Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen

James McNeill Whistler (American, 1834-1903)
United States, 1864
Oil on wood panel
H x W: 50.1 x 68.5 cm
Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1904.75a
In this costume picture from the mid-1860s, Whistler’s model and mistress, Joanna Hiffernan, poses as a courtesan—or connoisseur—absorbed in the study of a Japanese print by Hiroshige. Japanese prints were still relatively unknown in London, and a bewildered British art critic described it in 1865 as “a picture, drawing, fan or whatever it may be.”

It was precisely this apparent strangeness that attracted Whistler to Japanese art. By borrowing its motifs and stylistic elements, he liberated his art from the narrative and moralistic demands of typical Victorian painting. The frame was designed by Whistler to extend the decorative, japonesque surface of the painting. It is decorated with roundels of palm and ivy leaves reminiscent of Japanese family crests.

When Charles Freer, who already had amassed fine collection of Japanese screens, first saw this painting in 1902, he thought it “one of the most perfect things in composition and colouring in the whole range of Mr. Whistler’s art.”

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