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Impression: Art Institute of Chicago
Art Institute of Chicago
Number: 130
Date: 1874
Medium: etching
Size: 126 x 74 mm
Signed: no
Inscribed: no
Set/Publication: Fine Art Society
No. of States: 1
Known impressions: 10
Catalogues: K.112; M.111; W.98
Impressions taken from this plate  (10)


clothing, dress, fashion, portrait, tatting, woman seated, worker.


There is one well known and one possible alternative title for this portrait:

'TATTING' (1880, Dowdeswell's). 6
Possibly 'Miss Dawson Sitting' (1877, Whistler). 7

The title, 'Miss Dawson Sitting', suggests the woman is Elizabeth Dawson (b. 1840). However, it is not the only etching of an unidentified seated figure at this period (see also Reading a Book 112 and The Muff 131).

6: Printed brochure, [January 1880], GUW #02856.

7: Whistler to C. A. Howell , 9-11 November [1877], GUW #12738.

'Tatting' may not have been Whistler's title, and the plate seems to have been published without his knowledge, but he did not actually contest it. Thus the action ('Tatting') provides a reasonable title.
Tatting is a technique for making a coarse, durable form of lace, in which, starting from an initial half-hitch knot, a series of knots and loops form rings and chains. It was used to make decorative pieces such as doilies, lace edging for domestic linen, collars etc. A collar such as that worn in Fumette 012 could have been lace, or have been produced by tatting (for Fumette was a skilful craftswoman).
Tatting was very popular in the 19th-20th century. Mansfield in his description of Tatting calls this activity her 'work' and it could indeed be work for a servant or worker creating small saleable objects at home, but in this case appears to be a leisure activity for a middle-class women, and as such would be used for decorating mildly useful domestic linen and clothes. 8

8: Mansfield 1909[more] (cat. no. 111); see also Isabella Mary Beeton, Beeton's Book of Needlework, Ward, Lock and Tyler, 1870.


A young woman is sitting at a small table to the right, turning slightly to look at the viewer. She holds a tatting needle (a long blunt needle) or shuttle in her left hand, and in her right, a piece of cloth (since Whistler worked directly on the copper plate, the print shows her in reverse: she would actually have been right-handed). She is wearing a dress with layers of flounces in the skirt, gathered up into a bunch or bow at the back. She has a close-fitting top and sleeves, with a ruff at the neck. Her hair is drawn back severely, and her bun probably concealed by her hat, which has a narrow brim, turned up at right, a rounded pudding-basin top, and is trimmed with feathers.


This may be a portrait of Elizabeth Dawson (b. 1840).

According to Frederick Wedmore, 'This and the preceding plate Mr Whistler told me he believed were studies from the Leylands.' 9

Whistler drew and etched several women of the Leyland family, including Frances Leyland (1834-1910), and Elizabeth Dawson. The latter is probably the model for The Silk Dress 151, and for portrait drawings such as r.: Elizabeth Dawson in profile; v.: A nude leaning against a rail m0440, Elizabeth Dawson, full face m0441, Head of a woman m0442 and r.: Self-portrait; v.: standing woman m0463.

9: Wedmore 1886 A[more] (cat. no. 98).

Since Elizabeth Dawson looks slightly different in each of these etchings and drawings it is difficult to be sure that Tatting is a portrait of her, but the sitter is definitely not Mrs Leyland or any of her younger daughters, and Lizzie Dawson remains the best candidate. She was briefly Whistler's fiancée; he proposed in February 1872 but the engagement was broken off more than once, perhaps finally in the autumn of 1873. However, this is not the last time that they would have met, for Whistler continued to see the Leylands both in London and at Speke. 10

10: See Whistler to F. D. Leyland, [September 1873?], GUW #08055; Rossetti 1977[more], p. 166; Merrill 1998[more], pp. 133-37, p. 364, n. 140-41.

In 1877 Charles Augustus Howell (1840?-1890), bought a large group of etchings from Whistler, including 'Miss Dawson Sitting', the title presumably reflecting information provided by the artist. 11 This unfortunately is not conclusive evidence of the identity of the sitter in Tatting, since it is not the only etching of an unidentified seated figure but it provides possible corroboration that the sitter for Tatting is Elizabeth Dawson.

11: C. A. Howell to Whistler, 6-15 November 1877, GUW #02178.

Lochnan noted that many of Whistler's London etchings show Maud Franklin (1857- ca 1941), 'quietly absorbed in genteel occupations around the house' including tatting, but the face is not that of Maud. 12

12: Lochnan 1984[more], p. 165.


Sewing, knitting, tatting and even lace-making were skills taught to young women in Victorian times. This etching shows a middle-class woman in fashionable dress, engaged in a mildy useful leisure-time activity, but still wearing a hat, as if dressed for a formal occasion.
This is one of many domestic studies by Whistler. His interest in women's dress extended to the processes of dress-making, millinery, dress-shops, dressing, dressing-up and fashion. Examples include Gretchen at Heidelberg 021, which shows a woman with spindle and needles; The Music Room 039, with Deborah Delano Haden (1825-1908), sewing; The Venetian Mast 219, Bead Stringers 235, Fruit Stall 225 and Old Women 234, which include Venetian bead-stringers, and The Seamstress 253, which shows two women in a tiny, oppressive work-space.
The dress, with its layers of frills, was of a style popular in the early 1870s. It is not clear from what is visible whether the dress has a train. It certainly has more frills visible than are seen in The Silk Dress 151, which has a plain overskirt, and a long train falling in folds from the waist. A dress with many layers of frills is seen in one drawing of Frances Leyland (1834-1910), Mrs Leyland in a flounced dress m0548, and a domestic scene in the Leyland household, in r.: The Dressmaker; v.: Figure study m0531. It is quite clear that variations on the subject of dress and dress-making were of great importance to Whistler, who was also, during this same period, designing dresses for Mrs Leyland, and was undoubtedly well informed on the details of dress-making.
Whistler was also a self-appointed expert on hats and where to obtain them, giving advice, for instance, regarding a suitable hat for a portrait, Miss May Alexander y127. Writing from Speke Hall, probably on his autumn visit in 1874, he said:
'there is a shop in South Audley Street, No. 63 - Milton & ... something, who have charming felt hats, and feather "picture hats" they call them[,] such as you cannot get elsewhere - Perhaps if you were to ask you might see something lovely for May - large I should have it - with a big soft brim - looped up - / The Leyland children have hats from the South Audley street [shop], and if you were to say that Mrs Leyland recommended you to go there they will at once understand the sort of thing you wish and do their best - '. 13

13: Whistler to R. A. Alexander, [September/October 1874?], GUW #07583; see MacDonald 2003[more].

This corroborates the involvement of the Leylands with Whistler in obtaining fashion accessories, and perhaps encouraging his interest in dress and dress design.
Lochnan noted that 'Whistler's intimate subjects of the 1870s ... anticipate the work of Bonnard and Vuillard in the 1890s' and suggested that such subjects 'reflect Whistler's perennial love of the seventeenth-century Dutch interior, blended with his more recent interest in such eighteenth-century Japanese prints as Utamaro's Ten Typical Feminine Skills'. 14

14: Lochnan 1984[more], p. 165.