“The Lost Symphony” Tells Story of a Painting That Does Not Exist

Exhibition Also Offers First Opportunity Since 1904 To View Masterwork Outside of the Peacock Room
December 3, 2015
News Release

The exhibition “The Lost Symphony: Whistler and the Perfection of Art” tells the story of “The Three Girls,” a painting destroyed by its artist James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) following a conflict with his patron Frederick Leyland. On view from Jan. 16, 2016, through May 30, 2016, at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, “The Lost Symphony” is part of “Peacock Room REMIX,” a series of exhibitions inspired by the Peacock Room, a 19th-century dining room created by Whistler.

“The Three Girls” would have been a seminal work in Whistler’s oeuvre—if he had completed it. He planned the painting to be a fourth “symphony in white,” another iteration in a series of experimental pictures in which he eliminated conventional subject matter and concentrated instead on idealized arrangements of color and form. Late in the work’s evolution, Whistler intended to hang the large painting opposite his “Princess from the Land of Porcelain,” the centerpiece of the Peacock Room. However, in 1877, after the artist and patron quarreled over the cost and extent of Whistler’s redecoration of the Peacock Room, Whistler abandoned “The Three Girls” and destroyed the canvas.

The exhibition reconstructs how Whistler’s unrealized quest for “the perfection of art” intersected with less-rarified concerns about patronage, payment and professional reputation. A rescued fragment, numerous studies and the frame that Whistler decorated especially for “The Three Girls” are among the tantalizing clues that hint at what might have been.

 “The exhibition takes us into the mind of the artist,” said Robyn Aslelson, exhibition co-curator. “His 10 years of labor never reached fruition, but it nevertheless gave Whistler a deeper understanding of what he called ‘the science of color and picture pattern’ that carried him through the rest of his career.”

“The Princess from the Land of Porcelain,” usually hung in the Peacock Room, is included in the exhibition, the first time it has been removed from the dining room since 1904. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to view this major work in Whistler’s oeuvre at close range and alongside related works while the Freer Gallery of Art closes to the public for major renovations. The Freer is scheduled to reopen in spring 2017 with modernized technology and infrastructure, refreshed gallery spaces and an enhanced Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Auditorium.

“The Lost Symphony: Whistler and the Perfection of Art” occupies the same gallery space as “Peacock Room REMIX: Darren Waterston’s ‘Filthy Lucre,’” a contemporary installation that reimagines the Peacock Room as a site of creative destruction. According to curator of American art Lee Glazer, ‘The Lost Symphony’ is a perfect complement to ‘Peacock Room REMIX.’”

“The Lost Symphony” will be followed by “Chinamania,” the third and final exhibition organized to complement “Peacock Room REMIX: Darren Waterston’s ‘Filthy Lucre.’” “Chinamania” will explore the enduring craze for Chinese blue-and-white porcelain in the West and will be on view from July 9, 2016, until Jan. 2, 2017.

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