The Hangman's House, Tours

Impression: Freer Gallery of Art
Freer Gallery of Art
Number: 393
Date: 1888
Medium: etching and drypoint
Size: 135 x 99 mm
Signed: butterfly at lower left
Inscribed: no
Set/Publication: no
No. of States: 3
Known impressions: 6
Catalogues: K.376; M.376
Impressions taken from this plate  (6)


arch, architecture, building, children, door, Renaissance, sculpture.


There are many variations on the title, spelling and punctuation by Whistler and others, including the following:

'House of Tristan' (1888, Whistler). 2
'The Hangman's House' (1889, Whistler). 3
'The Hangman's House (Tristan) Tours' (1889, Whistler). 4
'Tristan's House' (1889, Whistler). 5
'Hangman's House - Tristan' (1889, Whistler). 6
'Hangmans House' (1889, Whistler). 7
'Tristan L'Hermite' (1889, Whistler). 8
'Hangman's Doorway' (1897, Wunderlich's). 9
'Hangman's House, Tours' (1899, Frederick Wedmore (1844-1921)). 10
'Hangman's House, Bourges' (1900, Caxton Club). 11
'The Hangman's House, Tours' (1903/1935, possibly Rosalind Birnie Philip (1873-1958)). 12

In the 1880s the doorway shown in the etching led to what was known, mistakenly, as the House of Tristan L'Hermitte, in Tours. Tristan was a historical and legendary character, both Provost and hangman.

Several of these titles are therefore perfectly valid, except for the Caxton Club's mistake in identifying the site as Bourges.

'The Hangman's House, Tours' is the preferred title as it combines the dominant elements of these titles.

2: List, [August 1887/1888], GUW #13233.

3: Whistler to J. P. Heseltine, 20 January 1889, GUW #13037.

4: To Dowdeswell, 21 January 1889, GUW #13030.

5: To H. James, [17 February 1889], GUW #10934.

6: To E.G. Brown, 27 March 1889, GUW #13000.

7: List, 18 July 1889, GUW #13235.

8: To R. Knoedler, 20 July 1889, GUW #13080.

9: Wunderlich's to Whistler, [August 1897], GUW #07289.

10: Wedmore 1899 (cat. no. 323).

11: Chicago 1900 (cat. no. 262).

12: Envelope containing copper plate, Hunterian Art Gallery.


Two children sit on the steps leading to a gothic doorway with closed doors that are separated by a slender carved pillar, below a decoratively carved semi-circular stone canopy. The sun casts strong shadows from almost directly above. 13

13: Mansfield thought the lunette had a decorative wrought iron grating, Mansfield 1909 (cat. no. 376).


No. 18 rue Briconnet in Tours, France, was known (incorrectly) as the 'House of Tristan L'Hermitte', who was supposedly a hangman and Provost Marshal under Charles VII and Louis XI. The 15th century house was entered from No. 16 rue Briconnet, which is the subject of Whistler's etching.
Murray's guidebook asserted: 'The town is no longer remarkable for the many objects of curiosity which it possessed before the first revolution, and the charms of its situation, in an unvaried plain, have been greatly overrated.' However, the jaundiced travel writer did admit that the cathedral of St Gatien was 'striking and picturesque', and admired the Renaissance buildings on the Rue du Commerce and Rue de Briçonnet, and in particular the House of Tristan L'Hermitte. 14

14: John Murray, A Handbook for Travellers in France, London, 1875, 13th ed., part 1, p. 219.

Whistler was probably encouraged to explore this subject by Henry James (1843-1916), whose book, A Little Tour in France, was published in 1885. James wrote:
'The dwelling to which the average Anglo-Saxon will most promptly direct his steps, ... is the so-called Maison de Tristan l'Hermite, a gentleman whom the readers of "Quentin Durward" will not have forgotten, the hangman-in-ordinary to the great King Louis XI. Unfortunately the house of Tristan is not the house of Tristan at all. … The Maison de Tristan may be visited for itself, however, if not for Walter Scott; it is an exceedingly picturesque old facade, to which you pick your way through a narrow and tortuous street, a street terminating, ... in the walk beside the river. An elegant Gothic doorway is let into the rusty-red brick-work, and strange little beasts crouch at the angles of the windows, which are surmounted by a tall graduated gable, pierced with a small orifice, where the large surface of brick, lifted out of the shadow of the street, looks yellow and faded. The whole thing is disfigured and decayed; but it is a capital subject for a sketch in colors. Only I must wish the sketcher better luck or a better temper than my own. If he ring the bell to be admitted to see the court, which I believe is more sketchable still, let him have patience to wait till the bell is answered. He can do the outside while they are coming.' 15

15: Henry James, A Little Tour in France, Boston: James R. Osgood & Co., 1885, chapter 3.

Henry James specifically asked for an impression of Whistler's etching, The Hangman's House, Tours, but none were available at the time. 16

Later views of this site include an 1898 drawing of the doorway of 'Maison dit de Tristan in rue Briconnet' reproduced by Armand C. Guéritte in Le vieux Tours. Architecture - Archeologie. 17

16: Whistler to James, [17 Feb. 1889], GUW #10934; Ailsa Boyd, '"Something vibrates back": Whistler & Henry James', in E. Hermens, J. Meacock & G. Petri (eds.), CONNECTING WHISTLER, Glasgow, 2010, pp. 62-68 at media/media_182035_en.pdf.

17: Paris, 1908, pl. 35.


Sir Walter Scott's Quentin Durward (1823) is a romantic novel starring the capable, crafty and cruel King Louis XI of France, and including, as a minor character, his Provost Marshal, Tristan l'Hermitte. Whistler had enjoyed Scott's novels in his cadet days at West Point and even illustrated them. 18 It is hardly surprising that he would want to see the house associated with this character - but his etching is, in the end, an evocative study of sunlight on what Henry James had called the 'disfigured and decayed' stonework of the beautiful Renaissance door. 19

18: e.g. r.: Sir Piercie Shafton sings; v.: A woman with long hair; wheels [m0066].

19: James, 1885, op. cit.