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Whistler’s Gentle Art

A current exhibition showcases the watercolors that revived James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s career.

James McNeill Whistler, Southend Pier, 1882-84

James McNeill Whistler, Southend Pier, 1882-84, watercolor on paper.

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To say James Abbott McNeill Whistler had a colorful life would be a gross understatement. The American artist, who was born in Massachusetts, grew up in part in Saint Petersburg, Russia. There, his father advised on the construction of the railroad and young Whistler took drawing classes at the Imperial Academy of Sciences. The United States Military Academy at West Point came next, but Whistler failed chemistry and left the academy in 1854. He learned etching while working at the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey before leaving for Paris in 1855 to become an artist in the true 19th-century definition of the word.

In Paris, he studied at the École Impériale et Spéciale de Dessin and with Charles Gleyre, but it was his own immersion in the works of the masters like Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Velázquez and contemporaries like Gustave Courbet that truly honed his style. A union with Henri Fantin-Latour and Alphonse Legros—the Société des Trois, as they called themselves—was also heavily influential, as was a relationship with Édouard Manet, the writings of Charles Baudelaire and Théophile Thoré, and an on-trend interest in Japanese prints and blue-and-white porcelain that would grow considerably over time. In May of 1859, Whistler relocated to London. There, he fell in with several of the Pre-Raphaelite painters. Throughout the 1860s, his reputation grew, primarily through his landscapes, which borrowed the flat, tonal quality of Japanese art and deftly distilled, as in poetry or music, place into feeling. Experiments with multi-figure compositions in the 1860s gave way to single-figure subjects in the 1870s, such as the celebrated Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1: Portrait of the Artist’s Mother (1871).

As the Aesthetic Movement grew, so did Whistler’s place in it. He became a living testament to the notion that an elevated sense of taste should pervade one’s life and he became known for his printmaking, interior decoration, furniture, and designs for frames and exhibitions. He created a signature—not unlike Prince’s infamous symbol—a butterfly formed by his initials that he nestled within his compositions.

But Whistler’s fame extended beyond his artistic output. The libel suit he filed against the art critic John Ruskin in 1878 garnered considerable attention. Ruskin, upon seeing Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (1875) at London’s Grosvenor Gallery in 1877, described the artist as “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.” Whistler sued and won. In 1890 he published The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, a book that provided an embellished, often-hilarious transcript of the case and clippings of letters the artist wrote to newspapers regarding other enemies and “frenemies.”

Though the jury may have ruled in Whistler’s favor, the art world—and the artist’s bank account—did not. As the 1880s rolled in, Whistler needed to revive his career in order to stay afloat. Enter watercolors. Beginning in 1881, he embarked on a 15-year-long series of small works in the breezy medium. Of the marketable paintings he wrote, “I have done delightful things and have a wonderful game to play.”

“Whistler in Watercolor,” an exhibition on view at the Smithsonian’s Freer | Sackler in Washington, D.C., through October 6, delves deeply into these works and in particular Charles Lang Freer’s relationship to them. Freer, who also owned oil paintings, prints, drawings, and pastels by the artist, amassed the largest collection of Whistler’s watercolors in the world—some 50 seascapes, nocturnes, interior views, and street scenes. These delicate works, which were included in the collector’s bequest to the museum in 1906, are rarely seen and have, in fact, never left the Freer Gallery of Art. Thus, the show serves as a sort of grand introduction to the series and a reaffirmation of Whistler’s facility with both paint and the art market.

“This is a groundbreaking exhibition for a number of reasons,” says curator Lee Glazer. “The watercolors—‘dainty,’ ‘beautiful,’ and ‘portable’ as the artist described them—are critical to understanding how Whistler’s art-historical ambition and his canny understanding of the commercial art market coalesced.”

After the Ruskin case, Whistler, in need of money, took a commission from the Fine Art Society of London to produce 12 etchings of Venice. When Whistler returned from Italy a year later (the assignment was initially only for three months), he had produced 50 etchings, 100 pastels, a number of oil paintings, and some three pastels. Though London Bridge (1881, watercolor over graphite on rough, wove paper), a work in the Freer’s show, was not his first, he considered it a sort of jumping-off point for his immersion into the watercolor medium. The year it was completed, a reporter wrote, “Mr. Whistler is about to surprise both his friends and his detractors by appearing in the new character of the water-colour artist.”

A trip to the seaside town of St. Ives in southwest England in 1883 proved a fruitful occasion for painting. Working en plein air, Whistler completed several works in oil and watercolor. The watercolor seascapes are bright and light, with a pleasing tripartite organization of sky, sea, and shore. The exhibition features several paintings from this productive getaway, such as St. Ives: Cornwall (1883–84, watercolor on paper), Southend—The Pleasure Yacht (1882–84, watercolor on paper), and Southend Pier (1882–84, watercolor on paper)—all of which are redolent of salt and sand. Whistler also translated his practice of “nocturnes” or night scenes into watercolor, and a 1882 trip to Amsterdam generated several experimental works. In Nocturne: Grand Canal, Amsterdam (1892, watercolor on cold-pressed, wove paper), a standout of the show, the light from the windows of the buildings that line the canal reflect in the water like dancing spirits. Whistler maintained a wet surface while he worked with the paint, rubbing and scraping it to create the ethereal effect.

But he also created watercolors in town, and his depictions of street scenes delighted Victorian critics and collectors. Focused primarily on the cityscape in the Chelsea neighborhood of London, where he lived, Whistler translated his observations into charming pictures with low-simmering social undertones. In Chelsea Children (circa 1897, watercolor on hot-pressed, wove paper), a group of children look in a shop window, while a lone child looks longingly into a store advertising stewed eels.

Not all of Whistler’s watercolors take place out of doors, however. The exhibition showcases a host of works composed in the artist’s studio, such as Milly Finch (1883–84, watercolor on cold-pressed, wove paper), The saucy painting depicts a model in a lavender dress, splayed on a red chaise longue with a red fan in her hand. A much more modest picture, Note in Pink and Purple—The Studio (1883–84, watercolor on cold-pressed, wove paper), features the same dress, chaise, table, and drapery swag, yet the model sits demurely instead.

Freer first met Whistler in 1890, when he visited the artist at his London home. The artist and the collector struck up a friendship, which in turn led to Freer acquiring more and more of Whistler’s work. One of his acquisitions was the legendary Peacock Room, which he acquired en masse in 1904 and installed in his Detroit mansion. In 1876, Whistler created Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room, a decadent interior in the height of Anglo-Japanese style, for his former patron, the shipping magnate Frederick Leyland. The patron had outfitted the room with blue-and-white Chinese porcelains from the Kangxi era and wanted Whistler to add some painted flourishes to bring harmony to the room. When it was revealed that Whistler had painted the room in a profusion of blue, green, and gold patterns reminiscent of a peacock’s plumage—and charged Leyland an exorbitant fee—the artist and patron quarreled, and ultimately ended their relationship.

“The Peacock Room in Blue and White,” an installation of the room, is currently also on view at the Freer | Sackler alongside the watercolor exhibition. Not only a recreation of Whistler’s decorations, the installation features Kangxi-era pots from the Freer collection as well as 100 newly commissioned vessels to help fill the room’s 218 shelves.

An exploration of Whistler in yet another medium is also on view at the Frick Collection in New York. “Whistler as Printmaker: Highlights from the Gertrude Kosovsky Collection” runs through September 1 and showcases 15 prints and one pastel. The exhibition is a slice of a larger promised gift from Kosovsky and her husband, Dr. Harry Kosovsky, of 42 Whistler works to the Frick. Over the course of five decades, the couple amassed a collection that ranges from etchings dating to the late 1850s to lithographs of the late 1890s.

Whistler created several works in the show during the storied trip to Venice mentioned above. Two standouts are San Biagio (1880, etching and drypoint, brownish-black ink on ivory laid paper) and Ponte del Piovan (1879–80, etching and drypoint, brownish-black ink on cream laid paper), etchings with just enough Whistleresque detail to suggest the essence of Venice’s architecture and canals. In Sunset: Venice (1880, chalk and pastel on beige paper), the lone pastel and a highlight of the gift and exhibition, Whistler barely intones the outline of the Santa Maria della Salute and the Giudecca on the horizon—like a faint yet audible whisper.

By Sarah E. Fensom

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: June 2019

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