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Left: Detail, Battersea Reach from Lindsey Houses, by James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903). American, 1864–70. Oil on canvas. The Hunterian, University of Glasgow. Right: Detail, Sumida River by Night, by Kobayashi Kiyochika (1847–1915). Japan, 1881. Woodblock print; ink on paper. Robert O. Muller Collection, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, S2003.8.1202.

City View

Explore Tokyo and London as seen by Kiyochika and Whistler in the nineteenth century.

On September 3, 1868, the city of Edo ceased to exist. Renamed Tokyo (Eastern Capital) by Japan’s new rulers, the city exemplified the nation’s drive toward modernization. Railroads, steamships, gaslights, telegraph lines, and large brick buildings radically changed the cityscape. Kiyochika set out to record his views of Tokyo in a series of ninety-three woodblock prints.

The modern urban scene was also the chosen subject of James McNeill Whistler. When the young American artist arrived in London in 1859, urban modernization was already well underway. For the next twenty years he explored new ways of seeing the city and the river Thames, and in the process he developed a balance between realism and abstraction that presages the advent of modernism.

As seen in Kiyochika: Master of the Night and An American in London: Whistler and the Thames, these Japanese and American artists expressed common themes and concerns in their artworks. Kiyochika, a painter and printmaker, excelled at atmospheric, moody images of Tokyo after dark, while Whistler adapted his approach to reflect a new and shifting reality.

Your City Views

Share your photographs that capture the beauty of Tokyo and London in transition. Post your photos to Instagram or tweet them with hashtag #cityviewlondon or #cityviewtokyo. ( View Examples )



Left: Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge. James McNeill Whistler; 1859–1863; Oil on canvas mounted on Masonite; Addison Gallery of American Art, Gift of Cornelius N. Bliss. Right: River Thames at Chelsea, London. © David Davies – Pianowerk.

Thames River traffic is shown in Whistler’s Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge and this recent photograph of the present-day bridge. Barges still pass under the 1890 bridge, which replaced the original wooden structure painted by Whistler in the 1860s.


Left: Ryōgokubashi Viewed from Senbongui. Kobayashi Kiyochika (1847–1915); Japan, ca. 1880; Woodblock print; ink and color on paper; Robert O. Muller Collection S2003.8.1171. Right: Senbongui. Photo by Shuko Koyama, Tokyo.

To the north of Ryōgoku Bridge on the east bank of the Sumida River is a spot called Senbongui. Meaning literally “a thousand poles or stakes,” Senbongui was marked with posts, which were driven into this section of the embankment to halt erosion. There are strong currents at this point in the river, in part because it is where salt tidewaters mix with freshwater from the north. These waters were known for excellent catches of fish.

Kiyochika followed the master Hiroshige in selecting this site as an important one in the lexicon of notable places in Edo/Tokyo. Today, concrete walls control the river and an express highway runs above it. The only markers for this site are a plaque, a few mural paintings, and a symbolic clustering of stakes.

Kiyochika: Master of the Night

March 29–July 27, 2014
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

An American in London: Whistler and the Thames

May 3–August 17, 2014
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery


An American in London: Whistler and the Thames


City Nights Open House
Webinar: Whistler and Kiyochika: Modernity, Melancholy, and the Nocturne

The Freer|Sackler is closed for renovation and reinstallation. The popular exhibition Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan is still on view in the International Gallery. (Enter through the Ripley Center.) Join us for our reopening celebration on October 14–15, 2017.