JAMES ABBOTT MCNEILL WHISTLER (1834-1903)
AESTHETIC MOVEMENT (c.1867-c.1900)
Nude with a parasol (USA, c.1868)
white and black crayon on pap.
Description / Expertise
It is possible that this drawing was executed circa 1868 at the same time as a small chalk study, Woman with Parasol that relates to the second figure from the right in Symphony in Blue and Pink, one of the panels of The Six Projects. The panels set out Whistler's ideas for a never-completed scheme of architectural decoration and though open to interpretation imply a journey in search of Venus, the embodiment of beauty and love. One of the six panels depicts Venus herself, a leitmotif throughout Whistler's oeuvre and it may be that our sketch was one of a series, which he did for the picture. However, our drawing is more finished than Woman with Parasol, and it could be that though its source of inspiration was the idea behind The Six Projects it wasn't envisaged as a sketch for any particular figure and Whistler perhaps retouched it at a later date as he did several of his early drawings.
Between 1863 and 1879 Whistler began to use Oriental props in his figure paintings. The parasol was an important fashion accessory in the late nineteenth century, and as remarked by Kenneth Ames “exaggerated sexual distinctions by keeping women fair and unfreckled while serving as a prop for coquetry”. The rather coy pose of the figure with her head on one side and arms folded across her breasts whilst holding the parasol reflects this observation and the composition exudes an air of gentle eroticism reminiscent of the drawings of Watteau and Boucher.
The use of the parasol also recalls eighteenth-century French chinoiserie and it is possible that Whistler may have seen of Watteau's “diverse figures chinoises” such as Oriental Figure which depicts a woman in a kimono style dress holding a parasol over one shoulder. Whistler is also known to have been familiar with Hokusai's prints such as Woman with Umbrella and it is probable that they were a more immediate source of inspiration. However, the melange of voluptuous classical nude and oriental paraphernalia creates a fundamentally Western image, which demonstrates an awareness of contemporary fashion.
Whistler's chalk drawings date from the 1860's onwards. During his trip to Venice in 1879 he established himself as an early participant in the pastel revival. Unlike his fellow revivalists his work in pastel remained closer to drawing than painting. He seldom stumped or blended his chalks, and relied upon a substructure of clear black lines to carry each composition and give it a sense of volume. Our drawing illustrates Whistler's concern to capture the voluptuousness of the female body rather than articulating the structure and mechanics of it. As David Curry writes, “it is this sense of precarious balance, established by a sensuous linearity touched with colour, that came to characterise Whistler's mature pastel drawings”. As such they reflect Whistler's lasting struggle to control colour with line.
Nude Woman with Parasol
History: drawn about 1870. Bought by a private collector in London; auctioned, London, Sothebys, 14 June 1989 (367) as "Study of a Nude with a Japanese Parasol" by Albert Moore, bought in: bought by Peter Nahum, London dealer, 1991.
This drawing was sold at Sothebys as being by Albert Moore, and so discussion of it has inevitably centred about the question of authenticity. Both M F MacDonald of the Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow, and Richard Green of York City Art Gallery - the authority on the work of Albert Moore - now accept that it is the work of James McNeill Whistler.
There were undoubtedly similarities in subject and technique in the work of James McNeill Whistler and Albert Moore in the 1860's. They were both drawing nude and draped female figures with semi-classical accessories, usually in very simple settings - by a balcony, the sea, a sofa. They made drawings in chalk on brown paper, then small oil studies, and finally, large oil paintings. In fact, Whistler's studies rarely progressed to this final stage, partly because he found the drawings satisfying for their own sake, but partly because he was worried about the danger of their work becoming too alike.
He wrote to Moore in September 1870 about Symphony in Blue and Pink (Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, DC) that "in general sentiment of movement" it was "not unlike" Moore's work and he was concerned as to whether they "could each paint their picture without harming each other in the opinion of those who do not understand us" (n.d., Glasgow University Library, BPIIM/97-8).
Although Whistler was to some extent re-assured, his disquiet caused him to turn away from such subjects. It was not until the 1890's that he felt free to return again to these themes.
In the case of this drawing, the nude with a parasol, the rounded curves of the model, drawn with soft, smooth line of chalk, and the light, criss-crossing white highlighting on he flesh, were at first associated with Albert Moore's work.
Moore made many life drawings, but most are on a slightly larger scale, most are recognisably poses for his known paintings, and the details of his technique, particularly in his use of line, are quite different from those of Whistler.
The technique is exactly like Whistler's around 1870. Similar cross-hatching is seen, for instance, on drawings in the University of Glasgow and on such drawings as the Nude Study in the Freer Gallery in Washington (exhibition catalogue by Dr. DP Curry, James McNeill Whistler at the Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC. 1984, Plate 217).
A closer look at the development of Whistler's work shows that it fits convincingly into his oeuvre, rather than into Moore's. There are models with similar features like the Draped Figure Standing and The Purple Iris (ibid., plates 209, 219). There are many drawings where the oriental parasol is seen, such as A Japanese Woman (cat. by MF MacDonald, Notes-Harmonies-Nocturnes, Knoedler & Co., New York 1984, repr. pl. 58). It would seem that she is carrying a jug or cup - and is about to drink from it. A Nude with a Parasol and a Jug, and other related studies, are in Whistler's own collection, now housed in the University of Glasgow (cat. by M.F MacDonald, Whistler Pastels, Glasgow 1984, No. 11).
Quite apart from its relationship to Whistler's other drawings, it is also a charming drawing, in its own right. The model was posed to draw attention to the curves of her body, in particular the long curve of her hips. She is subtly counter-balanced, with the body slightly twisting, the weight on her left leg, with movement implicit in the pose.
The figure and parasol were first sketched out with rather angular lines, quite typical of Whistler's work at this time. The highlighting of the body was done carefully, indeed for Whistler, it is highly finished. In many drawings these delicate chalk lines have so faded as to be nearly invisible. This drawing is in particularly good condition, from this point of view, so that the artist's intentions are clear.
Whistler was working from a model, and there are signs of him developing and changing the modelling of the body, for example, at her hips. He showed concern for the individual characteristics of the young woman, her curving body, the heavy roundness of her hips, her small feet with their tensed toes, and her face with its gentle, reflective expression.
The drawing is on a dark, fibrous, brown paper with a slight vertical grain, used to good effect to vary the texture, to soften and add variety to the lines. Whistler used the material sensitively and achieved a most satisfying effect.