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Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen

James McNeill Whistler , (American, 1834-1903)

Oil on wood panel
H: 50.1 W: 68.5 cm
United States

Gift of Charles Lang Freer F1904.75a

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Japanese prints remained virtually unknown in London in 1865, when this painting was first exhibited: one reviewer could only describe the subject as a Japanese lady contemplating "a picture, drawing, fan, or whatever it may be, which is in her hand." The model, in fact, examines several prints from Whistler's collection, paraphrased from the series Sixty-odd Famous Places of Japan by Hiroshige, the Japanese artist whose work exerted the strongest influence on Whistler's style.

Although The Golden Screen is in some ways a conventional Victorian painting, the model wears a Japanese costume and is seated on the floor like a courtesan. The composition is even more radical than the pose, considering the prevailing pictorial style: to Western eyes, the picture appears full of spatial puzzles, with a lacquer box that looks out of perspective and a folding screen that seems to float above a tilted floor. Whistler's concern was not to create a convincing illusion of space but to arrange shapes and colors like the patterns painted on the golden screen. Moreover, in documenting his collection, Whistler may have appreciated the typically Japanese means of structuring pictorial space, in which every object is shown in fuller dimension than is possible with Western perspective.

Whistler designed the frame and decorated it with Asian motifs, including badges of palm leaves and paulownia blossoms, in imitation of Japanese family crests.

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