Over a third of the 7,000 letters in the archive are written by Whistler; the remainder are letters he received. This includes correspondence with the Scottish collector J J Cowan, and the correspondence between Whistler and the artist E A Walton. An extensive reference library of over 1,000 volumes on Whistler includes some 200 books from the artist's library, a nearly complete collection of Whistler's own publications and exhibition catalogues, thousands of his press cuttings and hundreds of photographs.
Papers of James McNeill Whistler, 1834-1903, painter
- For more information, email the repository
- Advice on accessing these materials
- Cite this description https://archiveshub.jisc.ac.uk/data/gb247-mswhistler
Scope and Content
Administrative / Biographical History
James McNeill Whistler was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, USA, in 1834 to George Washington Whistler, civil engineer, and his second wife, Anna Matilda McNeill. The family moved to Russia in 1843 where Whistler studied art with a student, A. O. Koritskii, and at the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg. In London, he saw Rembrandt etchings owned by his brother-in-law, Francis Seymour Haden, and Raphael cartoons at Hampton Court.
After his father's death in 1849 the family returned to America. In 1851, he entered the United States Military Academy at West Point, studying art under Robert W. Weir. Deficiencies in chemistry and discipline led to his expulsion in 1854. An interlude in the drawing division of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, Washington, D. C., provided training in etching, the basis of his future career. In 1855 he sailed for Europe to study art, and, while remaining an American citizen, never returned.
He attended classes at the Ecole Impriale et Spciale de Dessin in Paris, and the studio of Charles Gleyre. He visited the Art Treasures Exhibition in Manchester in 1857, forming a life-long passion for the Dutch masters and Velasquez. In the Muse du Louvre, he met Henri Fantin Latour and, through him, entered the circle of Gustave Courbet, leader of the Realists. His first important painting, At the Piano, a portrait of his half-sister Deborah Haden and her daughter, was rejected at the Salon in 1859, but admired by Courbet.
In August 1858 a tour of northern France, Luxembourg and the Rhineland resulted in Twelve Etchings from Nature, printed with Auguste Deltre's help in Paris. Whistler's etchings hung at the Salon and Royal Academy in 1859 and the success of the 'French Set' of etchings encouraged Whistler to move to London, where he began twelve etchings of the river. In 1862 Baudelaire praised the depiction of contemporary city life in the 'Thames Set'. It was published in 1871. Whistler was established at the forefront of the etching revival.
However, his love of colour, fame, and money, drew him to painting. A heavily realistic oil, La Mre Grard, was his first Royal Academy exhibit, in 1861. It was followed in 1862 by The Coast of Brittany, painted from nature, but with a lighter range of colour and thinner paint. A Thames-side conversation piece, Wapping, started in 1861, was exhibited successfully at the Royal Academy in 1864. Bought by Thomas Winans, it was one of the first Whistlers exhibited in New York, in 1866.
The model was his red-haired Irish mistress, Joanna Hiffernan, who posed in Paris in 1861 for The White Girl, later called Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl. Rejected by the Royal Academy in 1862, it hung in a London gallery. In the first of many published letters, Whistler denied that it represented Wilkie Collins's 'Woman in White' but simply represents a girl dressed in white in front of a white curtain' (Athenaeum, 5 July 1862). Rejected also by the Paris Salon in 1863, it was, with Manet's Djeuner sur l'herbe, the 'succs de scandale' of the Salon des Refuss. Paul Mantz in the Gazette des Beaux Arts (July 1863) called it a 'Symphonie du blanc'. Whistler adopted this nomenclature publicly for Symphony in White, No. 3 at the Royal Academy in 1867.
In 1863 Whistler moved to Lindsey Row, on the Thames in Chelsea, where neighbours included the Pre-Raphaelite, D. G. Rossetti. He maintained contact with the continent, introducing Algernon Swinburne to Manet, travelling with Legros to Amsterdam in 1863, posing with Manet and Baudelaire for Fantin's Hommage Delacroix in 1864 and working with Courbet at Trouville in 1865. In 1866, avoiding family and political problems (the arrest of a friend, the Irish activist, John O'Leary) he travelled to Valparaiso, painting his first night scenes, including Nocturne in Blue and Gold: Valparaiso Bay.
In 1865, when the second 'Symphony in White', The Little White Girl, was exhibited at the Royal Academy, Whistler met Albert Moore, and together they explored the ideals of 'Art for Art's sake'. Whistler, wishing he had been a pupil of Ingres, began a series of paintings of classically draped women and flowers on a musical theme, known as the 'Six Projects' (Freer Gallery of Art) for the Liverpool ship owner, F R Leyland. Leyland also bought La Princesse du pays de la porcelaine, one of several oriental subjects starring Whistler's porcelain. A dispute over the signature may have led Whistler in about 1869 to develop the famous butterfly signature.
After 1870, he abandoned the 'Six Projects' for portraits and night scenes, thinly painted in ribbon-like brush-strokes, with thin washes of paint-like glazes, where detail was subordinated to mood and mass. It was Leyland who in 1871 suggested the title 'Nocturnes' for such 'moonlights' as Nocturne: Blue and Silver: Chelsea.
In 1871 Whistler painted a deeply-felt portrait of his mother, restrained in colour and severe in composition. In 1872 this Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter's Mother barely escaped rejection and was the last painting he exhibited at the Royal Academy, yet it entered the Muse du Luxembourg twenty years later and became one of the most famous of American portraits. Seeing it, Thomas Carlyle agreed to pose for a second Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 2: Portrait of Thomas Carlyle (YMSM 137), an impressive psychological study. It was the first of Whistler's paintings to enter a public collection, in Glasgow, Scotland.
The artist had parted from Joanna Hiffernan, who helped look after his illegitimate son, Charles Hanson, born in 1870. Maud Franklin became Whistler's model and mistress. She stood in for Mrs Frances Leyland's portrait, Symphony in Flesh Colour and Pink: Portrait of Mrs Frances Leyland where every decorative detail, from rug to dress, was designed by the artist. Leyland backed Whistler's first one-man exhibition, at a Pall Mall gallery in 1874, where these portraits hung with etchings and pastels.
Whistler worked on a decorative scheme for Leyland's London house at 49 Princes Gate from 1876-77. The dining room was transformed into an all-embracing Harmony in Blue and Gold based on peacock motifs, far exceeding Leyland's wishes. He paid half the 2000 guineas asked, and Whistler lost a patron.
He collaborated with Edward W Godwin on a stand at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1878, and rashly commissioned Godwin to design the 'White House' in Tite Street. As costs escalated, he pursued a lavish life-style, entertaining guests to 'Sunday breakfasts', becoming known as a dandy and wit.
He also defended his aesthetic theories publicly. Writing to the World on 22 May 1878, regarding Nocturne: Grey and Gold: Chelsea Snow which was at the Grosvenor Gallery, he explained: 'my combination of grey and gold is the basis of the picture ... the picture should have its own merit, and not depend upon dramatic, or legendary, or local interest'.
In the Grosvenor Gallery, he exhibited Arrangement in Black and Brown: The Fur Jacket, a portrait of Maud, 'evidently caught in a London fog,' as Oscar Wilde wrote (1877). The influential art critic, John Ruskin, singled out Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, writing that he 'never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face' (Fors Clavigera, 2 July 1877, pp. 181-213). In the ensuing libel case, Whistler justified the price: 'I ask it for the knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime.' He won the case, but was awarded derisory damages without costs. He published Whistler v. Ruskin: Art and Art Critics, dedicated to Albert Moore (who had appeared in his defence), the first in a series of brown paper pamphlets, in December 1878.
Whistler's position was serious. The birth of a daughter to Maud Franklin in February 1879 compounded domestic problems. To raise money he published etchings and, helped by the printer Thomas Way, lithographs, such as The Toilet a portrait of Maud. He painted expressive watercolours of Nankin porcelain for a catalogue of Sir Henry Thompson's collection (1878). None of these measures sufficed. In May 1879 he was declared bankrupt. His work, collections and house were auctioned.
With a commission from the Fine Art Society, London dealers, for a set of twelve etchings, he left for Venice, Italy. He stayed over a year, producing 50 etchings and over 90 pastels of back streets and canals, bead-stringers and gondoliers. He joined Frank Duveneck and his students in the Casa Jankowitz, and worked on etchings with Otto Bacher. Such etchings as Nocturne (K.184) were distinguished by a delicate combination of etching and drypoint lines with a surface tone of ink, producing effects akin to monotype.
In pastels such as The Zattere; Harmony in Blue and Brown the subject was vignetted, the brown paper setting off expressive line and jewel-like colours. These pastels had considerable influence on the Americans, particularly J H Twachtman, and on the Society of American Painters in Pastel founded in 1882.
Exhibited at the Fine Art Society in 1881, framed in three shades of gold, and with the room decorated in reddish-brown, greenish-yellow and gold, the pastels were extensively reviewed. The etchings were shown in London in 1880 and 1883, and at Wunderlich's in New York in 1883, in an 'Arrangement in White and Yellow' which greatly influenced later exhibition design. The catalogue, designed by Whistler, maliciously quoted earlier press reviews.
The first Venice set, of twelve etchings, was published in 1880, but printing took over twenty years. The second set, 26 etchings, published by Messrs. Dowdeswell in 1886, was printed within a year. Whistler etched but never published several later sets, including a 'Jubilee Set' in 1887, a 'Renaissance set' in France in 1888, and Amsterdam in 1889, 'of far finer quality than all that has gone before combining a minuteness of detail ... with greater freedom and more beauty of execution than even the last Renaissance lot can pretend to' (letter to M. B. Huish, Glasgow University Library).
He travelled widely in England and Continental Europe, and his work was exhibited in Europe and America. The first watercolour he exhibited in New York, at the Pedestal Fund Art Loan Exhibition in 1883, was Snow, painted in Amsterdam in 1882. In 1884 he painted sea-scapes in St. Ives with his pupils, the Australian born Mortimer Menpes, and the English Walter Sickert. Watercolours like Variations in Violet and Grey: Market Place, Dieppe were shown beside those of the Impressionists at the Galerie Georges Petit, in Paris, in 1883 and 1887. 'His little sketches show fine draftsmanship,' wrote Pissarro in May 1887, 'he is a showman, but nevertheless an artist' (J. Rewald, Camille Pissarro, Letters to Lucien Pissarro, London 1943, pp.108, 110). He oscillated between London, Paris and Dieppe. In 1901 he filled books with sketches of Algiers and Corsica.
Whistler alternated between small paintings, only 5' x 8' in size, and full-length portraits of actors and aristocrats, children and collectors. Manet introduced him to the art critic Thodore Duret, who agreed to pose, as an experiment, in modern evening dress, carrying (for colour's sake) a pink cloak, for Arrangement en couleur chair et noir: Portrait de Thodore Duret. Duret mediated between the artist and the aristocratic Lady Archibald Campbell, and thus saved Arrangement in Black: La Dame au brodequin jaune: Portrait of Lady Archibald Campbell, shown in the Chicago Columbian Exhibition in 1893.
Arrangement in Black: Portrait of Seor Pablo de Sarasate, painted in 1884, and showing the violinist spotlit on stage, was exhibited in London, Hamburg, Paris and finally, in 1896, Pittsburgh, where it was bought by the Carnegie Institute, the first American public collection to acquire his work. Exhibiting at International exhibitions in Antwerp, Brussels, Paris, Munich, in Chicago and Philadelphia, in Dublin, Glasgow and St. Petersburg, he gained medals and honours.
In 1885 he delivered the 'Ten O'Clock' lecture in Prince's Hall, an eloquent exposition of his views on art and artists. Stphane Mallarm translated it into French and introduced Whistler to the Symbolist circle in Paris. Extensive correspondence and subjects like Purple and Gold: Phryne the Superb! Builder of Temples document their growing friendship.
In 1886, the Society of British Artists in London, in need of rejuvenation, risked electing Whistler as President. He set out autocratically to reform the Society, revamping the galleries, designing a 'velarium' to soften the light and direct it on the pictures, rejecting sub-standard pictures, and inviting foreigners like Waldo Storey, Alfred Stevens and Claude Monet to exhibit. The Society revolted, and he was forced to resign.
Meanwhile, pastels, oils, drawings and watercolours like the atmospheric Nocturne in Grey and Gold: Piccadilly hung in three one-man exhibitions of 'Notes' 'Harmonies' 'Nocturnes' at Messrs Dowdeswells in 1884 and 1886 and at Wunderlich's in New York in 1889. This gave Americans, like Howard Mansfield, Howard Whittemore, and Charles L. Freer, the opportunity to buy their first Whistlers. They flocked to his studio.
In 1888, Whistler married Beatrix, widow of E. W. Godwin. An artist and designer, she worked beside him, encouraging his pastels of young models, like the Pettigrew sisters, and lithographs. Some of his finest lithographs, like The Duet of 1894, show Beatrix at home in 110 rue du Bac in Paris. The most poignant, By the Balcony and The Siesta, were drawn as she lay dying of cancer, during his lithography exhibition at the Fine Art Society in 1895. She died in 1896, and her young sister, Rosalind Birnie Philip, became Whistler's ward and inherited his estate.
Whistler's collection of letters and pamphlets on art, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, was published by William Heinemann in 1890. Whistler's butterflies, a sting in their tails, match each document. Another book recorded a lawsuit against Sir William Eden in 1898 which resulted in a change to French law, giving artists control over their work.
In 1896 Whistler was elected first President of the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers. Joseph Pennell, Whistler's friend and future biographer, was an active and argumentative committee member. Independent artists from Europe and America were invited to send work to their exhibitions, in 1898, 1899 and 1900, but Academicians were discouraged. The exhibitions were sparely hung, coherent and effective. Whistler's own exhibits were modest, fluidly-painted panels like Green and Silver: The Great Sea, and severely geometrical shopfronts like Gold and Orange: The Neighbours.
His last portraits, of Freer, the gambler Richard A Canfield, George W Vanderbilt and of a young red-head model, Dorothy Seton, were painted with the forceful brushwork and thin skin of paint, the strong characterisation and subtle colour, that characterised his work.
In his last self-portrait, Brown and Gold, the pose was based on Velasquez' portrait of Pablo de Valladolid in the Prado, Madrid, Spain. In 1900 it hung in the American section of the Paris Universal Exposition, but he continued to rework it until his death. Painted with nervous flickering brushwork, serious and introspective, it is a deeply moving work. Whistler died in London on 17 July 1903.
Source: Centre for Whistler Studies, University of Glasgow. http://www.whistler.arts.gla.ac.uk
Correspondence is arranged alphabetically by surname of correspondent
Conditions Governing Access
Gift : Miss Birnie Philip and Joseph Whistler Revillon: 1935-1958 : ACCNs 2490, 2491, 2492, 9037, 9088
Since 1958, the original collection has also been enlarged by purchase of considerable numbers of Whistler letters.
Other Finding Aids
Item level descriptions are available via the department's online manuscripts catalogue available at http://special.lib.gla.ac.uk/manuscripts/ searching by the call number MS Whistler
For details of printed books from this collection see Glasgow University Library Catalogue
Nigel Thorp, A guide to the Whistler Collection (Glasgow, 1992)Unpublished computer printout, with an index of correspondents and a list of microfilms available in the searchroom
Alternative Form Available
The letters, papers, press cuttings and photographs in the collection, together with selected publications by Whistler and abstracts of the correspondence, were microfilmed in 1990 for the Archives of American Art, Washington, D.C. Copies of the 29 reels are available on inter-library loan on application to the Archives of American Art, 750 9th Street NW - Suite 2200, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. 20560-0937, U.S.A.; microfilmed material is available on inter-library loan to UK and European libraries from Glasgow University Library.
Compiled by David Powell, Hub Project Archivist, 22 March 2002
No alterations made to date
Conditions Governing Use
Applications for permission to quote should be sent to the Head of Special Collections
Reproduction subject to usual conditions: educational use & condition of documents
This material has been appraised in line with standard GB 247 procedures
Held by Rosalind Birnie Philip, sister-in-law of James Whistler. Other items held by Joseph Whistler Revillon, Whistler's great-nephew
Location of Originals
The Centre for Whistler Studies, University of Glasgow, has gathered reference copies of Whistler letters in other collections, notably those in the Library of Congress, the Freer Gallery of Art and the New York Public Library. With the 2,650 letters written by Whistler that are present in the collection, either in the original or in contemporary copies, the total number of letters written by the artist identified so far comes close to 6,000.
Martin Hopkinson, James McNeill Whistler at the Hunterian Art Gallery (Glasgow, 1990)
Whistlers and further family: an exhibition of portraits and pictures, manuscripts and mementos relating to the family of James McNeill Whistler (Glasgow, 1980)
Whistler and Mallarm (Glasgow, 1973) Exhibition catalogue, Hunterian Museum