Text by Geoffrey Smith
Arcadian Dreams / Symbolist Visions
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Frances Dawson married Frederick Leyland in 1855. Her husband had joined a Liverpool shipping company as an apprentice rising rapidly to become a partner in the firm, amassing a fortune and taking control of the business in 1872. In 1867 part of his wealth had been used to buy Speke Hall near Liverpool, and two years later a grand house in London. His affluence also enabled him to collect Italian Renaissance art and Pre-Raphaelite paintings, especially by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. It was Rossetti who introduced Whistler to Leyland.
In 1871 Leyland commissioned Whistler to paint his wife’s portrait. Whistler made many visits to Speke Hall in pursuit, it seems, of a stubbornly illusive ideal. Interviewed many years later, Frances Leyland remembered that she often thought the painting to be very nearly finished only to find at her next appointment that Whistler had scraped it down and was starting again. While this was not altogether unusual behaviour – he had done much the same while painting the companion portrait of her husband – it does seem that this painting represents an extreme example of Whistler’s perfectionist tendencies. There may, however, have been other reasons for his wish to string out the process …
In 1876 Whistler began to work on another project for F.R. Leyland. Even though the shipping magnate had not received delivery of either his wife’s or his own portrait, the errant artist was engaged to repaint the hall and staircase at Leyland’s London house. Whistler took it upon himself to extend his remit and redecorate the dining room as well – which became known as the Peacock Room. This proved to be a turning point in their relationship – Leyland was outraged by the size of the bill and by Whistler’s presumption. However there was another reason for the abrupt souring of relations. Leyland had become aware of the warmth of feeling between his wife and the person who had recently spent so long in her company. There seems little doubt as to the real nature of their liaison. Whistler wrote to her in 1875 after yet another visit to Speke Hall that he was unable to give her ‘the faintest notion of my real happiness and enjoyment as your “guest” (Whistler’s quotes).’ Leyland now wrote to Whistler that ‘It is clear that I cannot expect from you the ordinary conduct of a gentleman. If I find you in her society again I will publicly horsewhip you.’ In 1879 Mr and Mrs Leyland separated.
The portrait which emerged from this turmoil is strikingly beautiful. The pose is unusual; Frances Leyland, her hands clasped lightly behind her, stands with her back towards the viewer but turns her head so that it is in profile. She wears a diaphanous confection designed by the artist – an overdress of pink chiffon cascades to the floor from a brown yoke which sits on her shoulders. White chiffon is used for the undergarment covering her shoulders – her arms are sheathed in a see-through gauze decorated with brown and light pink spirals. Rosettes and flowers are scattered on this wondrous garment, concentrating at the bottom as the dress meets the floor. We can still see the pentimenti, especially around the shoulders and upper arms – the telltale signs of numerous reworkings and the reason for all those false dawns noted by Frances Leyland.
The background and dado complement the colours of the dress exactly to create a typical Whistlerian composition using a very limited but effective palette to create a harmonious whole. Whistler used musical titles for his work precisely in order to emphasise that he was more interested in the creation of harmony of colour and mood than mere representational verisimilitude. The cherry blossom intruding from the left and the somewhat flat picture space also reminds us that Whistler was a passionate devotee of everything Japanese which reinforced his interest in the purely decorative above the slavishly descriptive.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
1872 Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Veronica Veronese, Wilmington, Delaware Art Museum
1873 Claude Monet: Impression Sunrise, Paris, Musée Marmottan Monet