Tag Archives: 1872.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler – Harmony in Grey and Green

6 Feb

“A fallen blossom
Returning to the branch?
It was a butterfly.”


James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Harmony in Grey and Green: Miss Cicely Alexander, 1872-1874

Whistler painted quite a few ladies in white gowns, but those ladies usually have a look of melancholy or wistfulness on their gentle faces. The little girl appears to be showing off her clothes, her white stockings, her black satin slippers, her hat with a large feather, all the way to her dazzlingly white muslin gown, but as our gaze slowly moves up, we see a pale face with pouting lips and a distant gaze that doesn’t speak of joy or rapture. This little girl however looks rather moody, hiding her anger because she isn’t allowed to express it. But how can someone dressed in such a pretty gown be so moody? How can someone posing for an artist not have cheeks blushing from thrill and rapture? This dolly isn’t a typical melancholy muse as Joanna Hiffernan was; Whistler’s lover and companion who posed for his Symphony in White no 2 and some other paintings. This little girl is Miss Cicely Alexander, a daughter of a banker that Whistler met because of their mutual interest in Oriental art, and she was eight years old when this unfortunate sitting took place. More than one sitting naturally. It took the pedantic Whistler more than seventy sittings to paint everything just as he had envisioned it. He didn’t seem to take Miss Cicely’s feelings into consideration and despite the lyrical beauty of the portrait, it didn’t remain in good memory for the little girl. This is what she had to say about the sittings: “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 sometimes used to stand for hours at a time. I know I used to get very tired and cross, and often finished the day in tears.

That’s why she looks moody! Why, wouldn’t you be moody and angry yourself, if you had to stand still for a long time and not be able to play with dolls or joke around with your friends or siblings. Sitting for Whistler surely made her feel like Sisyphus carrying that huge stone to the top of the hill over and over again; a never ending pursuit…  which did have its ending after all. And the result is a very dreamy painting that continues Whistler’s tradition of portraits of wistful ladies inspired by Japonism. In this portrait, hints of Japan come in form of bright curious daisies on the right and a few butterflies that desperately want to escape the canvas. I really love how the tall daisies seem to be leaning towards the girl, as if they are trying to comfort her; “shhh little girl, don’t cry, that Mr Whistler may be awfully demanding but the painting will be a dream once finished”. The daisies are such prophets and they were right. Whistler’s eccentricity, love for l’art pour l’art philosophy and his pedantic approach to his art truly shine through in this portrait. He paid meticulous attention to all the aspects of the setting, especially the colours because he wanted to achieve a palette of muted shades, white and greys. The carpet and the walls are in many shades of grey while Miss Cicely shines in white like a resplendent white flower. The carpet was order made and that gorgeous muslin dress was designed by Whistler and made especially for Miss Cicely to wear in this portrait. He even made sure the family find the right muslin, as a dandy he would know the fabrics!

I really love all of Whistler’s harmonies and symphonies and their balanced colour palettes, dreamy ambients and pretty wistful sitters. For a long time my favourite was The Little White Girl, and perhaps it still is, but I feel that in this portrait Whistler achieved the minimalism of colours and space that he so loved in Japanese art; the background isn’t cluttered with fur carpets or fireplaces, it is just that meditative grey that stretches on and on, the mood of infinity broken only by that black line which somewhat reminds me of a canvas by Rothko, and the canvas is a little bit elongated which brings to mind the ukiyo-e prints and the formats they used. When I look at this portrait for a long time, at first I hear silence but then I hear quiet music emerging, an echo of the daisies’ laughter, and a sound of flute carried on by the butterflies chasing each other around the moody girl in white… Oh, how she wishes she could join them!

Dante Gabriel Rossetti – Lady Lilith

24 Dec

Beware of her fair hair, for she excells
All women in the magic of her locks,
And when she twines them round a young man’s neck
she will not ever set him free again.

1866. Lady Lilith by Dante Gabriel Rossetti1872-73. Lady Lilith, with Alice Wilding as model.

Alexa Wilding (born Alice), a beautiful young girl with auburn hair captivated Dante Gabriel Rossetti with her elegance and charms ever since he first sat eyes on her in 1865. At the time they met, Alice, approximately twenty years old at the time, was working as a dressmaker but dreamed of becoming an actress. Dante spotted her one evening in the Strand in 1865. and he was immediately struck by her beauty. Naturally, he proposed her to sit for him, which she accepted but failed to arrive at his studio the following day. The reason for her absence may have been the moral dilemma of being a model in the Victorian era.

Rossetti was devastated for he had been looking for a model with distinct looks for so long; the beauty he found in the face of young Alice. Weeks later, he spotted her again and jumped from the cab he was in and convinced her to follow him to his studio the very instant. She finally accepted and Dante began paying her a weekly fee to sit for him as he was so afraid that some other painter might want to hire her as a model. Alice eventually modeled for more of his finished paintings than any other of his models, but still she is less known due to the lack of romantic connection with Rossetti. Nevertheless, the two shared a deep bond and Alice is said to have visited Rossetti’s grave and placed a wreath on it.

Rossetti first painted ‘Lady Lilith‘ in 1866-68. using Fanny Cornforth as a model, but in 1872-73. he altered it to show the beautiful face of Alice Wilding. Alice’s features were considered more refined compared to Fanny’s which were considered too earthy. In addition, Rossetti saw in Alice’s features the ability to express both virtue and vice. Who could be a better model for Lilith, beautiful yet evil woman, than Alice with her lovely face and massive golden auburn hair? Alice was described as having ”a lovely face, beautifully moulded in every feature, full of quiescent, soft, mystical repose that suited some of his conceptions admirably…” Her features are easily recognised in Rossetti’s art; red hair, long neck, Cupid-bow lips and soft, dreamy eyes.

1867. Lady Lilith, watercolour replica, showing the face of Fanny Cornforth.

Lilith was the first wife of Adam, according to Judaic myth, and is a symbol of power, temptation and seduction. Rossetti’s version of Lilith was however a modern interpretation rather than a mythical figure. It represented ‘body’s beauty‘ according to Rossetti’s sonnet. This ‘Modern Lilith‘ contemplates her own beauty in a hand-mirror. Although Rossetti painted many ‘mirror scenes’; a trend which other artists accepted, ‘Lady Lilith‘ stays the epitome of the type.

Even though the focus is the beautiful Lilith, the painting is filled with overt flower symbolism and the cluttered, depth less space. The mirror in the background shows just how unreal and bizarre the space is; it shows the reflection of both the candles in the room and the exterior nature scene. The white roses tending to Lilith, admiring her beauty perhaps, symbolise cold, sensuous love and may reflect tradition that roses first ‘blushed‘ upon meeting Eve. Flowery background was the final part of the painting. White roses were, according to Rossetti’s assistant Dunn, gathered in large baskets from John Ruskin’s garden in Denmark Hill (area of Camberwell, London) from where they were brought to Rossetti’s studio in Chelsea. Red poppy in the lower right corner symbolises sleep and forgetfulness, and may indicate Lilith’s languid nature.

Rossetti also added a feminist dimension to the painting by emphasizing Lilith’s characteristics; her powerful, threatening and seductive attitude and resistance to male domination. She’s beautiful and she’s aware of it. Her massive luxurious red hair, undisguised sensuality and ‘clothes that look as if they’re soon to be removed‘ all make her irresistible to man. The painting represents ‘beauty gazing at itself‘. Lilith is an unobtainable beauty filled with power.