Washington’s Freer Gallery with Whistler’s Watercolors: a Rare Look

Amy Henderson
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Gilded Age industrialist Charles Lang Freer met artist James McNeill Whistler in London in 1890. Whistler was an American expatriate artist who had reinvented himself in the previous decade after suffering a serious fallout with his chief patron, Frederick Leyland, over Whistler’s resplendent but over-the-top design for Leyland’s “Peacock Room.”

The Peacock Room, designed by James McNeill Whistler for shipping magnate Frederick Leyland in 1876

Freer was swept up by Whistler’s embrace of watercolor, and eventually amassed the world’s largest collection of the artist’s work in this medium. Watercolor’s popularity had burgeoned in popularity in the late 19th century, in part because technologies had made its use more accessible to artists. Watercolor papers now were available in a variety of sizes, textures, and surfaces; the paint itself—previously at-hand only when artists would grind their own pigments—was now buyable in convenient metal tubes, thanks to the invention of such packaging by Winsor & Newton.

Freer gave his collection of Whistler watercolors to the Smithsonian in 1906, and this summer the Freer Gallery in Washington, D.C., has opened an extraordinary exhibition showcasing these 52 rarely-seen works. It is a stunning retrospective of the medium Whistler chose to expand his marketability to the United States. The fragility of the pieces means they are rarely exhibited, and they have not been displayed at the Freer since the 1930s.

Milly Finch, watercolor on cold=pressed wove paper (1883-4)

Exhibition Curator Lee Glazer explains in the catalogue’s “Preface” that the show is unique both in its focus on the broad swath of Whistler’s watercolors, but also because it considers “the aesthetic, economic, and technical imperatives” that illuminate Whistler’s place in the art worlds of Britain and America. “The Peacock Room is a completely immersive experience. Even though it’s a room, it’s really a six-sided painting that you literally walk into,” Glazer says.

Whistler’s imperative to reinvent himself in the 1880s is first shown in an 1881 watercolor drawing of Swan Pier and London Bridge. He was reasserting his fascination with the ever-changing light and imagery of the Thames—he had left London in 1897 but returned because he missed the “lovely London fogs.”  His “London Bridge” is an atmospheric piece that exemplifies Whistler’s approach to watercolor:  he uses a small format and applies a subtle color scheme that evokes a misty flow—-his painting is suggestive rather than resolutely explicit.

Blue and Silver Choppy Channel, watercolor on paper (1893-7)

Watercolor’s new prominence as a popular medium was evidenced by the British National Gallery’s exhibition of Whistler’s watercolors, and by critics that acclaimed them as “admirable” with a “refined feeling of colors” (quoted in catalogue, 45).

The exhibition includes examples of Whistler’s seascapes and river views, domestic interiors, street scenes, and “Nocturnes.”

Nocturne- Grand canal, Amsterdam, watercolor on cold-pressed wove paper (1882)

New research by the Freer’s curators, scientists, and conservators headlines the rationale for this embracing exhibition now. Freer Senior Scientist Blythe McCarthy explains that it was “exhilarating to develop a greater understanding of these works by integrating the results of our laboratory studies of pigments and papers” with a curatorial willingness to dig deeper into Whistler’s artistry. Scientific tools included infrared imagery that revealed how Whistler altered his techniques, and about his selection of various watercolor papers.  He used “wove papers” that were hot-pressed for his street scenes and shopfronts, thereby allowing for a smoother surface and greater detail.  For his Nocturnes, he used the fibers of cold-pressed paper that allowed him to use the paper’s “hills and valleys” so the pigments would not lie on a flat plane. His favorite color was “Payne’s Grey,” which he loved using for his night and fog scenes.  He also used Chinese white with every tone to give body to the pigment.

Some of the most charming exhibition segments deal with how Whistler used his studio “as theater,” as in his portrayals of model Molly Finch in various guises or “roles.” The most energized works are his city scenes, which Whistler painted again and again as London transformed into a modern city.

The Freer is also reintroducing its famous “Peacock Room” this summer, showing it for the first time the way Whistler actually had intended it to look. When the artist was commissioned by his patron Frederick Leyland to redesign this room, Leyland had his dining room shelves filled with blue-and-white Chinese porcelains of the Kangxi era (above). Their patterns and colors were the catalyst for Whistler’s astonishing vision to create a room in a profusion of blue, green, and gold patterns that suggested a peacock’s plumage.

Leyland’s outrage left Whistler without a major patron, and desperate to find a new way to support himself. The rising popularity of watercolor caught his attention, and indeed generated a much broader market for his work.

Flower Market Dieppe, watercolor on hot-pressed wove paper (1885)

The Freer’s curators wanted to present the Peacock Room as Whistler had intended, but the museum’s own collection could only fill half of the room’s 218 shelves. The solution was to commission 100 new vessels in the Kangxi style.  Curatorial fellow Kerry Roeder explains them as “not reproductions of historical blue-and-white ware. Instead, they reflect the continuity of a 1,500-year-old porcelain-making tradition in Jingdezhen China.” (press release)

It was this porcelain production during the Kangxi period (1662-1722) that greatly expanded China’s export trade with Europe, creating the East-West exchange that still exists today.

By Amy Henderson, Contributing Writer

Whistler in Watercolor will be on view at the Freer Gallery through October 6, 2019. The catalogue is edited by Lee Glazer, Emily Jacobson, Blythe McCarthy, and Katherine Roeder.  Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian, Washington, D.C. Distributed by Yale University Press, 2019.  (Asia.si.edu)

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