There’s more to the painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler than his mother. There are boats, cities, bridges, kimonos and a city transforming into a new age.
All of these are on display at a new exhibit, “An American in London: Whistler and the Thames,” at the Arthur M. Sackler museum in Washington, D.C., through Aug. 17. The well-known painting of his mother is not included.
This rare exhibit has more than 90 works from museums in the United Kingdom, including Tate Britain, and U.S. museums, including pieces from the extensive collection at the Freer Gallery of Art.
“For the first time since the Freer opened its doors in 1923,” says Julian Raby, Director of the Freer Gallery, “our Whistlers will be on view with other institutions.”
Whistler was born in Massachusetts in 1834. His family traveled to Russia and England, but when his father died, the family returned to Connecticut. He was dismissed from the military academy at West Point, and then worked as a draftsman on maritime maps, something that comes out clearly in the exhibit’s etchings, drawings and paintings.
In 1859, he arrived in London. The city was in the middle of massive change by modernization with steamboats, sewer systems and even a change in shape of the Thames with the building of the Embankment, which started in 1862.
Whistler had a first-floor studio on the riverside and painted what he saw out his windows. It was not always pleasant or romantic outside.
“People tend to think the Thames (as) very poeticized, very beautiful, escapist perhaps, but one of the things we hope to get across in the show is that it’s also about the gritty dirty reality of Victorian London,” said curator Dr. Patricia de Montfort of the University of Glasgow in Scotland. “The Thames was a gritty dirty river at this time.”
Whistler was obsessed with the river, painting the watermen, their boats and the old bridges. Later, he would branch into more aesthetic works with Japanese influences.
The show includes a geographic map of London marked so that one can identify where Whistler was when he painted his works of art.
“Whistler did have a group of faithful collectors who did buy these paintings and they eventually included Freer,” says Margaret MacDonald, professor emerita of Art History from the University of Glasgow and also a curator of the exhibit.
Whistler also acknowledged many different influences. “He seems to be open to influences but he was a stubborn man,” says MacDonald. “He did definitely say he was influenced by Rembrandt, Gainsborough, Turner, Raphael as well as the Japanese artists.”
He lived down the street from the Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, with whom he shared his interest in the Japanese prints and textiles that were being introduced to the West, and he went on a painting trip with the French artist Gustave Courbet.
Part of what makes “An American in London” is the chance to see new connections and details.
One day while browsing in the online holdings of fans at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, MacDonald discovered that in Whistler’s “Symphony in White: No. 2,” in which the model is holding a fan, it was likely to be one made by the Japanese painter, Utagawa Hiroshigi. The exhibit was able to borrow the fan to display it next to the painting.
One of his best-known paintings, “Nocturne in Blue and Gold: Old Battersea Bridge,” has its rare original gold frame with a stylized blue butterfly monogram that became his trademark — a J with a long tail, and a W for the butterfly’s wings.
The show’s numerous etchings and drawings show how he’d conceptualize and then rework his paintings.
Whistler was a “hard worker, a dandy and a great painter,” says MacDonald. “He didn’t mind so much people that saw what he was up to. Later, he would say that you shouldn’t see what he’d done, but he just said that. In fact, he didn’t mind at all that people could see his work, the way he was working out an idea.”
AN AMERICAN IN LONDON: WHISTLER AND THE THAMES
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington, D.C.
May 3-Aug 17, 2014
CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this story, Margaret MacDonald's name was spelled McDonald