James McNeill Whistler , (American, 1834-1903)
Oil on wood panel
H: 61.4 W: 48.8 cm
Gift of Charles Lang Freer F1892.23a-b
To Victorian eyes, The Balconyappeared a straightforward pastiche, or imitation, of Japanese prints: "It might have been painted in Japan," one critic remarked when the painting was first exhibited in 1870. Whistler constructed the scene according to Japanese principles of pictorial space, with the floor falling abruptly away from the figures, whose forms are cropped at the margin of a consciously asymmetrical composition. An ornamental spray of azalea floats across the foreground, and a rectangular cartouche bears the artist's monogram, painted in red to resemble a Japanese seal. Yet the setting is clearly English: the models repose on the balcony of Whistler's house and share his view of the factories of Battersea fading into the London fog.
The Balcony originally had a more elaborate frame decorated with Japanese motifs, probably resembling the one on Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen (see F1904.75a). Whistler himself replaced it with the present frame in 1892. By then, he had come to prefer this simple reeded design, now universally known as a "Whistler frame," which appears on most of the Whistler paintings in the Freer collection.