Secrets of “Symphony in White No. 3” by James Whistler

For this exceptional American painter, friend of Gustave Courbet and Charles Baudelaire, the subject matter of the painting is less important than the perfect harmony of its colors.

Totally unclassifiable. This is the best of James Abbott McNeill Whistler, the most European-American artist. In his paintings, Impressionist, Symbolist and Japanese influences are mixed, but also those of the seventeenth-century master Velázquez. Meanwhile, his search for color seems to portend abstract art! In short, he worked at a crossroads like his life.

Born in a small town in Massachusetts in 1834, James Whistler arrived in Paris at the age of twenty-one to train in painting. At the Louvre, where he spent his days making copies as required by educational tradition, he met artists such as Gustave Courbet and Henri Fantin-Latour, as well as Charles Baudelaire. Communicating with them, he abandoned classical painting and its historical or religious themes to embark on more formal research. He is passionate about colors and their harmonies, which he tests tirelessly in portraits and landscapes.

James Whistler moved to London in 1859. Consecration came later. In 1881 France bought one of his masterpieces. Arrangement in gray and black No. 1 (Portrait of his mother), to be displayed in the Luxembourg Museum. After his death in 1903, he also made a name for himself in his native country, as collectors fell in love with this painter who was very different from his American contemporaries. James Whistler was unclassifiable, from start to finish.

Joanna, his muse – and muse in Courbet

This beautiful face surrounded by red hair is that of Joanna Heffernan, companion of James Whistler from 1860 to 1866. The beautiful Irish lady stands next to the painter’s friend’s wife. As soon as they met, Joanna became the artist’s favorite model. I inspired him first white symphony (1862), a painting showing her standing in white, on the skin of a white wolf. Here, Whistler once again puts this nuance in the spotlight. Thanks to its light touch, it is unparalleled in light output. Look at the young woman’s dress – and in particular her bodice – which seems to radiate! This painting by Whistler is the last with Joanna Heffernan. The latter had an affair with Gustave Courbet, and the couple divorced in 1866. She then made an offer to her new lover – some critics claim she was a model for his famous painting, The origin of the world.

He was undoubtedly an inspiration to Proust

Was James Whistler an inspiration to Marcel Proust for a character (painter) in his country Finding lost time ? It’s possible. The first clue: the person imagined by the writer – and who made him a symbol of the creative genius in his work – is called Elstir… Then, as we know from his correspondence, Proust admired the artist and even met him through a mutual friend. Finally, the walls of his room were completely bare, except for an image reproduced from the painting Arrangement in gray and black number 2Drawn by James Whistler.

Music above all

Why is this painting called? White Symphony No. 3 ? Because, according to Whistler, the arts come together. This idea was discovered by his friend Charles Baudelaire, especially in his poem matches. Therefore, the painter often gives titles to his paintings borrowed from the world of music, such as “Symphony” or “Night Music”. The colors in his eyes are like tones that go into harmony or, on the contrary, dissonance. Here I feel the effect of echoing between the dominant white and other shades – gray, yellow, pale pink …

Japanese touch of decoration

This traditional fan is not there by chance: it testifies to Whistler’s affinity for the culture of Japan, a country very popular in Europe since the 1860s. And the flowers, which climb in the foreground to the right of the painting, are also clearly inspired by Japanese art – natural and botanical elements are everywhere.

Be careful.. who criticizes it!

The table in front of you did not immediately gain unanimous support. “It’s not exactly a symphony in white. A lady has a yellow dress and brown hair and a blue ribbon; the other has a red fan, and there are flowers and green leaves,” says Philip Hammerton, art critic, at Saturday review in June 1867. Far from frustrated, James Whistler replied, in a letter to a relative: “Was he expecting white hair and chalky faces?” […] What an idiot. »

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