Harmony in Pink and Gray: Portrait of Lady Meux
© The Frick Collection
Oil painting of standing woman wearing white and pink dress
English (US)
Transcript
The expatriate James McNeill Whistler, regarded as an international figure by the early years of the twentieth century, was the only American artist Mr. Frick deemed worthy of his future museum--except for Gilbert Stuart, whose portrait of George Washington he may have acquired for patriotic as well as aesthetic reasons. The titles of these two full length portraits--Symphony in Flesh Color and Pink -- depicting Mrs. Frederick Leyland--and Harmony in Pink and Gray (Lady Meux)--are suggestive of music and point to Whistler's emphasis on the formal side of painting--as first and foremost an arrangement of line, form, and color--before it is a likeness of an individual. Yet both portraits evoke the personalities of the sitters. Frances Leyland stands with her back to us. She was the wife of a wealthy Liverpool shipping magnate Frederick Leyland, one of Whistler's first major patrons. All we can see of her are her serene profile and beautiful auburn hair, and her hands, and arms--glimpsed through transparent sleeves. She was a close friend of Whistler's; in fact, he made this painting as an homage to her. The artist created a complete aesthetic environment for Mrs. Leyland, designing her dress and the interior of the room as an ensemble. She stands on a rush rug with a checkerboard pattern in front of a pink wall with a low white dado in what appears to be an empty room, but was in fact the salon of Whistler's Chelsea house. The upturned floor and plum blossoms jutting in from the left reflect his fascination with Japanese prints. Whistler dressed his muse in a loose fitting "tea gown" in which he synthesizes elements of classical, Japanese, and eighteenth-century dress. The harmonious arrangement of elements in this painting extends to the frame as well. It was also Whistler's creation and it bears his "butterfly"--an emblem he used as his signature. You see it in the painting as well. The other portrait depicts Lady Meux, another friend and patron of Whister's. A woman of humble origins and strong character, she spent a period of time on the stage before marrying Sir Henry Meux, the heir to a brewery fortune. Her flamboyant and controversial behavior, however, made her an outsider to her husband's world. Undaunted, Lady Meux joined forces with the equally controversial artist to promote her image--this, in fact, is one of three full-length portraits Whistler made of her. Here, Lady Meux's theatrical flair is evident in the way she claims the shallow space in front of a curtain, and looks out at us with a challenging stare. In contrast to Mrs. Leyland's artistic dress, Lady Meux wears mainstream high fashion--an afternoon dress perhaps by Worth or Doucet. The sleek look of the bodice was made possible by the recent invention of the steam molded corset. Whistler painted her cascading chiffon train trimmed in satin with great freedom and bravado that expresses the vitality of his sitter.

Harmony in Pink and Gray: Portrait of Lady Meux

James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903)
Date: 1881–82
Medium: Oil on canvas
Dimensions:
76 1/4 x 36 5/8 in. (193.7 x 93 cm)
Framed: 87 9/16 x 48 3/16 x 3 1/8 in.
Credit Line: Henry Clay Frick Bequest
Accession number:1918.1.132
Additional Information
Susan Langdon (also known as Valerie Susie Reece, 1852–1910), daughter of a Devonshire butcher and victualer, married Sir Henry Bruce Meux, Bart., a brewer. A colorful figure in society, she once created a sensation by appearing at a hunt riding an elephant. This is the second of three portraits Whistler made of her. The first portrait, Arrangement in Black and White, is in the Honolulu Academy of Arts, and the third apparently was destroyed by the artist before it was completed as the result of a quarrel with the subject.

Source: The Frick Collection, Handbook of Paintings, New York: The Frick Collection in association with Scala Publishers, 2004.
Sir Henry Meux. Lady Meux. Sir Hedworth Meux. Frick, 1916.

Source: Paintings in The Frick Collection: American, British, Dutch, Flemish and German. Volume I. New York: The Frick Collection, 1968.