image of Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl

James McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, 1862, oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

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Pam Marcil

Peter VanDyke

Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl

Early in his career, James McNeill Whistler submitted Symphony in White, No.1: The White Girl to two esteemed annual European exhibitions—the Royal Academy in London, England, and the Paris Salon in France. The painting was rejected at both. It was shown in a less notable exhibition in 1863 and received tentative reviews. While the painting’s white tones and the lily held by the woman imply purity, her morning dress and disheveled hair suggest impropriety. This ambiguity baffled the European critics and public: “Folk nudged each other and went almost into hysterics; there was always a grinning group in front of [The White Girl].”—Emile Zola, novelist, 1886; “It is one of the most incomplete paintings we have ever met with. A woman, in a quaint morning dress of white, with her hair about her shoulders, stands alone, in the background of nothing in particular.”—F.G. Stevens, critic, June, 1862.

Critics tried to create a story behind the painting’s subject, inventing various
interpretations. They called the model a “sleepwalker," "a newly deflowered bride," and an "apparition.” Whistler left no clues as to how the painting should be read. He said, “My painting simply represents a girl dressed in white standing in front of a white curtain.” The real “story” was Whistler’s manifestation of art for art’s sake—his focus on color, line and composition—not the subject matter of the painting.

When the painting was shown in the United States 10 years later, the public generally reacted differently. The model was described as “attractive and even fascinating” with a “singular and an indescribable face, full of the strangest and subtlest expression.” American artists soon imitated the work, creating their own paintings in the manner of Whistler’s White Girl.

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