Greek Model in Whistler’s Painting

WASHINGTON, DC – The Smithsonian Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, DC holds a large collection of works by James McNeil Whistler (1834-1903.) This great American expatriate painter and graphic artist became an important figure in the European circles at the end of the 19th century.

He was known not only for his art but for his flamboyant personality and life style. He first settled in Paris where, through his friend Fantin-Latour, he met Courbet whose realism inspired much of his work.

He also quickly associated himself with the Avant Guard artists, including Baudelaire and Manet, among others. In London, he was influenced by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, an important pre-Raphaelite artist. Oscar Wilde was also among his famous friends.

One painting that demonstrates Whistler’s enchantment with the Orient and his love for a vivid pallet is The Princess from the Land of the Porcelain (78 and 3/4 x 45 and 3/4) from 1863-64.

This compelling work is the centerpiece of the Peacock Room at the Freer Gallery. Who in the world is this beautiful woman? She has neither Asian nor Anglo-Saxon features.

If you are Greek, her ebony long locks, her soft dark eyes, the Greek nose, remind you of someone you know, perhaps of the women in compositions of Giannis Moralis, the faces of Fotis Kontoglou, or the beauty of a female Byzantine icon? So then, just who is she?

After a trip to your local library and a Google search you will find that the model was Christina Spartali, the daughter of a rich Greek merchant, later the Greek Consul-General in London.

In his book on Whistler, John Walker writes: “Tom Armstrong, a friend and fellow painter tells how, one Sunday, Rossetti, Du Maurier, Legros and he set out …to be introduced by Whistler to the daughters of the consul general for Greece…we were all à genoux before them, and, of course, burned with the desire to paint them.”

Christina Spartali, with the consent of her father, agreed to pose for Whistler. He dressed her in a Japanese robe and entitled this painting ‘La Princess du Pays de la Porcelain.’”

It also important to note that her sister, Marie Euphrosyne Spartali (1844-1927) as a British Pre-Raphaelite painter, arguably was the greatest female artists of that movement. During her long life she produced over one hundred oeuvres, exhibited in the Untitled States and Britain.

The painting is at the permanent collection at the Freer/Sackler Gallery. Knowing the history of this impressive painting, will enhance your appreciation should you visit the gallery.