T hree stunning pastels of young ladies in dresses by one of the most prominent artistic figures of the nineteenth century, James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834–1903), are to form part of the collection at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge after being offered to the nation in lieu of Inheritance Tax in a deal negotiated by Sotheby’s Tax & Heritage.
Study For The Portrait Of Miss Cicely Alexander, Lady In A Long Pink Dress, and A Girl In A Long Blue And Red Dress were made in the 1870s during Whistler’s time in England, where he had settled over a decade earlier in 1859. They were in the collection of one of his most important patrons, the banker William Cleverly Alexander (1840–1916), in whose family these works have remained ever since.
JAMES ABBOTT MCNEIL WHISTLER. A GIRL IN A LONG BLUE AND RED DRESS, CIRCA 1872.
Alexander bought Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Chelsea in 1871 (now in Tate Britain) and was inspired to commission Whistler to paint portraits of his daughters Cicely and her older sister Agnes Mary (‘May’) after seeing Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1 Portrait of the Artist’s Mother (Musée d’Orsay), which was first exhibited in 1872, the year before the present pastels were commissioned. Alexander possibly bought the other female pastel portraits because they were similar to the ones of his daughters.
The Lady in the Long Pink Dress, drawn between 1872 and 1876, is signed with Whistler’s curving butterfly signature derived from his monogram JMW, which Whistler began to use in the 1870 and is characteristic of his late period. All three works play on the flat aesthetic of japonisme. The vibrant colours are as expressive and have the same musicality as his harmonies and nocturnes in oil. As was typical of Whistler’s pastel portraits, the faces have been left imprecise to allow the viewer to focus on the colour.
JAMES ABBOTT MCNEIL WHISTLER. LADY IN A LONG PINK DRESS, CIRCA 1872.
The oil version, Harmony in Grey and Green: Miss Cicely Alexander 1872 is one of Whistler’s most iconic works. The sitter, Miss Cicely Alexander (1864–1932) later Mrs. Bernard Spring Rice, was the second daughter of W.C Alexander. For her portrait Cicely had 70 recorded sittings; he had already begun to paint May when he wrote to her father to ask if he could paint her younger sister, Cicely. He claimed: “I should work at the present moment with more freshness at this very ‘fair arrangement’ I propose to myself than at any other…”
Cicely rather less enjoyed her time as Whistler’s model: “I’m afraid I rather considered that I was a victim all through the sittings, or rather standings, for he never let me change my position, and I believe I used to get very tired and cross and often finished the day in tears.” Whistler dressed Cicely in contemporary dress of the finest muslin. He preferred contemporary dress for his sitters as he said this was the practice of Velazques, ‘whose infantas, clad in inaesthetic hoops, are, as works of Art, of the same quality as the Elgin marbles’. With the shimmering white of the muslin and the stylish ribbons Whistler has made Cicely a 19th century English Infanta of fashion and elegance. Art and Fashion went hand in hand for Whistler.
JAMES ABBOTT MCNEIL WHISTLER. STUDY FOR THE PORTRAIT OF MISS CICELY ALEXANDER, 1872.
All three of these depictions of young women exude the elegance of the English Belle Epoque, and are some of Whistler’s very finest studies of style and colour. Coming from the estate of the actor Jeffry Wickham, the great-grandson of Whistler’s patron W.C. Alexander, these charming pastels can now be enjoyed by the nation in perpetuity.
Read the Fitzwilliam Museum's press release on the drawings here.