A Lifelong Portrait of London’s River
“An American In London: Whistler and the Thames” at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
Since the end of the Revolutionary War, England and the United States have shared a peculiar affinity. During the 19th century, England was (perhaps bitterly) aware of America's nascent industrial, commercial and trading potential, and the United States continued longing for England's cultural inheritance with childlike dependency.
This eager and mutual fondness might help explain why so many of America's aristocratic and liberal elite made second homes of London over the past two hundred years. From the impenetrability of its social order and its literary heritage, to its European bustle and gleam, the aura of “Englishness” pervades American sensibilities to this day.
This is particularly important when considering the work of James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834 – 1903), perhaps America's most renowned painter of the 19th century, who not surprisingly spent his most productive years in London, living on the River Thames and capturing its hazy, mechanical majesty.
Whistler's fascinating evolution is on full display in “An American In London: Whistler and the Thames,” at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, exhibiting the thoughtfulness of the artist's professional growth within and surrounding the unfolding international scene. Not only did Whistler bridge a gap between the Old World and the New, but he also occupied a pivotal position between artistic traditions of East and West when he spearheaded the Western artistic revolution of Japanese aesthetic influence following the opening of treaty ports with Japan in the 1850s.
Born in Massachusetts, Whistler was the son of a prominent engineer, who moved his family between the U.S., England and Russia throughout the young artist's childhood. After studying in Paris, he settled in London in his mid-twenties, where he aimed to attract patrons among the growing number of wealthy merchants and shipping magnates in the city. He focused his attentions on the docks of the Thames, the industrial and commercial center of his new city that provided him a myriad of swarthy and energetic subjects in its decaying old wharves, splintering wooden bridges, and the clippers and characters that inhabited them.
In “Limehouse,” an etching from 1859, he seems to seat the viewer on the deck of a ship, looking over the bow onto a crooked forest of masts and rotting wooden beams with towering rows of storefronts crowding the edge of the dock. Here is a knowledge and spirit of place that demands acknowledgement, as if Whistler were trying to prove beyond doubt the degree to which he had adapted to his surroundings.
Sailors go on about their day in the distance, surveying the water and readying their vessels, as oblivious to the artist as birds might be to an ornithologist. Characters often litter these scenes, as with the men conversing in “Rotherhithe” (1860) and the lone fisherman in “Black Lion Wharf” (1859), the latter of which even details the signboards of several surrounding wharves.
Among his earlier works, Whistler's etchings are perhaps more indicative of a fledgling tendency toward atmospheric richness than his thickly lain oil paintings. Canvases like “Wapping” and “The Last of Old Westminster,” while impressive, are weighed down with minutiae, which serve to illuminate the profound influence of Japonisme that so enlightened his later work.
In the fourth room of the gallery, viewers are met with woodblock prints by Utagawa Hiroshige and Katsushika Hokusai, the renowned masters of the Japanese ukiyo-e style that transfixed Western culture when it came about in the 1850s and 60s. These two artists, with their unique variations on river and bridge scenes, had a profound impact on Whistler. The exotic language of Japanese art, with its limited color palates, flattened forms, and vast geometric compositions, provided him with a novel lens through which to interpret a changing world.
The evidence is palpable in Whistler's work. “Chelsea On Ice” (1864) depicts a cold February dusk from the window of the artist's home, looking across the Thames to the Battersea factories in the distance. In contrast to the clutter of his previous river scenes, there is now but a single boat in the water, defined by a precise handful of monotone brushstrokes. Some faint architectural gestures on the far bank faintly reveal the factories through the clouds, and a few brittle trees in the foreground hover above two sparse clusters of silhouettes walking along the street.
But the real subject here is the field of ice on the water and the blanket of fog engulfing every corner of the canvas. This is the atmospheric transcendence that became Whistler's signature style: the washed out, muted tonality with which he wove together Japanese aesthetics and the singular character of the murky English skies.
Then there are the Nocturns. Such odes to solitude, fog and shadows captured by Whistler in paint that exist otherwise only in dreams. To stand before “Nocturn: Silver and Opal—Chelsea” (1880s) is as pulsing and silent as staring off into a hazy shipping port in the dead of night. Unclaimed lights flicker and fade in the distance. The beams of a suspension bridge grow and recede before your eyes.
Ultimately, Whistler sought to document the industrial center of England's great port in all its dirty, tumultuous fervor. He sought to convey the essence of an ebbing and flowing lifeline of people, ideas and struggles. The turn of the 20th century was marked by advanced industrialization and globalization, two factors that forever altered the course of human history. In this light, Whistler's lifelong portrait of a river offers a window into our modern evolution. It is a foggy, endless and often beautiful view.
“An American In London: Whistler and the Thames” will be on view at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery through Aug. 17. For more information visit www.Asia.si.edu