Whistler’s Perfection

My dear Whistler, do you by any chance know the address of Lillie [sic] Pettigrew, who has left me stranded in the middle of work & disappeared, for which if there were justice in England she should be boiled alive—

… yours truly E Burne-Jones [1]

The mercurial Lily Pettigrew, of the above letter, and her two sisters were models for the most celebrated painters of the Victorian age, including John Everett Millais, Fredrick Lord Leighton, William Holman Hunt as well as Edward Burne-Jones and James McNeill Whistler. They received an early start when their father suddenly died and left their mother struggling to provide for them and their ten siblings in the West Country of England. One of their brothers, who was studying art, made the suggestion to their mother that she take them to London. With masses of hair and an exquisite touch of exoticism, the three girls were perfect for the Pre-Raphaelites’ palette; they were sure to make a fortune. So in 1884, the mother whisked fourteen-year-old Lily, the middle one, and Hetty and Rose off to the city. And as their brother had predicted, as Rose would write sixty years later, “every great artist of the land” was clamoring for one of the “Beautiful Miss Pettigrews” to pose.

They soon became known among the painters as much for their impertinence as for their beauty. According to John Everett Millais’s son, all three Pettigrews were “more trouble than any [models] his father ever had to deal with. … [T]hey came when they liked, and only smiled benignly when lectured on their lack of punctuality.” The Pettigrews’ shamelessness, however, delighted the great American painter and expatriate Whistler. They began sitting for him as early as 1885. Hetty told him, “We never, never posed under half a guinea a day…” Whistler exclaimed, “Oh! Hetty dear, that’s too much.” To which she sneered, “I’m so sorry, I’d quite forgotten you were one of the seven and sixpenny men,” making him laugh. In Hetty’s “cleverly cruel sayings,” the brilliant, sharp-tongued, and quick-witted painter, whose ‘colors were as muted as his voice was loud,’ had found his “perfect match.”

But it was Lily whom he chose for La Petite Souris, The Little Mouse. Rose said of Lily, she was the loveliest of the three of them. “She was perfection!”[2] I find first this description of the painting: “La Petite Souris is a study of grey and silver… of a maiden tenderly holding the little mouse, which gives its name to the picture, against a mass of delicately painted chiffon.”[3] And I locate the image—only I can’t seem to see the mouse. I conclude the tiny creature is merely hidden in the boa around Lily’s neck, hinted at by the position of Lily’s hand. Whistler after all was the first to “substitute the implicit for the explicit” in his work. But then I read this on the website of the Hunterian Museum, in whose collection the painting belongs: “The Little Mouse”, probably inspired by the delicate face of the model, framed with soft brown hair and a fluffy grey boa.[4] Simply put, there is no mouse. It’s the ultimate example of what Whistler meant when he said, “As to what [a] picture represents, that depends upon who looks at it.”

.


[1] Letter dated 1887, The Correspondence of James McNeill Whistler, University of Glasgow.

[2] This and Hetty’s remarks in Rose Pettigrew’s memoirs, 1947; appearing in several sources, including Jill Berk Jiminez, ed., Dictionary of Artists’ Models, 2001.

[3] Mrs. Arthur Bell, James McNeill Whistler, 1904.

[4] Hunterian Museum Whistler Collections.

Also, Tom Prideaux and editors, The World of Whistler 1834-1903, Time-Life Books.

(Image La Petite Souris, by James McNeill Whistler, 1897-98, the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)


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