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“Symphony in White, No. 1” by James Abbott McNeill Whistler

"Symphony in White, No. 1" by James Abbott McNeill Whistler

“Symphony in White, No. 1” by James Abbott McNeill Whistler

“Symphony in White, No. 1” by James Abbott McNeill Whistler shows a woman in full figure standing on a wolf skin in front of a white curtain with a white lily in her hand.

The woman is dressed all in white, which is the color scheme of the painting. The painting was originally called “The White Girl,” but later, Whistler called it “Symphony in White, No. 1.”

Art critics have interpreted the painting as an allegory of innocence and its loss. This painting was an early experiment in white on white.

This color scheme was a subject he would return to later, in two other paintings that would be given the titles of Symphony in White, No. 2 (1864) and Symphony in White, No. 3 (1865–67). Whistler, in a letter, described the painting as:

“A woman in a beautiful white cambric dress,
standing against a window which filters the light through a transparent white muslin curtain
– but the figure receives a strong light from the right ///and therefore the picture, barring the red hair,
is one gorgeous mass of brilliant white.”

The White Girl shows the influence of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Whistler had settled in Paris at first, but in 1859 moved to London, where he would spend most of the remainder of his life.

There he met Dante Gabriel Rossetti and other members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, who would have a profound influence on Whistler.

The model is Joanna Hiffernan, the artist’s mistress. Whistler met Joanna Heffernan in London, and they become lovers.

Whistler was not entirely content with the realism the painting displayed in its original form. He later reworked it to give it a more spiritual expression.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler

James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834 – 1903) was an American artist active during the American Gilded Age and based primarily in the United Kingdom.

He was averse to sentimentality and moral allusion in painting, and was a leading proponent of the credo “art for art’s sake.”

He found a parallel between painting and music and entitled many of his paintings “arrangements,” “harmonies,” and “nocturnes,” emphasizing the primacy of tonal harmony.

Whistler influenced the art world and the broader culture of his time with his artistic theories and his friendships with leading artists and writers.

His famous signature for his paintings was in the shape of a stylized butterfly possessing a long stinger for a tail.

Symphony in White, No. 1 (The White Girl)

  • Title:                        Symphony in White, No. 1
  • Popular Title:           The White Girl
  • Artist:                      James McNeill Whistler
  • Year:                        1862
  • Medium:                 Oil on canvas
  • Dimensions             Height: 213 cm (83.8 ″); Width: 107.9 cm (42.4 ″)
  • Museum:                 National Gallery of Art, DC

James McNeill Whistler

Symphony in White: No. 1, No. 2 & No. 3.» by James Abbott McNeill Whistler

A Tour of the National Gallery of Art

Whistler’s Symphonies in White


“An artist is not paid for his labor but for his vision.”
– James Abbott McNeill Whistler


Photo Credit: 1)  James Abbott McNeill Whistler [Public domain]

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