The Whistlers’ Studio Stove

Beatrice Whistler, The Studio Stove, ca 1892, pen, The Hunterian, University of Glasgow (GLAHA 46174)
Beatrice Whistler, The Kitchen Studio Stove, ca 1892, pen and ink on an envelope, The Hunterian, University of Glasgow (GLAHA 46174)

James and Beatrice Whistler planned to move to Paris in the 1890s. They refurbished a single storey garden flat on the courtyard of 110 rue du Bac, near the Gare d’Orsay (now the Musée d’Orsay, where the portrait of his mother is enshrined).

Beatrice was largely involved with organising the studio and the interior design of the house. On  the back of an envelope both she and Whistler jotted notes, and she drew The Kitchen Studio Stove. Boldly tiled in black and white, it looks like a small, functional and decorative addition to the studio facilities. It is not clear what it is for: was it the place to boil coffee and cook small dishes for the entertainment of artist and models, or was this room originally the kitchen, in which case very careful planning would have been needed for making meals? The Whistlers had servants – not many – but no cook worth her sauce would accept a ‘kitchen’ consisting of a small stove, a sink, and a few pots hung on the wall. In fact we know from another note  by Beatrice  that there was a ‘little door – hidden (like the rest of the wall[)] – leading into pantry & kitchen – at the back of dining room’ ([1893] GUW 06621). On the same envelope on which the stove was drawn, Whistler mapped out proposals for a ‘breakfast’ or dinner, with many crossings-out:

Menu and sketches by Beatrice and James Whistler, pen and ink, ca 1892, The Hunterian, University of Glasgow (GLAHA 46174)
Menu and sketches by Beatrice and James Whistler, pen and ink, ca 1892, The Hunterian, University of Glasgow (GLAHA 46174)

This is a little difficult to read and I am eager for help in interpreting what it says! Here goes:

Soupe a l’oignon

1 Riz de veau

[Chatan? crossed out]

Filet grillé

[Eaux pommes? crossed out]

Pommes au Four

Salade [Esian?]

So dinner may have eventually included onion soup, grilled fish, baked apples and a salad. And wine.

Whistler’s biographers, Elizabeth and Joseph Pennell, described attending such ‘breakfasts’ at 110  rue bu Bac.

 It made no difference who was there, who sat beside you, Whistler dominated everybody and everything, … It was one of the many extraordinary things about him that, though short and small, … his was invariably the most commanding presence in a room. When he talked every one listened. At his own table, he had a delightful way of waiting himself upon his guests. He would go round the table with a bottle of some special Burgundy in its cradle, talking all the while, emphasising every point in his talk with a dramatic pause just before or just after filling a glass …one Sunday in Paris, in 1893, … As he told [a story], he was on his feet, pouring out his Burgundy, minutes sometimes to fill a single glass. There were intervals between one guest and the next ; he seemed never to be in his chair ; it was fully two hours before the story and breakfast came to an end together. But though no one else had a chance to talk, no one was bored. …’

[Pennell, E.R. and J.,  Life of J. McN. Whistler, 1908, pp. 192-193].

One wonders!

* * *         * * *          * * *


Soupe a l’oignon (onion soup) is not as simple as it sounds. Well, it could be, but not the way Escoffier suggests nor what I did while attempting to reproduce it.  First, this is not exactly soupe a l’oignon but


Let’s start from scratch. Its is often made with a beef stock. You could perfectly well make a vegetarian stock, by adding more vegetables, garlic, ginger and celery. However, I made a rich chicken stock, as follows:


Stock: Take a large pan big enough for one chicken. Chop 2 carrots, 2 onions, a leek, one clove garlic,  herbs (sage marjoram and thyme), pepper.


Put everything in the pan with water to cover, bring it to the boil, skim, and simmer for an hour.

Then leave the chicken to cool in the stock and when cool, put it away for another meal.

Put 1 1/2 pints of this stock in a bowl, or jug, ready for the next stage of cooking.


Slice 2 large onions finely. Melt 1 oz butter in a large heavy-bottomed pan or frying pan and simmer the onions very gently for at least an hour until they are translucent and soft, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon.


Remove it from the heat,  and let it cool a little. Carefully stir in a tablespoon of plain flour to make a roux.


Pour the stock gradually into the roux, stirring all the time, until it is thoroughly mixed in.

Bring to a gentle boil, and simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

onion consomme

Now pour this ‘soup’  through a fine sieve into a clean pan. Keep it warm on a low heat, skimming if necessary.

Put the onions, which are by now very soft, into another bowl and either mash or puree them. Set these aside.

onion roux

The oven should be set at a high temperature, 200-240C.


Slice a french loaf (a baton or baguette)  into thick – 2 cm (3/4 inch) – rounds.


Grate some cheese (I used cheddar, and remembered to photograph it but not to weigh it … it made a good heap!),

Place the rounds in an ovenproof  dish.

Put a spoonfull of the pureed onion on top of each round.

Now for the tricky bit. Escoffier  says: ‘sprinkle with grated cheese, gratinate, and finish in a deep earthenware dish…’ I failed to work this out, so I tried two versions. In one instance I simply put grated cheese on the bread and put it in the oven: this came out crisp.

For the other, I spooned a little of the soup over the bread, and sprinkled grated cheese liberally over it.  This came out a little soggy but very tasty. Maybe the oven should have been hotter.

onion cheese gratinee

And if you think this version (with the onion puree)  is too much of a good thing, you could  just put cheese on it.

Both versions were placed in the oven and baked at 230 degrees for 10-15 minutes till the cheese was bubbling and the bread crisp round the edges.

Serve the soup hot in small bowls with the croutons on top.

Potage garbure a l'oignon
Potage garbure a l’oignon

The result is rich and delicious, sweet and fresh tasting.

To be honest I don’t see how one could then eat several more courses!

Preparation time : 15 minutes for the stock, 20 minutes for the soup (more if you include stirring a lot); 15 minutes washing up!

Cooking time: 1 hour for the stock; 1 hour for the soup.

* * *         * * *          * * *

IF you have any energy left, here is a very simple recipe for desert.

Cooking Apples
Cooking Apples

 DESERT: Pommes au four (baked apples)

Take one large cooking apple per person.

Core them (the apples) but do not peel or slice them. For this you can  use an ‘apple-corer’ but a sharp knife stabbed through the apple from top and bottom works fine- then you just poke out the core, which is very satisfying!

Coring the apple.   

Coring the apple.

Cut a line through the peel, round the circumference.

Cutting round the apple.

Cutting round the apple.

Put each apple in an ovenproof dish. Carefully fill the cores with  sugar (I like adding sultanas as well).


 Put half a cup of water in each dish.


Bake in the oven at 180 degrees C for 3/4 of an hour (check they do not burn).


Serve a whole apple to each guest, spooning any syrup around the apple.

Fruit, sugar, what could be more healthy?

Preparation time: 10 minutes

Cooking time: 45-60 minutes

Washing up: 5 minutes

Blogging time and photography: 30 minutes!


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I am an artist and art historian, and my research is focussed on the work and life of James McNeill Whistler. Based in the School of Culture and Creative Arts, University of Glasgow, I am Director of the Whistler Paintings and Etchings Projects. These blogs are informal, and, I hope, interesting and even quirky discussions of individual works and events related to Whistler.

4 thoughts on “The Whistlers’ Studio Stove”

      1. Cinnamon might be nice in the apple recipe. I see that Escoffier includes this method for ‘Apples with butter’, but without the raisins, but it’s not in Mrs B, though she has a related recipe in which the apples are boiled a bit first and put in a baking dish with marmalade in the oven.
        I wonder if it would be worth sending the menu to one of Alec’s French foodie friends?


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