The House-Maid, Hattie:
There she stood, with the stance of a ballerina, and the air of a Rothschild. Her hair tumbled over her shoulders, a butter-gold cloud. The perfect oval of her face darkened by a scowl, reflecting the toll of these sittings, and especially those dark, defiant eyes. Finally, my eyes rested on the fine Indian muslin which I had assisted Mr Whistler to purchase. I thought of the far away, exotic land which the cloth had been transported from, and my mind flickered back to Miss Cicely’s stories about her holiday in India. She had spoken about riding in a carriage drawn by an elephant, and eating a fruit with a really sweet flesh. A mango she called it, if my memory serves me correctly.
I shrank away from the door, as envy began to infiltrate my mind. I would have traded my soul to be her! To be everyone’s princess, to have people thinking I was precious. On the other hand, the brat ran off crying to her mama after every sitting, complaining about stiff shoulders and a sore back. I laughed at her scornfully, poor little princess, what a bane it must be to be the muse of a renowned painter!
What did she know of a sore body? She did not feel the pulsing pain I felt in my back after a night on the stony floor, the anguish of my toes rubbing against my too-small shoes or the excruciating pain in my arms after flat ironing hordes of her clothes, for she lived in the lap of luxury.
The Painter, James Abbott McNeill Whistler:
It was the very essence of Chinoiserie. A pagoda-topped mirror, japanned and gilded, standing in the alcove of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Foliage adorned the carved pine and I took a step back to admire the far eastern creation, and thought of the lithe and agile fingers that must have carved such a treasure. I was not the only admirer. A distinguished man stood beside me, gazing at the mirror with the same level of admiration as myself.
He introduced himself as Mr W.C. Alexander, a successful London banker. We found that we shared an interest in Oriental art; Mr Alexander spoke to me about his collection of Japanese lacquer work, and the vast range of blue and white china he owned and invited me to his house for tea after the exhibition.
From the moment I entered his house, the influence of the Far East was evident. I could see it in the intricate screen that graced the parlour, and the china tea cups which were set in front of me. While we were speaking of the new Far Eastern inspired play at the Savoy Theatre, young Cicely Alexander – she is maybe of seven or eight years of age – walked in to the parlour, and spoke to her father in a beautiful, clear voice. I could not help but stare at her, the way she carried herself was far beyond the norm for a child of her age! She was ethereal. She is my muse.
12th November 1872
Today I gave out strict instructions for all the equipment I needed for our first sitting. Mr Alexander had found me the best team of dress designers, and I told them I wanted the dress to resemble Manet’s Lola de Valance. The dress was to be made from the best Indian muslin which that servant girl, Hattie had helped me to find. Finding the muslin was no easy task! It had taken me three months to finally settle on Indian muslin, which I deemed fitting for the delicate Miss Cicely.
I also had to brief Miss Cicely about the stance I wanted her to maintain during the sittings. It was not very difficult for her, as she has been a ballerina for four years. I tried to describe to her, as best I could Lola de Valance’s pose, and the delightful child caught on quickly, and blushed when I told her she had perfected it!
The only remaining thing now is to collect the grey hat with a pale green long feather which will be picked up in the bows of the black pumps and the sash of her dress. Miss Cicely will be holding this hat in order to replicate Lola de Valance’s fan.
23rd December 1874 (sitting 72)
Today was the last sitting, and I cannot help but say that the painting I have produced is my most inspiring one yet!
When Cicely entered the hall for the final sitting, I noticed how sunken her face looked, and the bubbly aura which she radiated, had dissipated. Was this a sudden change, or had it been gradually evolving? Perhaps, I was too absorbed in her beauty to notice the weight the sittings had placed on the dainty Miss Cicely’s shoulders.
Her posture was no longer oozing confidence. She looked defeated.
“Hold your head more erect”, I told the child, but she did not heed my words, and simply gazed out of the window, where the flurries of snow were beginning to settle. I sighed, placed my brush down, and walked over to her, to adjust her posture.
“Do not touch me”, she spat her words out, and looked at me with such contempt that I began to back away from her. I returned to my easel and waited for her to regain her composure and her posture. After taking a deep breath, she settled back into her pose and continued gazing forlornly at me.
I suddenly felt uncomfortable painting her, as if I was committing a sin of some sort. Should Cicely not be grateful, that I, James Abbott McNeil Whistler, had considered her to be my muse? After shrugging off the momentary inconvenience, I continued with my final strokes, until I was satisfied with my depiction.
There she was. A harmony in grey and green.
Miss Cicely Alexander, 1899.
I considered myself a victim throughout the ‘standings’ as I called them. I did not want to be painted. I did not want to stand there posing for some fool who thought he was doing me favour by making me his muse.
It has been more than twenty years. However, I still remember being extremely tearful after each session, my back hurt, and I felt as if my neck could no longer hold the weight of my head! I dreaded every sitting, I detested it when he came up to me and touched me, making me readjust my position or realign my head.
All I wanted was to go outside, and play.
Once a butterfly followed me indoors from the garden, and I told him I wanted to paint it, but Mr Whistler just scorned me, and said, “Perhaps you should leave the painting to me Cicely.”
How I despised that man.