James Abbott McNeill Whistler

Harmony in Grey and Green: Miss Cicely Alexander


Not on display
James Abbott McNeill Whistler 1834–1903
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1902 x 978 mm
frame: 2215 x 1300 x 100 mm
Bequeathed by W.C. Alexander 1932


Cicely Alexander was the daughter of W.C. Alexander, a successful London banker. She was eight years old when Whistler painted this portrait. Alexander may have been introduced to Whistler through their mutual interest in Oriental art - Alexander had a collection of Japanese lacquerwork and blue and white china - and Whistler adds a touch of Japonisme to the portrait through the gold-edged black dado and wall divider, and the delicate daisies and butterflies. Whistler also painted Cicely's older sister, Agnes Mary (Tate N05964), and had planned to paint her first, but was suddenly inspired to paint the younger girl in the dress and pose of Manet's Lola de Valence (1862, Musée d'Orsay). He gave strict instructions as to how Cicely should be clothed, designing the dress in detail and even giving directions as to where suitable fine Indian muslin material could be found. Even the black-and-white carpet on which she stands was made to order, by the sisters of the artist Walter Greaves (1846-1930). The finished work not only pays tribute to Manet but, through its loose brushwork and tonal handling of paint, also draws on the work of Velasquez, who had portrayed members of the Spanish court in similar poses and colouring.

The picture is, as the title proposes, a harmony in grey and green: Cicely poses against a grey wall in a grey-toned dress on grey matting. The pale green of the long feather in her grey hat is picked up in the bows of her black pumps and the sash of her dress. Having controlled so precisely the colouring of his subject, Whistler was determined to match it with his paints, and demanded over seventy sittings from the little girl, each lasting several hours. She later recalled the torture to which she was subjected:

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. (Pennell, pp.173-4.)

One of the most compelling aspects of the picture is the austere design, which joins with the precious colouring to create an exquisitely delicate sense of fragile beauty. However, when the picture was first exhibited at the Pall Mall Gallery in 1874, the critics called it 'a disagreeable presentment of a disagreeable young lady' and 'an arrangement of Silver and bile' (quoted in Dorment and MacDonald, p.147).

Further reading:
Richard Dorment and Margaret F. MacDonald, James McNeill Whistler, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1994, no.62, pp.146-7, reproduced p.147, in colour.
Elizabeth Robins Pennell and Joseph Pennell, The Life of James McNeill Whistler, vol.1, London and Philadelphia 1908, pp.173-4.
Margaret F. MacDonald, James McNeill Whistler: Drawings, Pastels and Watercolours, A Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven and London, 1994, pp.503-5.

Frances Fowle
December 2000

Display caption

Cicely Alexander, daughter of a London banker, was eight years old when Whistler painted this portrait. The artist exerted considerable control over the picture, posing the girl in the attitude of Manet’s Lola de Valence 1862, and designing her dress in detail.

The portrait demanded over 70 sittings each lasting several hours. Cicely recalled: ‘I used to get very tired and cross, and often finished the day in tears.’ Not surprisingly, the picture was criticised for its departure from the more informal formats usually adopted for child portraiture. One critic called it ‘a disagreeable presentation of a disagreeable young lady’.

Gallery label, February 2010

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