The Lost Symphony: Whistler & the Perfection of Art

Framing a Masterpiece

Whistler envisioned many of his paintings as part of a unified aesthetic arrangement that extended beyond the canvas. With this goal in mind, he often designed frames to enhance and extend the formal qualities of his pictures. The frame for The Three Girls—the most elaborate he ever designed—features floral decorations that were meant to harmonize with the painting’s setting in a garden. It also matched the flower-patterned wall hangings in Leyland’s dining room, where the finished painting was to be displayed. The frame’s most unusual feature is a brief passage from Six Moments musicaux by the Austrian composer Franz Schubert (1797–1828) that Whistler inscribed along the bottom edge. The reference undoubtedly alludes to the artist’s theory of aesthetic correspondences between painting and music. It would also have pleased Leyland, an amateur pianist.

My frames I have designed as carefully as my pictures—and thus they form as important a part as any of the rest of the work—carrying on the particular harmony throughout.

—Whistler, 1873

Listen to the opening bars of Schubert’s Six Moments musicaux.