The Corresponence of James McNeil Whistler
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Whistler 2003 - Centenary Journal

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16th October 2003 - Art and Dentistry

In an undated letter to William S. Davenport, Whistler's dentist in Paris, the artist asks for "A great favour!":

"I am sure you will wish to help me with my work - and, without you now I cannot get on! -

"I depend upon this pretty child - little Lillie Pamington - "The Golden Lillie" - for the making of my pictures - and I send her to you in great [suffering?] not only that her pain may be stopped at once by your magic! but especially that her mouth may not be put out of drawing & ruined for me by some "Native" to whom she would otherwise run in her agony! ..."

(Dartmouth College Library, Hanover, NH)

Dr William Slocum Davenport was a dentist, probably an American, living in Paris. His brother Dr Isaac Burnet Davenport was also a dentist working in the same city. The brothers knew Whistler during the late 1890s and early 1900s, and the artist not only sent his model Lillie Pamington to get help for toothache, but also on occasion sent his maidservant, and also his sister-in-law Rosalind Birnie Philip, for treatment.

Whistler obviously trusted the Davenports with his dental well being, as opposed to some of the "Native" (ie, French) dentists who he seemed to think little of. In April 1902 Whistler writes to Richard A. Canfield that he had been in so much pain that

"today I have been pursuing Dr. Davenport until finally I ran him down in his Country house! and insisted upon an operation in his dining room!... Of course I am still in a bruised and rather miserable condition..."

(private collection; see #09260)

Of course within the Whistler correspondence there are various mentions of dentistry, not least by Whistler's mother Anna, who regularly mentions her dentist's handiwork, sometimes in too much detail; for example, in a letter to her son on 2-5 November 1855, she writes

"part of my object had been to consult my dentist here, I concluded not to defer for a winter the re-fitting my "artificials", as they had been getting more & more loose".

(GUL MS Whistler W464)

However, perhaps the most disconcerting dental detail in the Whistler correspondence comes in a letter from Stéphane Mallarmé to Whistler, where the symbolist writer refers to an acquaintance of his, a dentist called "Evans, also known as Buffalo Bill" (see Carl P. Barbier, Correspondance Mallarmé-Whistler, 1964, no. XIX, p. 39).

Now would you go to a dentist whose nickname was 'Buffalo Bill'...?