The Lost Symphony: Whistler & the Perfection of Art

The Three Girls and Related Projects

While working on The Three Girls around 1868, Whistler began at least five other paintings that never progressed beyond oil studies. Believing in the fundamental unity of all beautiful things, he combined fans, parasols, and other Japanese accessories with the flowing drapery and ideal proportions of classical Greek sculpture. He also adopted a palette of pale tones to create delicate color harmonies. Over the years Whistler’s five studies have sometimes been grouped with an oil sketch for The Three Girls under the misleading heading “The Six Projects.”

Whistler began these works as rough compositional sketches. He then developed them into chalk figure studies and further revised them as pen-and-ink sketches and oil studies. The primary purpose of the oil study was to establish the color scheme of the finished painting. After admiring the sketch of The Three Girls in Whistler’s studio, the poet Algernon Swinburne extolled its “varying chords of blue and white, not without interludes of the bright and tender tones of floral purple or red.” The delicate color harmony reinforced Whistler’s theme of fleeting beauty, symbolized by the fragile cherry blossoms. The hothouse imagery suggests a deeper meaning: if art is to flourish, it must be sheltered from the real world, an environment inhospitable to ideal beauty.

I had a large picture of three figures nearly life size fully underway—indeed far advanced towards completion—the owner delighted—and everyone highly pleased with it—except myself—Instead of going on with it as it was, I wiped it clean out! scraped it off the canvass and put it aside . . . and now I expect shortly to begin it all over again.

—Whistler, 1879

A Picture is finished when all trace of the means used to bring about the end has disappeared. . . . Work alone will efface the footsteps of work.

—Whistler, 1884

Take a closer look at the oil sketch for The Three Girls (now titled The White Symphony: Three Girls) and the related “Projects.”

The White Symphony; Three Girls Symphony in White and RedVariations in Blue and Green Symphony in Blue and Pink Symphony in Green and Violet Venus