Robert Goodloe Harper Pennington was an artist who came from a prominent Maryland family, his mother being a descendant of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, a signatory of the Declaration of Independence. He married Caroline de Wolf Theobald (b. 1869) in 1886.
Pennington studied art under Jean Léon Gérome at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. In 1880 he travelled to Munich where he was advised to join a group of American painters led by Frank Duveneck in Florence.
Pennington first met JW in Venice in the autumn of that year, when he joined the 'Duveneck boys', a group which also included John White Alexander, Otto Henry Bacher, Robert Frederick Blum, Charles Abel Corwin, George Edward Hopkins, Julius Rolshoven and Theodore M. Wendel.
The young painters were in awe of JW's experience and reputation. JW, who enjoyed their admiration, happily discussed his work and gave advice to the students. It may have been at this time that JW drew Pennington's portrait in chalk and pastel, Harper Pennington (M.835).
Pennington had first become aware of JW in 1876 when he had visited the Academy Charity Exhibition in Baltimore at which Symphony in White, No. I: The White Girl (YMSM 38) was showing. 'The shock of wonder and of joy with which JW's pictures burst upon me was - indescribable', Pennington declared. Pennington's later small portraits in oil and pastel show the influence that JW had had on him, and indeed are sometimes mistaken for JW's work. Pennington even developed a monogram very similar to JW's butterfly. 'What a lot of trouble I might have saved you if I had met you sooner!' exclaimed JW in 1880.
JW invited Pennington to return with him to London in 1880 but Pennington wanted to spend more time travelling and painting in Italy. Whilst in Venice, Pennington painted a portrait of Robert Browning for the prominent American expatriate Katherine de Kay Bronson.
Following his time in Italy, Pennington took one of the four studios in Carlyle Studios, near 296 Kings Road, built 1881/1882, where Theodore Roussel and Jacomb-Hood also had studios. He frequently visited JW in Tite Street. From 1882 until 1903 Pennington was in correspondence with JW. In 1885 he drew JW's portrait whilst the artist was giving his 'Ten O'Clock' lecture. In 1886/1887 JW drew Pennington's portrait, Harper Pennington (M.1100). Like JW, Pennington was a member of the Beefsteak Club, a private dining club in Leicester Square. He later returned to the United States.
Pennington, Harper, Reminiscences of JW, Library of Congress, Pennell-Whistler Collection.
Bacher, Otto Henry, 'With Whistler in Venice 1880 – 86,' The Century Magazine, December 1906; Bacher, Otto Henry, 'Stories of Whistler,' The Century Magazine, vol. 74, no.1, May 1907, pp.100-111; Bacher, Otto Henry, With Whistler in Venice, New York, 1908; Young, Andrew McLaren, Margaret F. MacDonald, Robin Spencer and Hamish Miles, The Paintings of James McNeill Whistler, New Haven and London, 1980; MacDonald, Margaret F., James McNeill Whistler. Drawings, Pastels and Watercolours. A Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven and London, 1995; MacDonald, Margaret F., Palaces in the Night Whistler in Venice, Aldershot, 2001; MacDonald, Margaret F. et al, Whistler, Women and Fashion, New Haven and London, 2003.