James Abbott McNeill Whistler
- Extended catalogue entry
© National Portrait Gallery, London
James Abbott McNeill Whistler
by Sir Leslie Ward
Gouache with watercolour on millboard, 1878
14 5/8 in. x 9 1/4 in. (372 mm x 235 mm) overall
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Inscriptionback to top
Signed and dated in chalk lower left: Leslie Ward / 1878.
This portraitback to top
In 1877 Whistler was much in the news due to his impending libel case against John Ruskin (see Biography), and the bitter quarrel with his patron Frederick Leyland over the decorative scheme for the Peacock Room at Leylands house in Princes Gate, London.  So it was fitting that he featured as Vanity Fairs fiftieth man of the day in its edition of 12 January 1878. The artist was Leslie Ward (Spy) and the published print was captioned A Symphony, a reference to the titles Whistler gave his own works. Whistler seems to have liked the image for he distributed a number of prints with his butterfly signature and dedications.  In difficult times this sharp and instantly identifiable image, together with the favourable biographical sketch by Jehu Junior (Thomas Gibson Bowles), was good publicity for the artist.
For his part, Ward was fascinated by his subject. He mentions him several times in his memoirs, and refers to the Vanity Fair portrait:
Somewhere about the same period I did Whistler, who was an excellent subject, but his unlimited peculiarities lay more in his gesture and speech and habits. I never went to a social function at which he was present without hearing his caustic, nasal little laugh Ha-ha-ho-ho-he-he raised at the wrong moment. For instance, when a song was being sung in a drawing-room, or when a speech was being made at a public dinner. 
NPG 1700 is a three-quarter-length figure sketch, the face worked up in choppy gouache and the body lightly indicated. On the verso there is a related whole-length sketch in watercolour; see NPG 1700a. Both drawings are signed Leslie Ward rather than Spy, and carry the year of publication, 1878. They are preparatory studies for the final version, the undated watercolour, signed Spy, now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Rosenwald Collection (1949.5.521); the main difference between the National Portrait Gallery studies and the image as published is the position of the hands.  Gallatin 1918 lists three Ward drawings of Whistler: nos 241 and 243 correspond to NPG 1700 and NPG 1700a, no.242 to the lithograph, and no.244 to a crayon caricature by Ward, now in the S.P. Avery Collection, New York Public Library. 
The drawings (which we have recently acquired) were offered to the NPG for £40 by the dealers Ernest Brown & Phillips in March 1913. They came with no earlier history. The millboard support is in poor condition.
Footnotesback to top
1) In 1876 Whistler had designed a fantastic scheme for the room (Harmony in Blue and Gold. The Peacock Room), which proceeded despite disagreements and greatly over budget. Whistler reported his disputes with Leyland to the press.
2) Ward 1915, p.298. A facsimile letter (undated, repr. Ward 1915, p.299) apparently refers to Whistlers satisfaction with the caricature: Charming my dear Leslie ! We are delighted with the drawing / I believe the enclosed is what you said Come and see us Always [butterfly symbol]. See also Denker 1995, p.70.
3) Ward 1915, pp.48, 112, 163, 172, 298, 305.
4) Two references to an original Vanity Fair drawing of Whistler almost certainly refer to the NGA, Washington drawing rather than to NPG 1700 or NPG 1700a. See Christies, 5 (7) Mar. 1912 (827), bought by Sabin; and List of the Original Drawings by Carlo Pellegrini, Lesley Ward and others, from January 1869 to March 1889, bound typescript, 1934, p.12; both NPG Archive.
5) the caricature by [Spy] owned by the New York Public Library is devoid of merit; Gallatin 1918, pp.1920.
6) Letter from Messrs Ernest Brown & Phillips to C.J. Holmes, 18 Mar. 1913, NPG RP 1700.
Physical descriptionback to top
Three-quarter-length to left, face to viewer, monocle in right eye, white lock and hat, left hand on hip.
Conservationback to top
Conserved, 1995; 1996.
Provenanceback to top
Purchased by the Gallery from Ernest Brown and Phillips, April 1913.
Exhibitionsback to top
Vanity Fair: An Exhibition of Original Cartoons, NPG, London, 1976 (65).
In Pursuit of the Butterfly: Portraits of James McNeill Whistler, National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC, 1995 (no cat. no.).
Reproductionsback to top
Denker 1995, p.72, fig.3:12.
For copies of the print after the finished drawing, see All known portraits, Caricatures, c.18778.
Exhibitions and displays
- William Nicholson Woodcuts
Until 2 March 2014