The Corresponence of James McNeil Whistler
Home > On-line Edition > Biography

John James Cowan, 1846-1936

Nationality: Scottish
Date of Birth: 1846
Place of Birth:
Date of Death: 1936
Place of Death:


John James Cowan was an Edinburgh paper manufacturer who began collecting around 1880. He married Sophy Gillespie in 1869. The couple had eleven children, four boys and seven girls, of whom seven survived to their golden wedding anniversary in 1919.


Cowan became friendly with a number of Scottish painters such as John Lavery. It was through Lavery that JW received a commission on 18 January 1893 to paint Cowan's portrait (Arrangement in Grey and Green: Portrait of J. J. Cowan (YMSM 402)). It was begun in Paris in May 1893. During the sittings, Sophy Cowan would read Treasure Island to them. However, although JW accepted a cheque for 600 guineas, the portrait never came into Cowan's possession and remained incomplete, even though Cowan posed at intervals for ten years. Cowan recorded his sixty plus sittings in the memoir which he had published in 1933. In 1896, following the death of Beatrix, JW declared himself to be 'greatly touched' by 'the warm friendship' expressed to him in Cowan's letters (see #00714).

Cowan's collection was predominantly made up of modern British and European art. He owned a number of JW's works including At the Piano (YMSM 24), The Thames in Ice (YMSM 36), Variations in Pink and Grey: Chelsea (YMSM 105), Nocturne: Grey and Gold - Chelsea Snow (YMSM 174), Nocturne: Black and Gold - Rag Shop, Chelsea (YMSM 204), Nocturne: Blue and Gold - St Mark's, Venice (YMSM 213), The Angry Sea (YMSM 282), White and Grey: La Cour de l'hôtel, Dieppe (YMSM 325), Chelsea Shop (YMSM 374), Alice Butt (2) (YMSM 438), The Little Nurse (YMSM 443), Brown and Gold: The Curé's Little Class (YMSM 455) and Brown and Gold: Lillie 'In our Alley!' (YMSM 464), The Bridesmaid (YMSM 487). He also owned drawings: Nude with parasol (M.446), A nude study (M.451), and watercolours: Amsterdam in Winter (M.877), Moreby Hall (M.908), Red and brown - Hoxton (M.1004), Note in green - The Garden Laundry (M.1007), Rose and Pink - the Mother's sleep (M.1300), Rose and Silver: Portrait of Mrs Whibley (M.1415).


Cowan, John J., From 1846 to 1932, Edinburgh, 1933; Young, Andrew McLaren, Margaret F. MacDonald, Robin Spencer and Hamish Miles, The Paintings of James McNeill Whistler, New Haven and London, 1980.