fri 14/08/2020

Whistler and the Thames: An American in London, Dulwich Picture Gallery | reviews, news & interviews

Whistler and the Thames: An American in London, Dulwich Picture Gallery

Whistler and the Thames: An American in London, Dulwich Picture Gallery

The river views find London's resident American becoming himself

James McNeill Whistler: 'Wapping'

Dulwich Picture Gallery, the oldest publicly accessible painting collection in England, is hardly on the bank of the Thames, but its compilation of prints, drawings, watercolours and paintings by James McNeill Whistler (1834-1902) concentrates on his absorption with London’s river. The shifting light of sky and water, not to mention working dockside life, which obsessed him during his lifelong residence in the city provides not only an overview of Whistler’s evolution as an artist but an evocation of the working life of the river which is long gone. He was fascinated by the hotch-potch, the higgledy-piggledy, the tumble down, the ferries and the rowing boats, the barges and the tugs, the pubs, the prostitutes, the labourers, in short all the to do and the hubbub of London’s great water highway, the reason for the existence of London herself.

Whistler happened to be American, and had a boyhood education in St Petersburg; he left America for good when he was 21, and studied first in the ateliers of Paris. In London for almost all his working life, he lived close to the river at several studios and homes in Chelsea and, not unlike Monet, he too once took up residence at the Savoy overlooking the Thames for several months in 1896 when his beloved wife Beatrix was dying of cancer. The attractive flamboyance of his dandified personality does not obscure the intensely hard work and experimentation that was at the core of his work. This exhibition may be about Whistler and the river but it also shows us Whistler becoming Whistler, moving from the realistic and at times even the literal, to the imaginative and evocative.

Dulwich’s display allows us to see his technically accomplished prints close up. His curiosity and energy enabled him to amplify his ability to evoke in the studio scenes he committed to visual memory through his acute observation. He vividly trained his visual memory, as he could hardly sketch while being rowed on the river at night. But also he added lithography and lithotint and further collaborating with accomplished printers to his abilities in etching and drypoint. He expanded his visual vocabulary through expanded technical possibilities. (Pictured above right, A Portrait of Whistler, 1859, British Museum)

The first prints - etchings and drypoints – on view are mostly literal descriptions of complex and artistically well-edited scenes of the working Thames, replete with complex groupings of boats, longshoremen, captains, Rotherhithe, Billingsgate, various bridges, even the Thames police station at Wapping. The detail was praised at the time for being picturesque, and although he edited and realigned his visual observations to make them more compelling and convincing, he persuades us of their reality. What is also striking is the awkwardness of some of the earliest Thames paintings on view with little concession to making the scenes beguiling: things are overcast without that sense of shifting light and changing skies, of the sheer beauty that Whistler was just a little later to find in even the most unpromising and gritty view of the river.

Soon though he was able to truthfully say that what a picture represented depended on who looked at it, to celebrate change and ambiguity, and to become a prime explorer of the possibilities not only of graphic art but of painting.

By the 1870s he could paint a Nocturne where small boats, piers and a bridge appear as ghostly bodies in crepuscular light, half seen and wholly mysterious, even romantic. Other nocturnes describe a warm summer night by Westminster Bridge, a symphony in grey depicting an early morning on the Thames. By the 1880s he could produce such marvels as the audacious and atmospheric watercolour Blue and Sliver: The Thames, in evanescent pinks, greys, purples, describing the river punctuated by the horizontal of Hungerford Bridge, the whole under an expansive and cloud-filled blue sky, and exploiting both the rough texture of the paper itself and using its unpainted lacunae as further lighting effects; equally audacious is Pink and Silver – Chelsea the Embankment with its pair of relaxed behatted men chatting, leaning against the balustrade, young children sauntering along, the Albert Bridge in the background. Single accents of red and pink, the river a pale blue streak, pull the black and grey composition into a satisfying whole. (Pictured above: Brown and Silver Old Battersea Bridge, Addison Gallery)

Whistler demonstrates increasing sophistication against increasing odds: bankruptcy caused by the failure of his libel suit against John Ruskin who called him a coxcomb, personal sorrow with the death of his wife, quarrels – he tried to throw his brother-in-law through a window – not to mention disputes, financial and other, with patrons. He was affectionate, loyal, maddening, highly intelligent with an acerbic wit, and naturally a friend of Oscar Wilde. His influence not only through his art but his attitudes is still of import, his views about art prescient. This show, perhaps inadvertently, shows him learning his trade, continually experimenting, finding new ways to look. It is unusually illuminating in demonstrating through the fireworks of his public life the tenacity that made him such a fine artist among fine artists.

His influence not only through his art but his attitudes is still of import, his views about art prescient

Share this article

Comments

Whistler and Wilde engaged in a highly public, increasingly vitriolic feud...

Add comment

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters