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The Corresponence of James McNeil Whistler
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Whistler 2003 - Centenary Journal

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23rd September 2003 - The Woman in White

On the 23rd September 1889, William Wilkie Collins died.

Collins was a novelist whose father, William Collins, was a landscape and genre painter and a member of the Royal Academy. His brother Charles Allston Collins was also a painter in the Pre-Raphaelite circle and married Kate Dickens, a daughter of Charles Dickens.

During his life Collins published twenty-three novels, six collections of stories, a volume of essays, a travel book, and a biography. He also published numerous short stories, a translation from French, over a dozen plays and more than one hundred articles in various periodicals.

When Whistler's Symphony in White, No. I: The White Girl was exhibited at Morgan's Gallery in London in 1862, it was entitled The Woman in White, and it was assumed by many, including F. G. Stephens, the art critic of the Athenaeum, that it was intended to be an illustration of Collins' popular novel of the same name (London, 1860). In a letter to the Athenaeum of 1 July 1862 Whistler refutes this notion:

"May I beg to correct an erroneous impression likely to be confirmed by a paragraph in your last number? The Proprietors of the Berners Street Gallery have, without my sanction, called my picture "The Woman in White." I had no intention whatsoever of illustrating Mr Wilkie Collins's novel; it so happens, indeed, that I have never read it. My painting simply represents a girl dressed in white standing in front of a white curtain."

(see Whistler's The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, London and New York, 1890, p. 54).

Throughout his career Whistler stressed that his paintings did not draw upon narrative themes and were not to be viewed in such a light; they were instead to be understood as exercises in colour and tone, standing apart from any moral, historical or literary reading.