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Hood Museum of Art
Dartmouth College
Hanover, NH 03755

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James McNeill Whistler, American, 1834-1903

Maud Reading in Bed
Opaque and transparent watercolor and pen and brown ink over graphite on tan cardboard
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Arthur E. Allen Jr., Class of 1932; W.971.26


Perhaps the most influential artist of his generation, James McNeill Whistler spent most of his career in Paris and London. His association with vanguard artists and his keen interest in modern aesthetic theories led him to create a distinctive stylistic approach that favored decorative artifice over faithful description. Whistler also led the way in his embrace of media that had formerly been judged insignificant in comparison to oil painting, including etching, pastel, and watercolor, all of which he worked on in a small scale. This elegant watercolor captures Maud Franklin, Whistler’s model and mistress during the 1870s and 1880s. He featured her in about sixty works, many of them made around the same time and showing her in similarly languid poses, absorbed in her reading or her own thoughts. Some scholars believe that Maud was convalescing from a pregnancy or serious illness during this time. Whether or not this is the case, it is obvious that Whistler was utterly taken with portraying an imaginatively engaged, unselfconscious woman. Such a subject gives us access to a candid, private moment of the sort valued by Whistler and the impressionists. But her act of reading seems less an indication of Maud’s intellectual pursuits than an artistic device that enhances the watercolor’s informal, contemplative mood. Derrick Cartwright speculated in a catalogue entry on this work that Whistler may have placed his butterfly monogram in close proximity to Maud—just above the bed—to suggest a degree of supervision of her activity, or perhaps to reflect his deep affection and imply a sense of possession as well. Significantly in this regard, Whistler referred to his portraits of Maud as “artist’s pictures, impressions of my own.”

Last Updated: 4/29/09