The Lost Symphony: Whistler & the Perfection of Art

Symphonies in White

In 1867 Liverpool shipping magnate and art collector Frederick Richards Leyland attended an art exhibition at the Royal Academy in London. There, he admired Whistler’s painting Symphony in White, No. 3. It was the artist’s first work to bear a musical title. Music provided Whistler with a metaphor for his own experiments with color and form, and he subsequently retitled two earlier works, The White Girl and The Little White Girl, as “symphonies in white.” These “symphonies” also marked Whistler’s artistic metamorphosis from a realist painter to an aesthetic one. The association with music must have appealed to Leyland, an accomplished amateur pianist. He commissioned Whistler to paint a related work of art—a fourth “symphony in white”—that later became known as The Three Girls.

As music is the poetry of sound, so is painting the poetry of sight and the subject-matter has nothing to do with harmony of sound or of colour.

—Whistler, 1878

Read a letter from Whistler to his friend, the French painter Henri Fantin-Latour, that describes the painting that would become Symphony in White, No. 3.

Image Gallery

Symphony in White, No. 1: The White GirlSymphony in White, No. 3