Arrangement in Black No. 5: Lady Meux, James McNeill Whistler

James McNeill Whistler (American, 1834–1903)

Arrangement in Black No. 5: Lady Meux 1881

Oil on canvas

Purchase, Acquisition Fund, funds from public solicitation, Memorial Fund, and Robert Allerton Fund, 1967 (3490.1)

James McNeill Whistler was one of the foremost exponents of the Aesthetic movement in England, where he lived and worked for most of his life. Throughout his long and varied career, he tirelessly expressed a single objective: to free art from narrative constraints, literary references, political propaganda, and illusionism, and to allow it to operate according to its own unique aesthetic properties

This portrait of Lady Valerie Susie Meux is one of three that Whistler painted of the British socialite, each an elaboration of a limited palette of one or two colors. Wearing a magnificent black gown, Lady Meux poses against an equally dark ground, from which her ermine wrap and porcelain skin elegantly radiate. Less a study of the particularities of Lady Meux’s physical appearance than a meditation on the harmonious layering of white on black, this portrait—and Whistler’s oeuvre more generally—anticipates the abstraction that began to take shape within the European and American avant-gardes in the early 20th century.