‘Whistler and the Thames’, which comes to an end at the Dulwich Picture Gallery on 12 January, is the best sort of exhibition: one that places right in front of your retina an artist previously spotted only with peripheral vision.
James McNeill Whistler was born in Lowell, Mass. in 1834, moved with his family to St Petersburg, escaped to Paris to train as an artist after periods in the military academy at West Point and in Washington, DC, and only came to London to live in 1859. But London became his main home for the rest of his life, and not just London but the banks of the river Thames from Rotherhithe to Chelsea. The exhibition makes a good case for the Thames was the defining locus of Whistler’s development from journeyman topographer to modernist master.
When in France Whistler had already published an accomplished set of original etchings, and on arriving in London he almost immediately hit upon the idea of another set, based on the river Thames. He was helped by the husband of his half-sister, Francis Seymour Haden, who was also an etcher. The Thames was a well-established subject for topographical artists, including etchers, and their work found a ready market among Londoners, art patrons and tourists. But Whistler’s angle on the river was unconventional. He concentrated on the eastern stretch of the river around the Pool of London, an area crammed with wharves, jetties, warehouses, markets and inns, and on the workers who populated it: longshoremen, bargees, innkeepers and prostitutes. This is where boats of all kinds thronged the banks: schooners and clippers, paddle steamers, tug-boats, wherries and barges. A friend, Gerald Du Maurier, said, with an unAmerican class disdain, that Whistler ‘is working hard and in secret down in Rotherhithe, among a beastly set of cads and every possible annoyance and misery’.
It was a perfect place for an artist intent on recording the bustle and hum of a metropolis, and for his medium: in the hands of a craftsman – Whistler had mastered the technique while working for the US Coast and Geodetic Survey in Washington, DC – the fine lines of the etching needle were ideal for capturing the delicate rigging of the sailing ships, the windows of warehouses and the wooden piers of the old bridges. The riverbank, littered with masts and buildings, curves off into the distance. The foreground often features one or more workers: a tough boatman, a lime-burner, a black-faced boy with peaked cap, a couple of sailors resting in a tavern. The poet Baudelaire summed up the essence of the etchings: ‘A marvellous tangle of rigging, yardarms and rope; a chaos of fog, furnaces and gushing smoke; the profound and complicated poetry of a vast capital’.
Whistler’s etchings sold well, and some were even presented to the South Kensington Museum (later the Victoria and Albert) in 1861. But at the same time he was also working in paint. Again, the river attracted him as a subject. A long series of views of the river started in 1859 and was still in progress when Whistler left for Venice in 1879. It’s in the paintings that you can follow two competing tendencies in Whistler’s treatment of the river. The first paralleled the etchings and had a strongly documentary bent. ‘The last of old Westminster’ records the old Westminster Bridge in 1862 as it was being replaced. ‘Wapping’ (1860-64) uses exactly the same location, a back room in a Bermondsey pub overlooking the river, that Whistler had used for the etching ‘Rotherhithe’. It’s a tour de force and clearly meant a great deal to the artist, who worked over it again and again, over a period of four years, in an attempt to perfect the foreground figures: two male figures to the right (the left one is modelled on Whistler’s artist friend Alphonse Legros) and in the centre a red headed girl who lies back across the balcony rail, distanced from the men’s conversation. To begin with the girl, modelled on Whistler’s Irish mistress Joanna Hiffernan (‘the most beautiful hair that you have ever seen’), was portrayed as a prostitute, but in the final version any narrative or moral intent is deleted, and the painting takes on a less Victorian or Pre-Raphaelite and a more formalist tone. When it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1864 ‘Wapping’ was praised for its technique but criticised for its lack of [moral or narrative] ‘meaning’. Its composition is complex. It’s based on a tension between, on the one hand, the verticals of the window frame, the masts and sails of the ships in the river and a ‘column’ of light that stretches from the girl’s head towards a red-funnelled steamer in the distance, and, on the other, the diagonals of the balcony, the foreshortened bowsprit immediately behind, and the rigging lines that converge at a point above the painting’s top frame. In the background Whistler crams all the commercial life of the Thames: sailing boats in mid-stream, smaller boats rowing between them, and the warehouses and wharves of the north shore. The three figures are dark but the dominant colours of the background are yellow-brown and white. Or all the earlier oil paintings in the Dulwich show this is the outstanding example.
But the world Whistler was recording in his Thames etchings and the ‘documentary’ paintings was fast disappearing. As the excellent exhibition catalogue makes clear, social and economic reformers, determined to rid what was now an imperial capital of its chaotic and still medieval infrastructure, were beginning to have their way. From 1858 the Metropolitan Board of Works had employed Joseph Bazalgette to build a vast network of new sewers, and to begin replacing the mud shoreline and ramshackle constructions built on it with clean new concrete embankments, backed by gardens and grass. Old bridges were replaced or rebuilt to accommodate high levels of traffic. Within a few years centuries of haphazard growth on both banks of the Thames were cleared away, initially in the Chelsea and Westminster areas, along with many of the occupations and people clustered on and around the unreformed river.
The new tree-lined path behind the Chelsea Embankment is the setting for one of the revelations of the Dulwich exhibition, the astonishingly fresh and brilliant watercolour ‘Pink and silver – Chelsea, the Embankment’ (1885). At first glance, and ignoring the faint outline of the Albert Bridge in the background, you might imagine this as the work of one of the more relaxed French Impressionists, its figures are so brightly and colourfully sketched; yet the composition is tight and powerful.
Despite these glimpses of the new London what Whistler was doing, especially in his etchings but also in some of his oil paintings, was consciously preserving part of this soon-to-vanish world through documenting in detail its multiplicity and vitality. For all his artistic modernism part of him was an antiquarian or urban archaeologist, resisting the tide of all-powerful improvement and celebrating the untidy but historic world of the past.
But there’s another strand in the paintings, increasingly evident as time goes on. Its concern is not to document, elaborate or preserve, but quite the opposite: to simplify, dissolve and formalise.
One of earliest Thames paintings, ‘Brown and silver: old Battersea Bridge’, commissioned in 1959 and signed 1863, strips the river and its near shore of all but a few floating or beached craft, and a few men and dogs, and reduces Battersea to an indistinct horizon. Over half of the canvas is given over to experiments in tonal gradation, in water and sky: it is these that take over the painting’s title, the subject being related to a predicate. Detail is suppressed with the aid of an obliterating mist – a Thames painter’s traditional helper, from Turner to Monet – as in a later painting, ‘Battersea Reach from Lindsey Houses’ (1864-70), where three ‘Japanese’ ladies promenade in the foreground. This was a period when ‘japonisme’ was fashionable among French and other painters, and Whistler was no exception. On the whole the influence of Japan on the course of his artistic development, it seems to me, was temporary and superficial, but the flatness of Japanese landscape painting may have played a part in helping Whistler in the process of cleansing his canvasses of unwanted detail .
Soon night replaces mist as a bringer of simplicity. In 1871 Whistler began a series of Thames ‘nocturnes’. The term was borrowed for him from musical terminology by a patron, Frederick R. Leyland. ‘A nocturne’, said the artist in 1878, ‘is an arrangement of line, form and colour first’. In most examples detail is confined to a few masts and sails on the river, the riverbanks reduced to two broad dark strips. Two bridge paintings from the series stand at the end-point of the series and of Whistler’s shift to monumentality.
The earlier, which is rightly placed as the culmination of the Dulwich exhibition, is possibly Whistler’s best known landscapes, ‘Nocturne: blue and gold – Old Battersea Bridge’ (1972-73), now in the Tate. Daylight has long drained from the sky, and blue, of various shades, is dominant. The composition is utterly simple: a huge capital letter T formed by one of the skeletal wooden piers of Battersea Bridge, placed off-centre, and part of the bridge deck, on which are a few indistinct human figures. Below, the ribbon of the north shore crosses the canvas, its only recognisable feature being Chelsea old church, and at the pier’s base a murky barge, on the far end of which stands a man, feet outstretched. A few shore lights shine, but above them, both above and below the bridge, is a scatter of exploded yellow fireworks – one is still ascending – from the Cremorne pleasure gardens.
In the libel case brought by Whistler in 1878 against the critic John Ruskin, who had accused him of ‘flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face’, the artist was interrogated about the picture by the counsel for the defendant, as recorded in Whistler’s own published account, The gentle art of making enemies (1890):
‘Do you say that this is a correct representation of Battersea Bridge?’
‘I do not intend it to be a correct portrait of the bridge, but only a painting of a moonlight scene and the pier in the centre of the picture may not be like the piers at Battersea Bridge as you know them in broad daylight. As to what the picture represents that depends upon who looks at it. To some persons it may represent all that is intended; to others it may represent nothing.’
‘The prevailing colour is blue?’
‘Are those figures on the top of the bridge intended for people?’
‘They are just what you like.’
‘Is that a barge beneath?’
‘Yes. I am very much encouraged at your perceiving that. My whole scheme was only to bring about a certain harmony of colour.’
The hostility and incomprehension that met ‘Nocturne: blue and gold – Old Battersea Bridge’ is hardly surprising. Whistler had moved a very long way – almost as far as he could away from the topographical and literal fare his public expected him to provide, towards a new art based on simplicity and serenity, where pure form, composition and colour have all but banished representation.
The second great painting, ‘Nocturne: grey and gold – Westminster Bridge’ (1874-75) in the Burrell Collection in Glasgow, is an even more radical picture. The canvas is divided into two monumental blocks of colour, the top third a grey-green late evening sky, the bottom two thirds the dark river. Both consist of barely graduated tones. But for the few remaining figurative features – the outline of part of the Palace of Westminster in silhouette on the right, and on the left a string of faint lights on the south bank, reflected in the water, far in the distance – this could almost pass for a canvas by Mark Rothko.
Could these two pictures be the first true paintings of the modernist movement, 25 years before the twentieth century began?
Though Whistler won his libel case against Ruskin, the result was disastrous. The court awarded him just a farthing in costs and by May 1879 Whistler was declared bankrupt. He left London for a long stay in Venice, and his Thames period was over.
The old Battersea bridge proved attractive to several leading artists before Whistler, including Turner and Constable. Turner’s affinities with Whistler are many and obvious – he too was a truly Thames painter – but John Sell Cotman’s watercolour painting of part the bridge, now in the Courtauld Gallery, is instructive. It features Cotman’s distinctive use of flat washes to simplify forms into blocks of colour, and its composition is also characteristically strong. It’s good to imagine that Whistler might have known the work of a fellow radical before his time.
In 1883 the novelist George Gissing published an essay called ‘On Battersea Bridge’, in which he mused on the experience of spending a misty autumn evening on the old bridge. One passage seems to capture precisely the mood of Whistler’s version of the bridge:
‘A mist lurks about the river, vapour which thickens, obscuring, but not hiding, blotting out all meaner details, shading off the harsher intermediate lines, leaving only the broad features of buildings massed darkly against the grey background.’
In 1913 my wife’s grandmother, Mary E. Thomas, was presented with a book as a prize for drawing in Form IV A at Howard Gardens Municipal Secondary School in Cardiff. It was a well-printed copy of Frank Rutter’s James McNeill Whistler: an estimate & a biography (London: Grant Richards, 1911). Rutter, now a forgotten figure, was a distinguished art critic and a champion of contemporary artists and art movements in Britain and Europe. It’s a lively and interesting book, especially interesting on Whistler v Ruskin and on Whistler’s legacy. This is Rutter’s estimate of Whistler: ‘If his paintings were lost he would live through his etchings, and if his etchings were lost he would live through his writings, for in all three his fame is permanent and well assured.’