Correction: An earlier version of this story had an incorrect first name in the headline. This version has been corrected.
At first, it may seem like an aesthetic change, a revolution in the way one man represented the world. But in the end, a Freer Gallery exhibition devoted to James McNeill Whistler feels more like an evolution in consciousness, a cultural or psychological shift rather than an artistic or technical one.
“An American in London: Whistler and the Thames” includes prints and paintings by the American artist best known for his gauzy, romanticized portraits of long, lovely, languid women. The exhibition focuses on Whistler’s relationship to the river that organizes London geographically and was at the heart of the city’s rapid economic and population boom in the 19th century.
Whistler sketched its chaos compulsively, capturing a ramshackle world of low dives and squalid lodgings, a cacophony of sails, booms and masts, barges, bridges and passenger ferries. He lived near the river, and his connection to it lasted so long and was so intimately observed that one can trace not just the change in his pictorial response to the waterway, but the social and geographical evolution of the Thames itself.
The Old Battersea Bridge, for example, is a recurring subject, from the earliest 1859 prints on display to one of his great masterpieces, “Nocturne: Blue and Gold,” made in 1872-73. It was a picturesque hulk, demolished in 1885. But long before that, it had been superceded by newer bridges and essentially was limited to foot traffic in its final years. In Whistler’s work, it only grows more monumental as its end draws nigh.
The exhibition also includes photographs that document the scrubbing of the old Thames, the loss of squalor, history and perhaps charm, and the emergence of a new river, contained within elegant embankments, crisscrossed by new bridges of stone and iron, and fronted by buildings exclusive to the wealthy. Modern-day tourists hoping to find the filthy and fetid Thames depicted in the novels of Charles Dickens (Whistler was a fan) will find few if any points of reference today, precisely because of the changes dramatized in this fascinating exhibition.
Simultaneous with these changes — chronologically close enough to make us suspicious — was a major change in Whistler’s visual language. Early sketches and prints he made of the Thames are finicky with naturalistic detail, attentive to the rigging of ships, the roofline of buildings, the psychology of the longshoremen and seaman who inhabit Whistler’s fully articulated landscape. One of his great early works, “Wapping,” is as crowded in its background representation of the river as the most exuberantly overstuffed depiction of the waterways of Venice by Canaletto.
“Wapping” was painted in the early 1860s. By 1863, Whistler was in the grips of a new mania, for the art of Japan, which jolted many of his contemporaries with its asymmetries, vertiginous games with perspective, and evocative use of patterning and two-dimensional compression of space. The exhibition invites one to assume that it is this encounter — with the prints, housewares and decorative works of a culture that had been “opened” to Western scrutiny only a decade earlier — that changed Whistler’s approach to art.
And so we see Whistler’s mistress posed in a kimono, looking at prints by the great Japanese artist Hiroshige, in the 1864 “Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen.” From the same year, the same auburn-haired and willowy woman is holding a fan with a Hiroshige print on it in “Symphony in White No. 2: The Little White Girl.” These seem to lead to a far more radical transformation in style in the 1870s, when all of the detail and naturalism of the early work disappears, replaced by almost formless exercises in mood, color and light in a series known as the Nocturnes.
The exposure to Japanese art seems to give Whistler permission to do things that would have been incomprehensible within the pictorial language he first used for documenting the Thames. But the transformation is too profound to accept only as an artistic or aesthetic explanation. Whistler, who once found the Thames’s ugliness and clutter fascinating in a visual and sociological way, becomes an artist who makes the river beautiful beyond recognition. This isn’t just a pictorial revolution, it’s a retreat from reality. The permission granted by the exotic language of Japanese prints is more psychological than artistic, and the result is a wonderful but troubling paradox: His art becomes modern at the moment he turns his back on modernity.
These late Whistlers are widely adored not just as radical innovations in representation, but as entirely successful and satisfying visual idylls. Whether or not the curators intend to, however, this exhibition makes them seem more problematic than before. Yes, you can say that Whistler learns to see the world in a new way and conveys that vision in images of extraordinary stillness and chromatic subtlety. But the context created here makes them also feel willful and reactive, as if Whistler’s response to a London that was disappearing was to enchant the vanishing landmarks with a beauty they never possessed.
There’s a name for this, and anyone who has lived in a dynamic city long enough has felt it. It’s called nostalgia.
“An American in London: Whistler and the Thames” is on view at the Freer/Sackler Gallery of Art through Aug. 17. For more information visit www.asia.si.edu.