James Abbott McNeill Whistler

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, by Unknown photographer, Summer 1885 -NPG P356 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

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James Abbott McNeill Whistler

by Unknown photographer
Platinum print mounted on card, Summer 1885
7 in. x 4 5/8 in. (178 mm x 118 mm)
NPG P356

Inscriptionback to top

On the mount, signed in ink by sitter lower right-hand corner: ‘J. Mc: Neill. Whistler’ over a butterfly monogram.

This portraitback to top

This is one of a series of plein-air platinum print photographs taken by an unidentified photographer in London in 1885. The pose is awkward and Whistler squints over his shoulder against the sun. A similar pose showing him wearing the top hat was sold at Sotheby’s in 1977. [1] Other photographs from the same session show Whistler in a group with the artists William Merritt Chase and Mortimer Menpes; in all these images he is shown, as here, with monocle and walking stick and coat flung over his left shoulder. [2]

The photographs may be connected with the article W.M. Chase wrote about his time with Whistler in the summer of 1885. [3] He was struck by the contrast between the dandyish public figure, as seen here, and the artist’s appearance in the privacy of the studio:

The Whistler of Cheyne Walk was a dainty, sprightly little man, immaculate in spotless linen and perfect-fitting broadcloth. He wore yellow gloves and carried his wand poised lightly in his hand. He seemed inordinately proud of his small feet and slender waist; his slight imperial and black mustache were carefully waxed; his monocle was indispensable.[…] This was merely Whistler at play. The real, genuine Whistler had been at work since early morning, working like a fiend – and, in truth, looking like a fiend as he worked. The monocle of the night before had been laid aside for an unsightly pair of iron spectacles, so heavy that they were clumsily wrapped with cloth where they rested on his nose. His hair was uncombed; he was carelessly dressed. [4]

There is nothing to support Jeremy Maas’s suggestion that the series of photographs may have been taken by Menpes himself. [5] A reproduction of NPG P356 in The Times (17 July 1934) was captioned: ‘A photograph of Whistler … taken in the garden of his studio in The Vale, Chelsea’. [6] For the whole series see Gallatin 1918, nos 270–74; and for a discussion of this pose in Whistler’s iconography see Denker 1995, pp.114–20.

Carol Blackett-Ord

Footnotesback to top

1) Sotheby’s, 1 July 1977 (265, ill.), £300; repr. Maas 1984, p.161. The NPG bid unsuccessfully and the photograph was exported to USA. Ten years later it successfully bid for a print taken at the same sitting, NPG P356.
2) See Menpes 1904, p.152; and Denker 1995, pp.118–20 for reproductions of photographs from this series. For another pose of the group see the photograph sold Christie’s, 25 Oct. 1984 (344). See William Merritt Chase Archives, Parrish AM, Southampton, NY, for original prints.
3) Chase 1910, pp.219–26.
4) Chase 1910, pp.222–3.
5) Maas 1984, p.160.
6) Copies of cutting colls Dept. of Special Collections, U. of Glasgow, Whistler PC20/46; and NPG SB (Whistler).

Physical descriptionback to top

Whole-length to left, standing outdoors, rear view, head turned over left shoulder, with white lock, moustache and monocle, holding top hat and gloves in left hand and cane under right arm, coat over left shoulder.

Provenanceback to top

Mortimer Menpes and by descent in Menpes family; purchased Christie’s, South Kensington, 5 November 1987 (101).

Exhibitionsback to top

Camera Portraits, NPG, London, 1989–90; National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1990–91; Birmingham Museum of Art, Alabama, 1991; Konica Gallery, Tokyo, 1991 (46).

Visitors to Venice, Boddelwyddan Castle, Wales, 2007 (no catalogue).

Reproductionsback to top

The Times, 17 July 1934, p.18.

Christie’s, 5 November 1987 (101).

NPG Report of the Trustees 1987–90, p.87.

Rogers 1989, p.109.

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