An American in London: Whistler and the Thames at Dulwich Picture Gallery, London

By Ben Miller | 23 October 2013

Exhibition review: An American in London: Whistler and the Thames, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, until January 12 2014

An image of a drawing of a man in a hat from the 19th century
James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Whistler with a Hat (1859). Etching© The Trustees of the British Museum
From models and mistresses made respectable for high-profile shows to revising realism and the court case against Ruskin’s criticism which bankrupted him in 1879, Whistler remains a sometimes divisive and fascinating figure.

It is London, however, which looms largest in the characterful, bright take on his career in a Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibition which has procured some impressive loans. Anyone seeking an alternative history of the city will find plenty to ponder.

An image of a 19th century painting of a woman in a white dress standing in a lounge
Symphony in White No.2: The Little White Girl (1864). Oil on canvas© Tate, London 2012
There are 16 of them – A Series of Sixteen Etchings of Scenes on the Thames, as Ellis & Green’s 1871 publication succinctly had it – by way of introduction.

Rotherhithe was made as early as 1860, and the final set totalled 100. These were exhibited widely during the decades which followed, assuring Whistler’s reputation as a master etcher and leader of the Etching Revival.

Whistler settled at Lindsey Row, from where the Thames horizon was his constant companion, in 1863, and the works which follow this move chart a changing Chelsea most persuasively.

Here are tremendously evocative photos by James Hedderly, who Whistler knew and would base many of his paintings upon, in which men wear caps and beards and carry boatfuls of freights across the city – far more cargo, in fact, than a couple of chaps in a modestly-sized vessel should have reasonably been expected to sail from one shore to the other.

A portrait of The Adam and Eve is a chance to witness remnants of Old Chelsea around the inn as a central subject, as well as a demonstration of Whistler’s evolving specialism.

Horizons are clear and strong, then disappear altogether behind spooky mists. The contrast between the densely-stilted details of The Last of Old Westminster, from 1862, and Blue and Gold, the gloom-smothered oil of barely discernible features which provoked such disdain from Ruskin, represents two remarkable views of the river’s past.

An image of a dark blue painting of a bridge across an urban river as seen at dusk
Nocturne: Blue and Gold ‐ Old Battersea Bridge (1864). Oil on canvas© Tate, London 2012
The former painting was shown at the Royal Academy to acclaim. Whistler would draw Battersea Bridge – a difficult one to navigate, and a place where drownings were not uncommon – from the shore and boats.

He described his nocturnes, which are almost uniformly grey and gold, or dark green on a warm summer night, as his attempts to solve puzzles within paintings, and would have first been inspired by Japanese paintings during the late 1850s, the country having been closed to trade before then.

Professor Margaret F MacDonald, who curated a major Whistler exhibition for Tate almost 20 years ago, and Dr Patricia de Montfort, of the University of Glasgow, identified one of the fans on display – a fine example of the many collected by Whistler from Japan – just as they were completing the show.

MacDonald confesses to falling off her chair after discovering it within the V&A collections, but the strong influence of Japanese works – specifically their simple use of colour – informs many of Whistler’s later paintings.

An image of a 19th century drawing of a wooden bridge across a vast river
The Tall Bridge (1878). Lithotint© The Hunterian, University of Glasgow 2013
Within them, a cabinet contains designs for nine plates, etchings by Japanese artist Okada Shuntosai and excerpts from press reviews, presented by Whistler as post-ironical comments for a major 1892 exhibition at the Goupil Gallery.

“He has no atmosphere and no light,” says one of them. “Instead of air, he studies various kinds of fog – and his values are the relative powers of darkness, not of light.” The shadowy allure of Whistler is elegantly played out across a show where you can smell the sea air.

  • Open 10am-5pm (11am-5pm Saturday and Sunday, closed Monday except Bank Holidays). Admission £3-£11, book online. Follow the gallery on Twitter @DulwichGallery.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

More pictures:

An image of a murky oil painting of a 19th century women overseen by women in dresses
Battersea Reach from Lindsey Houses (circa 1864). Oil on canvas© The Hunterian, University of Glasgow 2013
An image of a 19th century drawing of the Thames with a bridge in the background
Vauxhall Bridge (1861). Etching and drypoint© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
An image of a 19th century oil painting of a bridge over a river with boats and men
Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge (1859-63). Oil on canvas mounted on masonite© Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts
An image of a 19th century lithograph of a bridge above a busy urban river
Old Battersea Bridge (1878-79). Etching and drypoint© University of Michigan Museum of Art
An image of a 19th century oil painting of people talking around a table in front of a river
Wapping (1860-64). Oil on canvas© Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington
An image of a drawing of figures from the 19th century
Designs for wall decorations at Whistler's house, 2 Lindsey Row (1877-78). Pen and ink© The Hunterian, University of Glasgow 2013
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