Little is known about this painting's subject, whom Whistler identified as "a little child called 'Alice Butt'—charming—quite Italian in type." Set against a red background, Alice Butt is noteworthy for her disheveled hair and full, red lips; she looks directly at the viewer.
In the 1890s, Whistler often toured London's poorest neighborhoods in search of engaging subjects to paint. He was particularly drawn to young children, whose innocent faces and tattered clothing appealed to the artist's sense of the picturesque. The result was a series of full-face bust studies of young street children, of which Alice Butt—a vivid and adeptly painted portrait—is an outstanding example.
Until the publication of the Whistler catalogue raisonné in 1980, this painting was identified only as "Head of a Girl." The authors determined that it was one of two nearly identical portraits of the same sitter that had both been stolen from Whistler's Paris studio in the late 1890s; they speculated that the other, more spontaneously executed portrait may have been a preparatory study for this painting. Whistler eventually recovered the paintings in 1901 and they remained in his studio until his death two years later.
More information on this painting can be found in the Gallery publication American Paintings of the Nineteenth Century, Part II, pages 252-255, which is available as a free PDF (21MB).
center left with the artist's butterfly mark
Stolen from Whistler's Paris studio, c. 1896; (A. Reid, Glasgow, Scotland); purchased April 1900 by J.J. Cowan, Edinburgh, Scotland; returned to Whistler 30 June 1901; probably returned c. April 1904 by Whistler's executrix R. Birnie Philip to J.J. Cowan; (A. Reid, Glasgow, Scotland); purchased December 1906 by (C. Vose & Sons, Boston); purchased 1908 by Hugo Reisinger [1856-1914], New York; his wife, Edmée Busch Reisinger [later Mrs. Charles E. Greenough, d. 1955], New York; her son, Curt H. Reisinger [d. 1964], New York; gift 1948 to NGA.
- Loan to display with permanent collection, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1908, as Head of a Girl.
- Ausstellung Amerikanischer Kunst, Royal Academy of Arts, Berlin; Royal Art Society, Munich, 1910, no. 93, as Kopf eines jungen Madchens.
- Masterpieces of Art. European & American Paintings 1500-1900, New York World's Fair, 1940, no. 299, as Head of a Girl.
- Triumph of Realism: An Exhibition of European and American Realist Paintings 1850-1910, Brooklyn Museum; Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond; California Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco, 1967-1968, no. 88, as Head of a Girl.
- Whistler: The Later Years, University of Michigan Museum of Art, Ann Arbor, 1978, unnumbered, as Head of a Girl.
- Two Hundred Years of American Paintings, 1700-1900, Inaugural Exhibition, The Museum of Arts and Sciences, Macon, Georgia, 1981, no. 48, as Head of a Girl.
- Extended loan for use by Ambassador Arthur Hartmann, U.S. Embassy residence, Moscow, U.S.S.R., 1982-1987.
- Extended loan for use by Ambassador Walter Curley, U.S. Embassy residence, Paris, France, 1989-1993.
- Extended loan for use by Secretary Robert E. Rubin, U.S. Department of the Treasury, Washington, D.C., 1996-1999.
- Extended loan for use by Secretary Henry M. Paulson, U.S. Department of Treasury, Washington, D.C., 2006.
- Extended loan for use by Vice President Joseph Biden, Dwight D. Eisenhower Executive Office Building, Washington, D.C., 2009-2015.
- American Paintings and Sculpture: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1970: 122, repro.
- American Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1980: 258, repro.
- Young, Andrew McLaren, Margaret F. MacDonal, and Robin Spencer, with the assistance of Hamish Miles. The Paintings of James McNeill Whistler. 2 vols. New Haven, 1980: 1:194, no. 438; 2:color pl. 279.
- Williams, William James. A Heritage of American Paintings from the National Gallery of Art. New York, 1981: 130, repro., 131.
- American Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992: 380, repro.
- Torchia, Robert Wilson, with Deborah Chotner and Ellen G. Miles. American Paintings of the Nineteenth Century, Part II. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1998: 252-255, repro.