Representations of Cultural Celebrities:
James McNeill Whistler's Male Portraits at the
First Grosvenor Gallery Exhibition

Midori Kono


During the opening exhibition of the Grosvenor Gallery, James McNeill Whistler presented somewhat puzzling portraits in which the sitters are depicted in the dark with obscured features. In Arrangement in Black, No. 3: Sir Henry Irving as Philip II of Spain (Fig. 1, 1876), Whistler chose a famous actor as a sitter but painted him as an unsubstantial figure emerging from the darkness. In Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 2: Portrait of Thomas Carlyle (Fig. 2, 1872–1873), Whistler depicted Carlyle without focusing on his face or stressing the likeness. Unlike other artists exhibiting at the Grosvenor, Whistler portrayed celebrities with seemingly little regard for their identities and status. This paper will discuss these puzzling portraits in the context of the Grosvenor as well as the context of Whistler’s exhibition strategy. 

Between 1877 and 1890, the Grosvenor represented the latest taste in art, encompassing the avant-garde as well as the conventional.[1] Established by Sir Coutts Lindsay, the Grosvenor used an exhibition system that differed from the one used by the established and popular Royal Academy. In the Grosvenor, only artists who had been invited could exhibit their work, and all of an individual artist’s work was displayed in one place so that the viewers could recognise each artist’s style easily. In the Royal Academy, the arrangement of paintings was crowded, and the placement of works was based on hierarchical principles.[2] The audience at the Grosvenor was more exclusive than the crowds of the Royal Academy, and their “self-selection informally created a far higher social threshold.”[3] The public, always on the lookout for new trends, paid keen attention to the Grosvenor’s opening exhibition, making the Grosvenor a unique opportunity for an artist to gain publicity.

The inclusion of Whistler’s nightscape paintings helped to secure the reputation of the gallery as a place that supported avant-garde artists. In Whistler scholarship, his nightscapes are seen as the culmination of his pursuit of decorative art: the term “decorative” being key for Whistler’s works at the time. In the late nineteenth century, artists and theorists challenged the hierarchy between the fine arts and decorative arts.[4] The term was frequently used in the description of fine arts, especially in the context of Aestheticism. Helen Smith argues that the term “decorative” changed its meaning from “diapers and arabesques, through pictorial and figurative mural decoration, to any kind of painting aimed at satisfying the eye.”[5] In Whistler’s oeuvre, this term is most readily associated with his Nocturnes.[6] John Siewert points out that Whistler’s Nocturnes embrace nature and decoration, representing a milieu between a portrayal of an existing place and harmony in colours.[7] John Ruskin famously criticised one of Whistler’s Nocturnes, Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, stating:  “I have seen, and heard, much of Cockney impudence before now, but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.”[8] Whistler consequently sued him for libel. As Linda Merrill describes, Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket “was the most abstract, and thus the most difficult to comprehend, of all of Whistler’s paintings.”[9]  The Nocturnes and their decorative and abstract qualities were much discussed in conjunction with this lawsuit.[10] 

Figure 1. James McNeill Whistler, Arrangement in Black, No. 3: Sir Henry Irving as Philip II of Spain, 1876, oil on canvas, 215.3 x 108.6cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Figure 2. James McNeill Whistler, Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 2: Portrait of Thomas Carlyle, 1872–73, oil on canvas, 171.1 x 143.5cm, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow.

Whistler’s association with the Grosvenor is mostly due to the history-making libel suit over his Nocturnes, and his portrait submissions have been less discussed. However, Whistler’s Grosvenor portraits are worth examining, as they were well-suited to the culture that developed in the gallery. Initially, Whistler submitted three vertical black portraits: Arrangement in Black, No. 3: Sir Henry Irving as Philip II of Spain, Arrangement in Black and Brown: The Fur Jacket, and Portrait of Miss Florence Leyland, and Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 2: Portrait of Thomas Carlyle. The portrait of Carlyle was a last-minute addition and hung in the gallery’s entrance on New Bond Street. The other portraits were exhibited in the West Gallery.[11] While the female sitters were not public figures, Irving and Carlyle were well-known celebrities.[12] 

This essay examines the pictorial and exhibition strategies of Whistler’s portraits within the context of the Grosvenor and the context of Whistler’s reputation as an avant-garde artist. It focuses on Whistler's portraits of Irving and Carlyle and argues that these works can be seen as a declaration of Whistler’s style rather than the literal portrayal of his sitters. Whistler chose as his sitters celebrities who were particularly influential in cultural circles and whose likenesses had appeared in many photographs and portraits. He avoided rendering straightforward likenesses and in this way made a unique contribution to this particular cultural field comprising an audience more exclusive and elitist than the one that visited the Royal Academy.[13] As we will see from Whistler’s portraits of Irving and Carlyle, unlike other portraitists who emphasised their sitters’ likeness and took advantage of their fame, Whistler challenged the perception of the identities of his sitters, and in so doing, represented himself as an elite portrait painter.


Portraits were important in the Grosvenor, taking up a lot of wall space. Artists, the sitters, and their portraits contributed to a sophisticated cultural atmosphere at the opening exhibition. The Grosvenor was regarded as the best place for exhibiting portraits, unlike the Royal Academy where an overabundance of portraits was hung on the wall every year, and the audience was anxious about their ever-increasing number.[14] In The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, a character states: 

You must certainly send it [the full-length portrait of Dorian Gray] next year to the Grosvenor. The Academy is too large and too vulgar. Whenever I have gone there, there have been either so many people that I have not been able to see the pictures, which was dreadful, or so many pictures that I have not been able to see the people, which was worse. The Grosvenor is really the only place.[15]

At the opening exhibition, Lindsay invited some principal portraitists such as John Everett Millais, George Frederic Watts, and Francis Grant, and they chose to exhibit their portraits of celebrities. For example, Millais exhibited a portrait of his friend and sculptor, Lord Ronald Gower, and Edward Poynter exhibited his portrait of Georgiana Burne-Jones, while Watts’s portrait of Edward Burne-Jones also got favourable reviews. Frederic William Burton, who was an Irish portrait painter and the head of the National Gallery in London, exhibited his portraits of Mrs. Douglas Freshfield and Mrs. George Smith, both wives of famous Victorian gentlemen.[16] Joseph Edgar Boehm demonstrated his skill at capturing a likeness in his bust sculpture of Whistler. It is in this field that Whistler took part with his portraits of Irving and Carlyle. 

At the time, not only the performance but the performers themselves attracted the public’s attention. They were often represented as respectful gentlemen as well as artists.[17] Irving was one of the most prominent actors in the Victorian era and had an influence that extended beyond theatrical circles.[18] He was the first actor to receive a knighthood and gain acceptance as a member of the respected class. In 1883, he was featured in Men of Mark, a book of celebrities.[19] The National Portrait Gallery owns 122 portrait paintings and photographs of Irving (for example, Fig. 3, ca. early 1870s), and this substantial number of surviving images of Irving both on and off-stage attests to Irving’s immense popularity as an actor as well as a cultural icon.[20] Ruskin and Wilde both liked Irving’s acting, and other exhibitors at the Grosvenor such as Millais and Leighton also went to the Lyceum Theatre to watch Queen Mary, a play written by Alfred Tennyson, in which Irving portrayed Philip II.[21] Having this famous actor as a sitter enabled Whistler to fit in well with other portraitists in the Grosvenor.[22]

While Irving was best known for being a Shakespearean actor, Whistler chose to depict him as Philip II, without receiving any commission.[23] Irving’s role as Philip II garnered significant positive attention despite the role being relatively minor.[24] As Helen Margaret Walter points out, finding a parallel between theatrical performances and paintings was a typical reaction for Irving’s contemporary audience, and when Irving played the role of Charles I in 1872, his acting was described as “Van Dyck in Action”.[25] In Queen Mary, the audience would have associated him with existing images of the Spanish king.[26] Indeed, one critic noted that Irving’s “imitation of Philip’s appearance as given in the portraits of him was really admirable”.[27] One of Irving’s contemporaries, reviewing his acting, likened him to a Velázquez painting (although Velázquez portrayed Philip IV, not Philip II):

Figure 3. Lock & Whitefield, Sir Henry Irving, ca. early 1870s, woodburytype on card mount, 8.7 x 5.7cm, National Portrait Gallery, London.

It is a fact that while I have vivid recollections of all the other plays he produced I recall nothing whatever of this particular play, except the figure of Philip standing before a great fireplace, sinister and terrifying, the very embodiment of a Velazquez.[28]

This comment evokes an image of the dignified presence of Irving, lit by the flickering light of a fireplace, his Spanish costume and accessories glowing in the dark theatre like those in a Velázquez portrait. Upon seeing Irving as Philip II, Whistler might have immediately thought about Velázquez. He was inspired by the Spanish artist’s portraits throughout his career, and built on the old master’s style, making it more decorative. 

His first large portrait, Arrangement in Black: Portrait of F. R. Leyland (Fig. 4, 1870–1873), owes much to Velázquez’s portraits of the monarch, such as Philip IV (Fig. 5, ca. 1623–28) in terms of the sitter’s pose and simplified background.[29] Looking at the pose in the portrait, Whistler embraced the firm and static stance taken by Irving, but altered it to appear more understated. Wilde said that the portrait showed “a queer stiff position that Mr. Irving often adopts preparatory to one of his long wolf-like strides across the stage.”[30] In an illustration by Harry Furniss of Irving as Philip II (Fig. 6, 1867), Irving poses similarly, but his stance is rendered more dramatically with his shoulder lifted and eyebrows raised. Irving’s chest is puffed up proudly, with his cloak spread to follow his movement. Unlike Furniss’s drawing, Whistler restrains the pose and its prideful attitude in favour of a static impression. Further, by consciously removing the fireplace mentioned by the above critic, Whistler suppressed the dramatic effect of light to strengthen the darkness and enhance the monochromatic harmony.

Figure 4. James McNeill Whistler, Arrangement in Black: Portrait of F. R. Leyland, 1870–73, oil on canvas, 192.8 x 91.9 cm, Freer Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Figure 5. Diego Velázquez, Philip IV, ca. 1623–1628, oil on canvas, 198 x 101.5cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid.

Figure 6. Harry Furniss, Henry Irving as Philip in Tennyson’s ‘Queen Mary’, 1876, ink on paper, 30.9 x 19.2cm, Museum of London.

When painting this portrait, Whistler likely referred to Velázquez’s portrait of Pablo de Valladolid (Fig. 7, ca. 1635) and Édouard Manet’s Tragic Actor (Rouvière as Hamlet) (Fig. 8, 1866).[31] When it comes to Irving’s restrained pose, the latter seems to have been a particularly important source for Whistler. As H. Barbara Weinberg claims, Whistler had limited first-hand experience of seeing Velázquez’s works, but he had photographs of them, including Pablo de Valladolid.[32] Manet was inspired by this work when he saw it at the Prado, and after returning to Paris, he produced The Tragic Actor, which was exhibited at his one-man exhibition in Paris in 1867.[33] Whistler’s portrait shares quality with these two works. 

In Velázquez’s portrait, the sitter stands with his feet apart and arm outstretched as if he were talking to the audience. In Manet’s portrait, the sitter holds his hands in front of his torso in a tense pose. Compared to Velázquez’s portrait, which gives the impression of movement, Whistler’s portrait is static and tense like Manet’s; however, Whistler and Manet deal with the space differently. Richard Dorment writes that “Manet’s handling of his figure has a vivid solidity very different from Whistler’s more decorative treatment”.[34] Manet’s portrait features a strong shadow behind the standing figure, highlighting the spatial depth. The figure’s strong presence is contrasted against the ochre background. On his visit to Museo del Prado, Manet praised Velázquez’s Pablo de Valladolid, declaring it the best work, writing: “The background disappears, there’s nothing but air surrounding the fellow, who is all in black and appears alive”.[35] In contrast, Whistler intensifies the darkness and makes the space blur by making the black clothes and the sitter’s shadow merge with the dark background. The overall use of black makes the golden trim of the cloak and the white tights stand out clearly, while barely distinguishing the sitter from the background. The border between the background and the figures is blurred, and the gold and white colours shine on the black canvas, making the portrait appear more decorative. This influence and effect led Henry James to declare that Whistler’s paintings in the Grosvenor were “ghosts of Velazquez”.[36] 

Wilde, who had seen Queen Mary, noted that the portrait made the audience perceive the sitter as more realistic by portraying him emerging from the darkness:

And we may imagine that anyone who had the misfortune to be shut up at night in the Grosvenor Gallery would hear this “Arrangement in Black No. 3” murmuring, in the well-known Lyceum accents. “By St. James, I do protest, Upon the faith and honour of a Spaniard, I am vastly grieved to leave Your Majesty. Simon, is supper ready?”[37]

The life-sized figure emerging from the darkness reflected Whistler's respect for the Spanish portrait tradition, and, when viewed in dimly lit areas, would have given the viewers the illusion that the actor was physically present before them. The painting reminded Wilde of the farewell scene between Mary and Philip, where Mary is reluctant to part with Philip because she loves him, while Philip, always being cold and cynical toward her, pretends to be sad and calls a Spanish ambassador.[38] The scene highlighted Philip’s essential characteristic, aloofness, which was heightened through contrast with Mary’s love. Visitors to the Grosvenor would therefore have been able to enjoy Whistler’s portrait of Irving while remembering their experience at the Lyceum theatre. 

Figure 7. Diego Velázquez, Pablo de Valladolid, ca. 1635, oil on canvas, 209 x 123cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid.

Figure 8. Édouard Manet, The Tragic Actor (Rouvière as Hamlet), 1866, oil on canvas, 187.2 x 108.1cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.


Carlyle was a leading writer in the Victorian era, not only energetically working as a historian, but famous for his involvement in social activities. At the time of the exhibition, he was in his early eighties and lived a reclusive life, yet he remained a well-known figure. Carlyle was portrayed so many times that a contemporary critic, referring to his importance as a sitter, stated “No eminent man of our time is better known by his portraits than Thomas Carlyle.”[39] Portraying Carlyle provided an opportunity for artists to engage in direct competition with other artists, allowing them to express the originality of their style through the depiction of a face widely known through paintings and photographs. Julie F. Codell writes that “portraits of sages like Thomas Carlyle provoked debates about their character, as countless images of them circulated across multiple media.”[40] 

At the exhibition, Alphonse Legros exhibited a portrait of Thomas Carlyle (Fig. 9, 1877). About a month following the opening of the gallery, after seeing the Carlyle portraits by Whistler and Legros, Millais produced his own portrait of Thomas Carlyle (Fig. 10, 1877). Millais’s and Legros’s portraits give a different impression despite being the same format and size. Both portraits are half-length, depicting the sitter from his head to his knees. Although using the same sitter and focusing on the same features, the two portraits look and feel very different. In Millais’s portrait, Carlyle looks much younger than his age, intelligent and energetic despite being eighty-two years old. By contrast, Legros shows the age of the sitter unflinchingly by depicting Carlyle’s unfocused gaze, his wrinkled and veiny hands, and his need for back support. In Millais’s portrait, Carlyle also sits on a chair, but his strong gaze looks at us and his pose is tense.

Figure 9. Alphonse Legros, Thomas Carlyle, 1877, oil on canvas, 114.3 x 88.9cm, National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh.

Figure 10. John Everett Millais, Thomas Carlyle, 1877, oil on canvas 116.8 x 88.3cm, National Portrait Gallery, London.

In both portraits, however, the artist dwells upon the details of the sitter's face, drawing in the viewer's attention. Although Millais’s portrait was not finished – as evidenced by the incomplete painting of the hands – the completed face provides a romanticised view of the sitter. James Froude, Carlyle’s biographer, noted that Millais tried to capture Carlyle’s complex personality:

The passionate vehement face of middle life had long disappeared. Something of the Annandale peasant had stolen back over the proud air of conscious intellectual power. The scorn, the fierceness, was gone, and tenderness and mild sorrow had passed into its place. And yet under Millais’s hands, the old Carlyle stood again upon the canvas as I had not seen him for thirty years.[41]  

Barlow points out that there is “a psychological drama, a point of struggle between thought and physical appearance” in the act of portraying.[42] Carlyle’s direct gaze appeals to the viewer’s emotions and makes Millais’s portrait dramatic. 

Whistler's portrait of Carlyle allowed him to compete with other artists and their portraits of the same sitter through his unique pictorial strategies. Whistler eschews the physicality or emotional aspects vividly rendered by Legros and Millais by adopting the profile view and choosing to depict the sitter from a distance. This avoids the strong impact of Carlyle’s characteristic face known by the public through not only portraits but many photographs (for example, Fig. 11, ca. 1865). In Whistler’s portrait, Carlyle’s clothes are painted with a clear and simplified outline and matte black. The motifs such as the figure, chair and paintings within the portrait are reduced to their simple shape and colour and serve as the formal elements of the composition. Instead of a faithful rendition of the sitter’s likeness, the focus is instead placed upon the overall composition: a composition that recalls his painting of his mother that was not exhibited at the Grosvenor but was known to the public through its display at the Royal Academy in 1872 and his one-man exhibition at Flemish Gallery in 1874.[43] In Whistler’s portrait of Carlyle, there are two pictures on the wall (Fig. 12, 1872–1873). They are too vague to identify specifically, but we can see that the upper one is a portrait, while the lower one is a Nocturne, thus representing the artist’s two signature genres. On the right side of the canvas, Whistler has painted his butterfly signature. It functions as a symbol of the artist as well as a decorative arrangement on the canvas.[44] The pictures on the wall and the stylised signature remind the viewer of the presence of the artist’s hand. For Whistler, the sitter is absorbed into the overall composition, disrupting the presumed hierarchy between sitter and setting. Whistler addressed his theory on portraiture in 1878, emphasising its decorative quality:

Figure 11. Elliot & Fry, Thomas Carlyle, ca. 1865, albumen carte-de-visite, 8.8 x 5.9cm, National Portrait Gallery, London.

The imitator is a poor kind of creature. If the man who paints only the tree, or flower, or other surface he sees before him were an artist, the king of artists would be the photographer. It is for the artist to do something beyond this: in portrait painting to put on canvas something more than the face the model wears for that one day; to paint the man, in short, as well as his features; in arrangement of colours to treat a flower as his key, not as his model.[45]

In spite of the distance between sitter and viewer, and the profile posing, Whistler nonetheless accurately and effectively captures Carlyle's likeness. Carlyle sits on a chair, holding his cane and supporting his tired body. It is not as dramatic as Millais’s, nor as detailed and realistic as Legros’s, but the mood of the ageing sitter – along with his slightly red face and plentiful grey hair – is well expressed. Carlyle himself thought that a good portrait should express a likeness. He had a strong interest in portraiture, as he advocated for the establishment of national portrait galleries in London and Edinburgh. For Carlyle, the portrait had more value than other forms of art because it pursued authenticity.[46] He thought that authentic portraits should aspire to capture a likeness that would generate a link between the onlooker and the sitter and the present and the past.[47] According to Carlyle, physiognomy represented the inner personality through  the depiction of the face.[48] Despite being quite judgemental about the artists who produced his portraits, he appreciated Whistler’s version of him.[49] In a letter written on his behalf, Carlyle’s niece wrote to Whistler, “He [Carlyle] remarked to me when he returned from his last sitting ‘that he really couldn't help observing that it was going to be very like him and that there was a certain massive originality about the whole thing, which was rather impressive!’.”[50] But it is also said that Carlyle moaned that Whistler’s “anxiety seemed to be to get the coat painted to ideal perfection; the face went for little.”[51] Carlyle’s remarks seem to stem from his observation of the careful balance between design and likeness that Whistler achieved.

Figure 12. Detail, James McNeill Whistler, Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 2: Portrait of Thomas Carlyle, 1872–73, oil on canvas, 171.1 x 143.5cm, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow.


This last section will explore how Whistler’s portraits worked within the gallery’s overall decorative scheme to represent his identity as an artist to the public. The Grosvenor was a suitable place for Whistler to present his unique style because the works were exhibited in one place. Seeing his Nocturnes and portraits together at the Grosvenor, his black colour scheme would have stood out more than if one were seeing the paintings apart. The black colour scheme was a radical shift from his one-man exhibition in 1874: Whistler’s first opportunity to let the public see that he was a portraitist. A critic wrote:

The complete accomplishment of the artist is represented by a number of full-length portraits in oil. These works would add to the fame of any living painter, and they will prove to many who were ignorant of it before that Mr Whistler is entitled to rank among the first portrait painters of the day.[52]

Whistler painted the wall of the venue with pink-grey distemper and exhibited the black portraits and light-colour portraits alternately.[53] The light colour scheme of the interior complemented his portraits. For example, Symphony in Flesh Colour and Pink: Portrait of Mrs. Frances Leyland shows a delicate tonal arrangement in pink. Harmony in Grey and Peach Colour features neutral and smoky colours. These delicate colours would have been drawn out for the viewer through the paintings’ presentation in the light-coloured environment Whistler created.

Whistler had to adapt his paintings to the environment at the Grosvenor, and his exhibition strategy of emphasising monochrome was successful. The interior of the Grosvenor looked luxurious. The wall was crimson silk, and the dado was deep green. In the West Gallery, Whistler showed a contrasting colour scheme to Burne-Jones, who attracted the most attention at the opening exhibition. While Whistler exhibited Nocturnes and portraits here, Burne-Jones exhibited large decorative paintings including, The Days of Creation, The Mirror of Venus (Fig. 13, 1877), and The Beguiling of Merlin. Burne-Jones’s paintings were characterised by dreamy and saturated colours, which a critic compared with the Venetians.[54] By exhibiting dark portraits and nightscapes, Whistler presented his mastery of the use of black. The viewers would have understood that the same mastery was on display in his portraits and landscapes. His black colour scheme makes a stark contrast with Burne-Jones, in whose works the figures are drawn and painted with saturated colours. As previously discussed, through these dark portraits, Whistler was able to show himself to be a follower of the Spanish tradition of portraiture. 

Whistler’s monochromatic colour palette worked well with the Grosvenor’s red wall as well. Some critics complained that the colours and the general conditions of the gallery ruined the impression of the paintings exhibited there. Wilde wrote that a bust-length portrait by Millais depicting a woman with a white dress and white hat was ruined by the gallery’s colour scheme.[55] In Burne-Jones’s The Mirror of Venus, a group of female figures clad in red, blue, green and orange are looking into the water. The effect of various colours is duplicated and enhanced by the water surface functioning as a mirror. But Burne-Jones protested that the red wall “sucks all the colour out of pictures, and only those painted in grey will stand it.”[56] Furthermore, a contemporary critic said that the fog and dust entering the gallery made the appearance of the works dim and blackened.[57] However, thanks to Whistler’s use of monochromatic palettes, the critic notes that his paintings did not “undergo something approaching chromatic extinction.”[58] 

Figure 13. Edward Burne-Jones, The Mirror of Venus, 1877, oil on canvas, 120 × 200cm, Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon.

While Whistler contrasted remarkably with Burne-Jones in terms of colour, he differentiated himself from Watts in terms of subject matter. In the opening exhibition, Watts occupied an important position. As Barbara Bryant states, his portraits “epitomized the spirit of the whole Grosvenor venture” and confirmed his reputation as the premier portrait painter.[59] Watts’s portrait, Blanche, Lady Lindsay (Fig. 14, 1876–1877), in particular, was a symbolic image that celebrated and characterised the newly built gallery.[60] It was exhibited at a “place of honour” and caught the visitors’ attention.[61] The sitter, Lady Lindsay, was her husband’s co-organizer and helped him run the gallery. As Watts had known the couple before the gallery opened, he could portray the sitter in a less formal, more intimate way.[62] In her portrait, Lady Lindsay plays the violin and looks at the viewers over her shoulder with a welcoming warm smile. She is presented as a cultural elite versed in music and the visual arts, as well as an ideal hostess organising the gallery. This portrait welcomed viewers and made them feel like fellow members of a cultural community. In the West Gallery, Lindsay also exhibited a full-length portrait of Lady Lindsay.[63] The visitors to the gallery would have been impressed with the presence of the elegant hostess. Watts was keen on the context in which he presented his portraits. He chose the specific cultural celebrities to portray and, in his portraits, highlighted the association between the artist and the sitter.

Another important portrait by him hanging at the Grosvenor was Mrs Percy Wyndham (Fig. 15, 1867–1873). This full-length portrait presents the sitter in grand manner. She was the wife of the Honourable Percy Wyndham and a sitter suitable for being displayed in a venue where works of Aestheticism were exhibited. The couple were known for their patronage of the arts, being on close terms with many artists. Their friends included Watts, Frederic Leighton, Valentine Prinsep, and Edward and Georgiana Burne-Jones, who also contributed to the Grosvenor as both an artist and a sitter.[64] Mrs Wyndham was an influential person in artistic circles and having her sit for a portrait was seen as beneficial. When Watts was asked to portray Mrs Wyndham at a time when he was too busy to start on a new commission, he wrote, “Mrs Percy Wyndham is however too good a subject to be given up without regret”.[65]

As is typical of portraits in the grand manner, the sitter is depicted on a large canvas, but there are no common grand manner motifs such as a red curtain or ancient columns. The sitter is posed unpretentiously against a background of thick plants, which evoke Venetian portraits. Watts might have borrowed the idea of painting plants behind the sitter from Palma Vecchio’s Portrait of a Poet bought by the National Gallery in 1860, which shows a laurel behind the sitter’s head.[66] Concerning the dress, Henry James wrote that it “will never be wearisome; a simple yet splendid robe, in the taste of no particular period―of all periods”, and compared it with James Tissot’s modern stylish dress.[67] The dress is decorated with a pattern of large sunflowers, a popular motif in Aestheticism, indicating the artist’s and sitter's familiarity with the latest trends in art. In this portrait, Watts, who was a close friend of the sitter, combined upper-class elegance with informal casualness. This portrait was praised by critics for the sitter’s “dignity”, expressing a “statuesque repose”.[68]

In both portraits, Watts depicts the sitters as cultural elites who are familiar with art in a way that is in harmony with the Grosvenor. Whistler conveys the identity of the sitter, yet rather prioritises the overall composition over the likeness. The relationship that emerges between his portraits and the exhibition space is more complex. In the portrait of Irving, Whistler painted the actor in the costume he wore when he played Philip II, overlaying it with a portrait of Velázquez. In the portrait of Carlyle, he depicted the seated figure in profile and from a distance, while other portraitists moved closer and put emphasis on the face. Other artists who exhibited their portraits at the Grosvenor also chose cultural elites appropriate to the milieu of the venue. Among them, however, Whistler presented his idiosyncratic style to the extent that it competed with the celebrity status and identity of his sitters. He did not merely adapt to the Grosvenor and the audience but sought to attract attention. He painted well-known people in a complex way, presented a contrasting colour scheme with the surrounding walls, and competed with other representative artists of the exhibition such as Burne-Jones and Watts.

Figure 14. George Frederic Watts, Blanche, Lady Lindsay, 1876–77, oil on canvas, 110.5 x 85.1cm, private collection. From Barbara Bryant, G. F. Watts: Portraits: Fame and Beauty in Victorian Society (London: National Portrait Gallery, 2004). Photo by author. Low-resolution photograph of out-of-copyright artwork used under fair dealing for critique or review.

Figure 15. George Frederic Watts, Madeline Wyndham, ca. 1867–1873, oil on canvas, 215.9 x 104.1cm, private collection. From Barbara Bryant, G. F. Watts: Portraits: Fame and Beauty in Victorian Society (London: National Portrait Gallery, 2004). Photo by author. Low-resolution photograph of out-of-copyright artwork used under fair dealing for critique or review.

The audience complained that Whistler’s monochromatic paintings were hard to understand as they appeared to lack physical substance. One critic wrote that the portrait of Irving was “a long smudgy black figure standing on nothing, with indistinctly shadowed hands, above which appears a ghostly head peering painfully through the surrounding gloom.”[69] The same critic called his works “Harmonies in Smudge.”[70]  Whistler did not allow the audience to see his paintings as simple portraits of celebrities. He required the audience to adopt a serious attitude and look at his works as pieces of art rather than the likeness of the celebrities.  Robert Slifkin argues that Whistler’s “black portraits” divided the audience between cultural elites and philistines and fed the bourgeoisie’s desire to be aesthetic.[71] He also claims that Whistler himself was well aware of this type of audience.[72] As Slifkin discusses, how the audience saw Whistler’s “black portraits” depended upon their perception and their willingness to understand them as the depicted subject were vague unclear, and this resonated with the artist’s elitist view that a select few could appreciate art.[73] A review of Burne-Jones’s works suggests that the critics were judgemental about the distinction between the elites and the Philistines at the Grosvenor: “extremely rich in the productions of Mr. Burne-Jones, a Pre-Raphaelite painter in excelsis and one of acknowledged power in conception in skilfulness in manipulation, but whose mannerisms are so many and so strongly pronounced that the Philistines who decline to admire―possibly because they fail to understand them―considerably outnumber the chosen people of the critics and connoisseurs who are able to comprehend and enjoy such characteristic works of this undeniably gifted master as ‘The Days of Creation,’ ‘Venus’s Mirror,’ and ‘The Beguiling of Merlin.’’’[74] Whistler’s portraits imbued with the artist’s elitist stance harmonised with the exclusive society in the Grosvenor.


In this article, I argued that Whistler created a highly individual personal aesthetic by pushing the boundaries of the Spanish Baroque style in the portrait of Irving. His portrait of Carlyle demonstrates his interest in balancing design with a recognizable likeness. Whistler contributed to the cultural field by submitting portraits that emphasised his style and did not allow the audience to see them as simple likenesses of celebrities. His portraits demonstrated a black colour scheme that functioned well in the interior, where strong colours dominated. At the first exhibition of the Grosvenor, Whistler presented himself as an aesthetic and elite portraitist by not simply adapting his style to the venue, but by taking advantage of it to further his reputation as an avant-garde painter. In the previous scholarship of the Grosvenor, the trial about Whistler’s Nocturnes has been seen as an epoch-making event, but his portraits also made remarkable contributions to the gallery. The Grosvenor also had a significance as a showcase of portraits of celebrities, in which Whistler’s portraits, in particular, were vital examples that supported the gallery’s avant-garde status.

Midori Kono is a PhD student at the University of York, conducting research on James McNeill Whistler’s career as a portraitist under the supervision of Professor Liz Prettejohn. Her project, funded by JASSO (Japan Student Services Organization), explores how Whistler revitalized the tradition of grand manner portraiture while relating to his contemporary art scenes in London and Paris.


Article Information
Midori Kono, “Representations of Cultural Celebrities: James McNeill Whistler's Male Portraits at the First Grosvenor Gallery Exhibition,” Aspectus, no. 5 (Fall 2023): 15–31. DOI: 10.15124/yao-ztdg-0836