Whistler and the Thames

We made a last minute dash to Dulwich Picture Gallery on Sunday afternoon to see ‘Whistler and the Thames’- with just two hours left until the exhibition closed. A long trail of latecomers snaked through the gallery and, once in, queued to peer at each exquisite etching in turn.  Whistler’s etchings and aquatints are comparable to those of Rembrandt or Durer in my view, but deal exclusively with contemporary, secular life; in this case even more specifically with the river Thames and the teeming maritime commerce of London.  The characters, their activities, the boats, the taverns and

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warehouses – all are represented in minute detail, even the names painted on the shopboards or advertisements on warehouse walls are legible, giving a sense of just what a different, almost alien world much of London was, even in the late nineteenth century.  The techniques Whistler used are described, and we are shown the lengths that he went to in altering and correcting the plates to finally get his desired effect, with five or six proofs of a single image displayed together.

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Throughout the exhibition, alongside Whistler’s prints or paintings, are shown contemporaneous photographs of the sites depicted as well as maps of the relevant parts of London.  These testify both to the accuracy of Whistler’s hand, and to how utterly different London looked, aesthetically and topographically – Fulham was still a patchwork of green fields, ‘New Brompton’ a scattering of newly-built suburban villas.

Then the focus homed in on one of Whistler’s enduring subjects: Old Battersea Bridge.  Some early paintings were in a ‘traditional’ Impressionist style, with naturalistic colours (predominantly brown and grey – of mud and mist and wooden piers), and though recording atmospheric effects, still rooted in the real, if mundane, activities of the metropolis – like Monet’s paintings of the Bridge at Argenteuil as it was rebuilt following the Franco-Prussian and civil wars.

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Gradually the detail disappears and Whistler seems to favour more and more the ghostly light of dawn or dusk.  The misty stillness gives the water a looking-glass effect and obscures the functionality of the bridge and the factories on the far side in Battersea, reinventing them as pure architectural forms, in a hauntingly beautiful harmony of  colour and composition. Simultaneously, Whistler starts to explore the technique of lithography and lithotints, reiterating his increasing preference for the indistinct and suggestive as opposed to the clarity and factual qualities of etching.

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The extraordinary change comes when Whistler discovers Japanese art.  How immediate the effect actually was is hard to know, but from one room of the exhibition to the next we leap from the grey reality of London to a dream-like floating world of Europeanised geisha and cherry-blossoms.  Could such a scene as this really depict the Embankment?! It could just as easily depict the Bosphorus or the South China Sea.

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The examples of Japanese prints displayed show just how uncannily similar their depictions of bridges are to Whistler’s vision of Battersea – whose piers from this point on become gradually elongated as the low viewpoint exaggerates them and distorts the scene.  It is easy to imagine how the increasing focus, first on one archway of the bridge, then on just one pier stretching up into the sky, confounded

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audiences – to the extent that the infamous ‘Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge’ (below) caused Ruskin to sue the artist for ‘throwing a pot of paint in the face of the public’.  It wasn’t a portrait, a genre scene or even an architectural study  – the subject of the painting was, it appeared, nothing at all, and this seemed subversive to Victorian traditionalists such as Ruskin.

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That Ruskin brought the issue to court in 1878 is less easy to understand; Whistler’s work did not stand entirely alone, for Monet had created ‘Impression: Sunrise’ in 1872 and Turner’s ‘Snow Storm: Steam Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth’ had been exhibited in 1842.  Both were equally concerned with atmospheric effects at the cost of identifiable subject matter.  So perhaps it was his title – ‘Nocturne’ – which grated, rejecting even the suggestion of narrative in favour of musical connotations.

In Whistler’s words:

“By using the word ‘nocturne’ I wished to indicate an artistic interest alone, divesting the picture of any outside anecdotal interest which might have been otherwise attached to it. A nocturne is an arrangement of line, form and colour first.”

This painting serves as a triumphant finale to the exhibition – the culmination of almost two decades studying, sketching and painting the Thames.  It is also breathtakingly beautiful – serene, luminous, mysterious and timeless, with a firework that seems to symbolise the brief, vain spark of each individual human life in contrast to the eternal river and the endless night sky.  Perhaps that was the thought that subconsciously troubled the London public who, when the painting came up for auction in 1886, hissed.

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