Whistler’s First Lesson: Manage Your Palette

 If you cannot manage your palette, how are you going to manage your canvas?

"Harmony in Blue and Violet: Miss Finch" 1885
“Harmony in Blue and Violet: Miss Finch” 1885

In Glasgow, Scotland, we visited the University of Glasgow’s Hunterian Art Gallery and discovered a treasure trove: The Whistler Collection. Upon James McNeill Whistler’s death in 1903 (b. 1834), most of his work went to his sister-in-law, Rosalind Birnie Philip (1873-1958), who had been Whistler’s companion and assistant since the death of Whistler’s wife Beatrix (1857-1896). The Whistler Collection includes the contents of his house and studio at the time of his death, including unfinished work and artist’s materials.  Rosalind Philip outlived Whistler by 55 years. During those years, she devoted herself to safeguarding Whistler’s reputation. Eventually, she would seek a good home for Whistler’s estate. Her choice of Glasgow is not surprising when you see the attention and care given his work, but there was also an emotional and dramatic reason for her decision. In 1891, one of the leading Glasgow Boys (a young group of Scottish painters whose work I have fallen in love with) persuaded the Corporation of Glasgow to buy one of Whistler’s paintings. It was the first purchase of a Whistler painting by any public collection in the world. He was 57! This support of his work was not ever forgotten by Whistler or Rosalind.

In addition, the Hunterian owns the largest collection of work by Beatrix Whistler, who I was delighted to learn about. A gifted artist, she was the daughter of John Birnie Philip, who is best known for his work on the Albert Memorial in London. Being the daughter and wife of artists did not protect her from gender discrimination. To learn figure drawing, Beatrix had to pay for life models to come to her studio because female art students were denied access to models in art classes. Later, when she submitted her work for exhibition, she did so under an assumed name “Rix Birnie.”

"Girl Resting on a Sofa" by Beatrix Whistler
“Girl Resting on a Sofa” by Beatrix Whistler

Prior to my visit to The Hunterian Art Gallery at the University of Glasgow, the Whistler painting I knew best was Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl (1862). Each and every time I have been to the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, I make sure to see the painting. Little did I know that the model is Whistler’s mistress and principal model of the 1860s, Joanna Hiffernan. They were a couple for seven years, from 1860 to 1867. She posed also for Wapping, 1860-1864. Did you notice her red hair? Whistler’s biographer wrote about Joanna Hiffernan, “Her beauty was great, her gold-red hair a marvel.” She also acted as Whistler’s agent, messenger and go-between when money was short, which was nearly always (his first sale to a public collection is more than 20 years later).


wapping 1860-1864

Whistler experienced many devastating years of rejection. When he submitted The White Girl to the Paris Salon in 1863, the tradition–bound jury refused to show the work. Interestingly, Napoleon III invited avant–garde artists who had been refused space to show their paintings in a “Salon des Refusés,” an exhibition that triggered enormous controversy. While Whistler’s work met with severe public derision, a number of artists and critics praised his entry. In the Gazette des Beaux–Arts, Paul Manz referred to it as a “symphony in white,” noting a musical correlation to Whistler’s paintings that the artist himself would address in the early 1870s, when he retitled a number of works “Nocturne,” “Arrangement,” “Harmony,” and “Symphony.”

I loved seeing Whistler’s palette, brushes and paints at the Hunterian Art Gallery. He believed that preparing the palette was the most important step in creating a work of art. “White was placed at the top edge in the centre in generous quantity, and to the left came yellow, raw Sienna, raw umber, cobalt and mineral blue, while to the right, vermilion, Venetian red, Indian red and black.” He warned his students, “If you cannot manage your palette, how are you going to manage your canvas?”

palette copyIf you would like to see a fascinating range of Whistler’s work – sketches, paintings, drawings, lithographs, etchings – I encourage you to visit the National Gallery of Art’s site, which includes an amazing 615 records (images and descriptions) from their collection. In addition to managing your palette, we can see how important it is to practice every day, in any and every way that allows you to further understand and express your passion.

Here is the link to the National Gallery of Art’s collection of Whistler’s work:

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