Whistler in Watercolor

Conservation and Science

According to the ledger books of the London art supplier C. Roberson and Company, Whistler purchased sixteen “blocks” of wove paper from 1881 to 1883. Blocks of paper, compressed and sealed around the edges, not only minimized distortion of the wet paper, but they were also easy to carry while painting outside. Remnants of adhesive and blue fabric discovered around the edges of many his watercolors confirm that Whistler used blocks for these works more than a century ago.

The blocks of wove watercolor paper that Whistler and other artists purchased were manufactured with different surface textures. These papers were sold by name: rough, cold-pressed, and hot-pressed. Rough paper was air dried, which left a textured surface. Cold-pressed paper was repeatedly flattened during the drying process to create an even surface. Hot-pressed paper was passed between heated metal rollers to compress fibers and impart a smooth finish. Whistler exploited these surface textures and their visual effect on his watercolors, using hot-pressed papers for his detailed street scenes and shopfronts and cold-pressed papers for his more atmospheric seascapes.

While it appears many of these watercolors were painted rapidly, technical analysis reveals Whistler sometimes significantly reworked and revised them. The skirt in Milly Finch is one example. Reflected infrared imaging reveals it was originally spread wide over the sofa. Whistler repainted the area to reduce the skirt’s size.

Extended exposure to light has faded or changed the color of nearly all of these watercolors. A century ago A Note in Green was described as having a “blazing greenish-yellow background.” The edges of the work hidden by the frame remain bright yellow, while the yellows in the rest of the painting have dulled over the years and now look muted.



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