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An American in London: Whistler and the Thames



Battersea Reach

Whistler described this painting of “a view of the opposite bank of the river, from out of my window, on a brilliant autumn evening” as a “gorgeous bit of color” and “a favorite of mine.” He recalled creating it “in one go,” and it is indeed painted thinly, with the exception of the vigorous brushwork on the boats in the foreground. The asymmetrical composition, in which the lone red sail in the middle ground visually balances the graceful array of masts on the right, suggests Whistler’s growing fascination with Japanese art.

ca. 1863
Oil on canvas
Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Symphony in White No. 2: The Little White Girl

Japanese fans decorated Whistler’s Lindsey Row drawing room, which overlooked the banks of the Thames, and they appear as props in several works from the mid-1860s. This portrait of Joanna Hiffernan is set in the artist’s dining room, where the décor included pink azaleas and Chinese porcelain. The model, wearing an uncorseted yet fashionable muslin gown, holds a fan decorated by Hiroshige with a view of a famous Edo site: the banks of the Sumida River.

fan closeup Utagawa Hiroshige; The Banks of the Sumida River; From the series Famous Places in the Eastern Capital; Japan, Edo period, 1857; Woodblock print; ink and color on paper; Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The river view on this print for a fan is seen from the middle of the Azuma Bridge in Edo, with Mount Tsukuba on the horizon. Beyond is the Nihon Embankment, which led to the Yoshiwara pleasure district. This images appears in a different color impression in Symphony in White, No. 2.

Oil on canvas
Tate Britain, London


According to the printer T. R. Way Jr., Whistler created this lithotint “at one sitting from memory.” It captures the view of the Battersea shore from Chelsea that the artist had seen, drawn, and painted so often after he moved to Lindsey Row.

Lithotint on blue paper

Under Old Battersea Bridge

This etching shows the two piers to the left of the central passage under old Battersea Bridge. The Chelsea Suspension Bridge is visible in the distance on the left (the view was reversed in printing). An “open bite” technique—applying or “painting” acid directly on the plate—was used to produce the richly textured dark mass of the bridge. Drypoint shading added soft atmospheric effects in the background.

Etching and drypoint

Nocturne: Blue and Gold—Old Battersea Bridge

When Whistler sued the prominent art critic John Ruskin for libel in 1878, Nocturne: Blue and Gold was brought forth as evidence for the defense, which claimed the painting was “just as comprehensible turned upside down.” This poeticized vision of Battersea Bridge contrasts strongly with Whistler’s realistic representations from the early 1860s. The composition, dominated by the structure of the bridge, relates closely to his interest in Japanese woodcuts, such as Hiroshige’s series Famous Views of the Sixty-odd Provinces. The outlines of the bridge were painted thinly, while the fireworks, lights, and reflections were added later with thicker paint. Albert Bridge, completed in 1873, is barely discernible in the background dimness.

Oil on canvas
Tate Britian, London

Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge

Begun in 1859, this painting is Whistler’s earliest depiction of Old Battersea Bridge, which became a recurrent motif in his work. Here, London’s last surviving wooden bridge, not yet slated for demolition, crosses the river to the factories of Battersea on the opposite side. The Crystal Palace, constructed to house the Great Exhibition of 1851, is visible on the distant horizon.

When Whistler exhibited Brown and Silver at the Royal Academy in 1865, critics praised its realistic rendering of the “English grey and damp.” Much later, while on a lengthy sojourn in Venice, Whistler claimed the English fogs as his own: “They are lovely those fogs—and I am their painter!” The canvas embodies Whistler’s close connection to the Thames as an artistic subject. Beneath the thinly painted surface hides the ghost of an earlier work: a self-portrait of the artist.

X-ray of Whistler's self-portrait X-ray of Whistler’s self-portrait under Brown and Silver

Oil on canvas
Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts

Chelsea in Ice

During a particularly cold February, Whistler painted this view of the Chelsea shore from his house, looking across to the Battersea factories in the distance. The artist’s mother reported he “could not resist painting while I was shivering—at the open window.”

Oil on canvas
Colby College Museum of Art, Waterville, Maine

Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony

English models dressed in kimonos pose before the view outside Whistler’s studio in Lindsey Row, Chelsea. The bright, flatly painted foreground and East Asian props suggest a world far from industrial London, yet the standing figure looks out at the same vista that Whistler depicted—far less fancifully—in Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge.

Most painters would have overlooked these factories, but Whistler chose to transform the modern cityscape through the visual language of art. The smokestacks are veiled in atmospheric mist, and the adjacent slag heap (a monument of industrial waste) evokes images of Mount Fuji by Japanese artists Utagawa Hiroshige and Katsushika Hokusai. Butterflies, a symbol of metamorphosis, link the foreground fantasy to the real world beyond the balcony. Beginning with this painting, Whistler signed his work with a butterfly instead of his name, thereby linking himself and London to visions of Japan.

Oil on wood panel

Battersea Reach from Lindsey Houses

Seen from Whistler’s house in what is now Cheyne Walk in Chelsea, the women on the right wear brightly colored dresses that were fashionable around 1870. They are placed on top of earlier figures clad in semiclassical gowns in pastel colors. The two faint figures on the left are similar to the robed models that Whistler painted in the late 1860s in a series known as the Six Projects (now on view in the Freer Gallery of Art). Signs of repainting are also evident on the river, particularly where a sailing barge has been partially erased.

ca. 1864
Oil on canvas
The Hunterian, University of Glasgow

Black Lion Wharf

This is the only example among the Thames Set in which Whistler reversed the image on the etching plate to ensure the final print reads as a true depiction of the view. Black Lion Wharf was located between Downes and Carron wharves, east of Saint Katharine’s Dock. Whistler includes signboards for several wharves in the area, thus enhancing the topographically specific quality of the scene. He also placed a framed impression of this etching in the background of the work for which he is best known: Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter’s Mother.

Etching and drypoint
Bequest of Mr. Samuel E. Stokes, Jr.


Wapping was painted from the balcony of the Angel, a public house that still stands along the Thames. The composition gave Whistler trouble: over the years he altered, repositioned, and replaced figures and repainted the scene both on site and in his Chelsea studio at Lindsey Row. Whistler’s model, his red-haired Irish mistress Joanna Hiffernan, was originally depicted as a sailor’s “molly,” but she was repainted to assume a more modest and reflective persona before Wapping was displayed at the Royal Academy in 1864.

Writing to his friend, artist Henri Fantin-Latour, in 1861, Whistler confided he was working on a painting “which I am absolutely certain must become a masterpiece.”

It is on a balcony right above the Thames. There are three people—an old man in a white shirt the one in the middle who is looking out of the window—then on the right in the corner, a sailor in a cap and a blue shirt with a big collar turned back in a lighter blue, who is chatting to a girl who is jolly difficult to paint!… Now through the window you can see the whole Thames! The background is like an etching—and was unbelievably difficult!… And just by the head of the girl (who I forgot to tell you looks supremely whore-like) there is the bowsprit of another large boat, the ropes and pulleys of which go across the whole picture.… There are also many small boats and buildings which I cannot put into the sketch. But my dear Fantin I assure you that I have never attempted such a difficult subject.

Oil on canvas
National Gallery of Art, Washington

As renovation work continues in the Freer Gallery, the Sackler Gallery also will close on July 10, 2017. This museum-wide closure will allow us to completely reinstall our exhibitions and revitalize features to improve your visit. Both spaces will reopen on October 14, 2017, when we will welcome the public back to the Freer|Sackler: two galleries, one destination. For your safety, all visitors will have their bags checked. See the complete list of restricted items and bag sizes.