The Haunting of James Abbott McNeill Whistler

It is late on a rainy winter’s afternoon in the Hunterian art gallery in Glasgow. Little daylight finds its way into to the interconnecting rooms and the artificial light is yellow and diffuse, or seems so to the gallery-goer who is standing in front of a pair of paintings. They are behind one of the last few partitions at the back of the gallery, almost hidden from view unless one knows they are there or have happened on them in a spirit of exploration. The gallery-goer has to look slightly downwards to see them, as there are two other paintings above. These other paintings have only held her interest for a moment or two, but the lower pair seem to have transfixed her. She shifts her stance slightly as if to alter the angle of her gaze and lose some unwanted glare or reflection from the literal surfaces, and thrusts her hands in the pockets of her coat to quell an urge to reach out and feel the texture of the paint. She reads the laminated plaques at the side of each painting and confirms that they are by James Abbott McNeill Whistler and are part of the bequest of his sister-in-law Rosalind Phillip.

Whistler has never been her favourite painter – she prefers German Expressionism if anything – but at this moment she feels a compulsion to stand and let her emotional and intellectual reactions overlay each other, confuse her, vie for strength like two equidistant radio stations fighting for the capture effect. Arranging her thoughts like clothes on a washing-maiden to dry, the gallery-goer builds the following analysis.

The composition of each painting is simply the figure of a seated girl from the waist up. She has long, full, auburn hair with an untidy fringe touching her eyebrows, and tresses which rest on her shoulders. She wears a purple beret or small cap on the top of her head, pushed back. She is dressed in shapeless, dark clothes, maybe brown, or black seen with a reddish sheen by a dim lantern or firelight. In one painting her body is angled slightly away from the artist and she has turned her head towards her left shoulder to look directly at him. Her hands rest on her lap but the delineation is imprecise, they are pale and doll-like, or like hands on a photograph from Belsen. In the other painting she is slightly more squarely-on, her hands are out of sight. At first it seems that her gaze is straight towards the painter again, but perhaps she is looking to his right and slightly down. The second painting seems to have been executed with a darker palette, but in both cases it looks like paint has been applied and then has been scraped thin. The texture of paint and canvas are one. The modeling is uncertain, the girl’s pale face seems to be the only source of light. The picture space has almost no depth, as though she is sitting directly in front of a dark wall with her back pressed against it. The tone in the first painting is stark in its contrast between light and dark even though the background colour is a warm brown; the white of the girl’s hands and face are almost shocking, and although her gaze engages the artist and the viewer there is a remoteness, we are at arm’s length from her. The second painting is darker overall, but the tone of the girl’s skin is softer, there is more colour to her cheeks. She seems to be closer to us, and although her gaze is slightly averted the whole effect is more intimate. In both cases her face dominates the picture, drawing the eye into an uncertain virtual space full of ‘as though… as though’.

The gallery-goer does not know how long she has stood looking at these paintings. She becomes aware that someone has come to stand at her left elbow, though she did notice this person arrive. The other person speaks to her, and in the exchange that follows tells her a story, or maybe more than one story.

*

Beautiful, isn’t she! You don’t think so? Well I’ll grant she isn’t conventionally pretty. Her nose is long, her mouth is canted slightly downwards to the left, her expression is mournful, her complexion seems pale and warmed only by external influence rather than by her own blush, and – look here – that could almost be a scar. No, I think it is more likely to be the violence of Whistler’s palette-knife as the mark is only there on one of the paintings. But her face holds you nonetheless. Am I right?

You are wondering why the title, why ‘Le Petit Cardinal’, why present the model as a male? There is something a little androgynous to her looks I agree, but it’s obviously because of that purple cap she is wearing. Whistler painted and drew her several times with that cap on her head. Her name is Lillie Pamington. Very little is known about her apart from her having been one of several street-girls who caught Whistler’s eye in London. One can imagine he was passing in a Hansom cab when suddenly saw her in her dark coat and purple cap, weaving her way in between the press of people on the pavement. He was captivated, just as you are, by that pale face in the gaslight, bobbing along like a jack-o-lantern amongst bushes, and he rapped the roof of the cab with his walking stick – Stop, cabbie, stop! – and jumped down onto the kerb.

Miss. I say there, Miss. Young lady with the purple cap! Picture her halting, looking over her shoulder to see who was calling. Maybe he gestured her to come. Maybe she placed one of those pale hands against her chest as if to ask Me? or as if she were trying to still a racing heartbeat, unsure in her mind whether she was to be the subject of a hue-and-cry as a thief. Picture him holding out a business card. Can you read? Come to this address then, I would like to paint your portrait. Did her face remain solemn and sullen or did she smile? Was she instantly trusting or did she rebuff him at first with a few choice words of cockney? We know that she did turn up at Whistler’s studio because we have the evidence right here in front of us, but for now picture her purple cap bobbing down the street, soon lost amongst the crowds. Oi guv’nor the cabbie would have called. You want this cab or not? I’m losin’ fares.

Imagine how, a day later, she arrived at his studio, that there was a knock at the door and that when he opened it Whistler was at first puzzled. Who could these two people? One would have been a child of about fourteen with a painted face and elaborately-curled hair, the other a woman, her hands resting lightly but proprietarily on the child’s shoulders. I made her look nice for you, sir – a proper little lady to ‘ave ‘er portrait painted. Whistler would have come to realisation, and would have been horrified. No, no, this wouldn’t do – where was the solemn waif with pale face and auburn tresses that had captivated him in the street? This was a sham, a travesty, a mockery of her beauty. Imagine how he controlled his emotions and explained to the woman, as her smile faded, that he wanted her daughter – was the woman actually the child’s mother? – just as he had first seen her, and turned them away from the door. How he would have fretted for the next few days, cancelling all the sittings he had scheduled in case the woman and child returned. Would they return? There had been no mention of payment. Should he patrol the street where he had first seen her, or would that risk his not being at the studio when the next knock came?

It might have been one evening ten days later that Whistler resolved that the next day he would stop waiting for Lillie Pamington to come, and would arrange other sittings again. Imagine a light step outside and the rap of a small fist upon his door. Imagine that he opened it and saw standing in the shadow… Lillie with the pale, solemn face, with the unruly waterfall of auburn hair, with the dark coat and purple cap. Standing alone, silent. Would he have let her in without a word, or would he have smiled and said, Delighted to see you, Miss Pamington – so glad you could come, please do step inside.

What was the obsession that drove him to paint and draw her over and over again, clothed and naked? We know that he was a womaniser, and that he sired many unacknowledged children by his mistresses. Did he see in Lillie some echo of Joanna Hiffernan, the lover whom he had lost to Gustave Courbet? We do not know, Whistler never told us and as for Lillie she suddenly disappeared from his life and became obscure once more.

But imagine this. Imagine Whistler, having used up all the obsession he could on painting her, throwing his paintbrush down one evening and taking her in his arms. A kiss for ‘Uncle James’, Lillie? A struggle would have happened – I’ll tell! I’ll tell! – and he would have silenced her, consigned her limp remains to secrecy and sworn to all inquirers that he had sent her home at the usual time. But the stress of keeping the secret as a matter between himself and his burdened conscience would have weighed upon Whistler, so much so that he might have spent hours gazing upon ‘Le Petit Cardinal’, at his study in ‘Grenat et Or’. One night he would have fallen asleep and awakened to see nothing but her pale and solemn face looking out from the portrait. It would have seemed that the face detached itself from the painting and approached, as though Lillie was walking towards him. Imagine that was the first of many such night-time visitations, and that eventually he could stand no more and, snatching up his palette-knife, slashed at the apparition. Imagine that in the daylight that eventually followed, the mark of the knife was to be seen on the painting. Imagine, perhaps, that years after Whistler’s death the skeleton of an unidentified girl was found in blitzed-out rubble somewhere in London.

No? You don’t like that story? Well then, imagine this alternative. Lillie came willingly to kiss ‘Uncle James’, and her kiss was sweet as pomegranate juice but sharp as broken glass, and that she came and went as she pleased at night until Whistler wasted away and died, his life entirely drained from him.

You’re right, of course. The official story is that he was ill, that he was broken-hearted after the death of his wife Beatrix, and I’m sure that is much more likely than either of these tales. How could they be true? But just look to your right, look at his last self-portrait. Gone is the confidence of the young man in the tilted, broad-brimmed hat, gone is the flash and dandyism. Originally he painted himself in a white coat, but something made him scrape off most of the paint and re-execute the work in black or dark brown. The stance and gestures are clearly in imitation of Velazquez; but the hands are indistinct as though fluttering and fretful, the right hand perhaps on the point of being raised to repel something, the left hand just holding his coat closed, a hesitative protection. His entire weight is on his back foot, as though he is leaning away from something. His expression – his eyes – he is looking down as if at the approach of someone a good deal shorter than himself, and he is staring with horror. What is he trying to tell us? What secret is he only just holding inside?

*

This is the point at which the gallery-goer realises that the other person has fallen silent and, moreover, that the gallery lights have all been shut off apart from the single, dimming lamp where she has been standing. The gallery is in complete silence, the only sounds are faint and come from outside. The most luminous object in her line of sight is the face of Lillie Pamington in the portrait.

The other person is still a presence at her elbow, just outside her peripheral vision.

Who are you? she asks. What are you?

I may not tell you, but I may show you, says the other. Come with me.