful and famous places in the world.
And this is one of Whistler’s most beautiful and serene works. Asymmetrically balanced and lightfilled, Whistler used the diagonal shape of the nearest dark blue and green gondola as a focal point
that contrasts with the stunning white of the stone façade of the Church of San Michele. He created
both dark blue gondolas near the shoreline of the Cemetery brick wall as well as the distant shores of
Venice by using a minimum of carefully placed strokes of blue, white, green, orange, and brown. The
bright Venetian sky was created by dragging the sides of light blue and gray pastels lightly across the
textured paper. The reflections in the water that Whistler created across the lower half of the paper
are especially pleasing. He skillfully created the rippling reflections in the water by using many
carefully placed, light and short horizontal strokes of the reflected colors and the result is a sun-filled,
bright and pleasant scene.
10. Venetian Courtyard
1879-80, chalk & pastel on brown paper, 11-3/4” x 7-7/8”,
This is a cropped view of a portion of the quiet, secluded courtyard in the Palazzo Zorzi (puh-LAHTzoe ZOR-zee), another 15th Century building that was designed by the Venetian stonemason and
architect, Mauro Codussi (who also created the Church of San Michele di Isola that can be seen in
Whistler’s pastel, The Cemetery—Venice).
This is a skillfully composed and asymmetrically balanced work that focuses on rhythms, patterns,
contrasts, and minimal details. Whistler created a cropped and vignette view (a scene that does not
have a specific edge or border and where the edges of the scene simply fade into the background).
He shows an actual courtyard with its octagonal water well, three delicately-columned arches that
form part of the loggia, or covered outside gallery, several of the Palazzo’s shallow, curved iron
balconies, and two sets of the building’s decorative, double arched, and stone-lintel windows located
on the second floor. Whistler used black chalk to outline the composition and to add patterns of dark
contrast. He then used just tan, orange, and white pastels to create the highlights, textures, and
minimal forms of the courtyard scene. The result is a glimpse of what was indeed a quiet, secluded,
and peaceful spot in the middle of busy Venice.
11. Venetian Courtyard
1879-80, chalk & pastel on brown paper, 11-3/4” x 7-7/8”,
What remains of the Campanile (Kam-puh-NEE-lay), or bell tower, of the former Church of Santa
Margherita is located at the northern end of what has always been one of Venice’s busiest Campos,
or squares, typically lined with many old houses, shops, markets, cafes, and always filled with
crowds. Whistler spent many enjoyable hours in the busy Campo Santa Margherita! The old
Campanile was originally built in 1305, and by the early 1800s was found to be unstable and the top
half had to be removed.
In this drawing, Whistler created an asymmetrically balanced, cropped vignette (a scene that does
not have a specific edge or border and where the edges of the scene simply fade into the
background) that depicts the northwestern corner of Campo Santa Margherita, or Saint Margaret’s
Square. He first used black chalk to outline the simple geometric forms of the buildings as well as
organic forms of a few people. He also added a pattern of carefully placed dark accents that tend to
lead the eye throughout the scene. Whistler then balanced these black accents with horizontal and
vertical strokes of white, light tan, orange, red, and light blue pastels. The sky was formed by lightly
dragging the side of a blue pastel across the textured paper. Whistler merely suggested the old rough
stones of the upper portion of the Campanile by repeating short, horizontal strokes of brown pastel
that seem to dissolve and disappear into the upper right portion of the brown paper.
12. Corte del Paradiso, 1879-80, chalk & pastel, 12” x 16”,
Here we see a small, quiet courtyard in a working-class section of Venice. Linear perspective draws
the viewer into the scene. The tall, narrow format is symmetrically balanced and the composition
consists mostly of horizontal and vertical lines and geometric shapes as well as three standing
figures and several items of laundry that hang to dry from lines strung from building to building.
Whistler first drew the outlines of the scene in black chalk, next used white pastel to highlight the
textured stucco of the far building, and then emphasized the various interesting details of the scene
by using a limited selection of muted blue, orange, and green pastels throughout the composition.
Whistler’s butterfly monogram, accented with green, can be seen at the left edge of the drawing.
Beadstringers, 1879-80, chalk & pastel, 10-13/16” x 4-1/2”, Freer Gallery of Art,
Smithsonian, Washington, D. C.
Here we see several women who sit and stand in a quiet alley as they string glass beads for a living.
Beadstringers would place big wooden bowls in their laps to hold hundreds of Venetian glass beads
that they would then tediously string onto long pieces of wire which would then be fastened together
into units of a dozen wires called “hanks.” They were paid for each “hank” they turned in and the
“hanks” would then be sold for all sorts of decorative uses in Venice and to other markets around the
world. The brown paper that Whistler used for this work somehow was discolored over time. Once
again, Whistler used linear perspective that leads the viewer into and through the scene. Whistler first
drew in the black outlines of his narrow, mostly geometric, horizontal, and vertical composition before
finally adding just a few black and white contrasting areas along with several tones of gray and blue
pastels that emphasize the figures of the beadstringers, the laundry hung out to dry above them, and
other details that together add interest to the scene.