An American in London: Whistler and the Thames

Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

James McNeill Whistler occupies a pivotal position between cultures and artistic traditions of East and West. American-born, French-trained, and London-based, he was an artist with a truly cosmopolitan background. Born in Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1834, he grew up in the United States, England, and Russia. He studied briefly at the United States Military Academy at West Point, learned to etch at the US Coast and Geodetic Survey in Washington, D.C., and left to study art in Paris in 1855. Four years later he settled in London, where he hoped to attract patrons among the growing number of wealthy merchants and shipping magnates in that city. He worked along the docks, etching and painting the bridges, old and new, that spanned the river Thames. He depicted the workers and prostitutes, sailors and stevedores, the decaying wharves, the ferries and wherries, and clippers and cutters. Whistler documented the industrial and commercial center of the greatest port in Europe in all its dirty, crowded, bustling activity.

Living within sight of the river, Whistler recorded the changes wrought by industrialization: changing vistas, new landmarks, even the dense atmosphere of smog mingled with gaslight. Over the years his subject matter, techniques, and compositions evolved with his sites. He sought to convey the essence of the river—the lifeblood of the city—ebbing and flowing before his perceptive eyes and caught by his skillful brush. In the 1870s, after a period of self-imposed artistic re-education that included close study of Japanese woodblock prints, Whistler’s style became more atmospheric, his colors more limited, and his point of view less descriptive. Along with a series of powerful, impressionistic oils and the nearly abstract Nocturnes, Whistler made sketches in pencil and chalk, watercolors with expressive brushwork and delicate coloring, richly textured lithographs and lithotints, and finely detailed etchings and drypoints that showed his masterly draftsmanship. In the Sackler Gallery’s first international loan exhibition of art by Whistler, more than eighty works bring to vivid life the city, the Thames, and the people of Victorian London.

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An American in London: Whistler and the Thames has been organized by the Addison Gallery of American Art, the Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. Exhibition support is generously provided by the Mr. and Mrs. Raymond J. Horowitz Foundation for the Arts and the Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries. Additional support for programming is provided by the Terra Foundation for American Art.