Study for ‘Symphony in Flesh-colour and pink: Mrs. F. R. Leyland,’, 1871–74
Pastel and charcoal on brown wove paper
Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas Purchase with funds provided by the Council of the Amon Carter Museum of American Art
During the early 1870s, James Abbott McNeill Whistler was intermittently consumed by a portrait of Frances Leyland commissioned by her husband, Frederick R. Leyland, a wealthy Liverpool shipbuilder. This pastel drawing, an exquisite example of Whistler’s meticulous preparation, was one of at least ten known studies the artist executed for the full-length portrait. Working on brown, textured paper, he first drew the figure’s silhouette in charcoal then lightly applied an intricate pattern of shimmering orange, white, and yellow pastels. With her hands clasped casually behind her back, her informal pose suggests the artist’s close relationship with his subject. Whistler was a perennial guest at the Leyland’s home, Speke Hall, and it was rumored that he and Mrs. Leyland were in love.
James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) was born into wealth in Lowell, Massachusetts, and was educated at West Point. In 1855 he went to Paris to study art and never returned to the United States. London became his permanent home after 1859. Portraiture dominated Whistler’s early work and reflected his association with London society. Despite his success and connections, he left England for a time in 1879, when disputes with the critic John Ruskin (1819–1900) and his former friend and patron Frederick R. Leyland bankrupted him. He went to Venice where he redirected his art by exploring the light and atmosphere of the city in delicate etchings, pastels, and watercolors. Whistler returned to London in 1881 and lived there until the end of his life, but he never again looked upon his adopted city with the same affection. In 1890 this famously irascible artist published a memoir—a collection of letters that he called The Gentle Art of Making Enemies.