At one with 'Whistler and Nature'
This is not Whistler as we generally know him. This exhibition at Compton Verney, Warwickshire, aims to show the Anglo-American artist in a new light as it explores his relationship with nature
Off the Dutch Coast, 1883-84, The Hunterian Museum, University of Glasgow
James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) is one of the world’s best-known nineteenth-century artists. He is perhaps most famous for his atmospheric paintings of nocturnal London and his striking full-length portraits - including his now iconic painting of Whistler’s Mother - and he was a leader in the Aesthetic Movement, the late nineteenth-century movement that championed beauty and the philosophy of 'art for art's sake'.
He was also a first-rate etcher and lithographer. And it is this subtler, quieter, less well-known side of him - and works of a more intimate scale - that the exhibition takes a look at, says Dr Patricia de Montfort, Lecturer in History of Art/Curator in Whistler Studies at the University of Glasgow. The exhibition is curated in partnership with The Hunterian Museum at the University of Glasgow.
Anacapa Island, 1845, The Hunterian Museum, University of Glasgow
American born (though spending most of his life in the UK) Whistler came from a family of soldiers and engineers, and received training in topographical surveying as an officer cadet at West Point in the 1850s. The roughly chronological exhibition starts with the only two surviving works made by the young military mapmaker. His early awareness of landscape is unmistakable in one of these: Anacapa Island, 1845.
About 100 artworks are on show - mostly works on paper, but also smaller oil paintings. As you look at them, three key influences on Whistler become apparent: Rembrandt, ancient Greece, and Japanese art. In the late nineteenth century, Japonisme, the craze for Japanese art and design in the West, was in full flow, and Whistler responds.
Battersea Reach from Lindsey Houses, c1864, The Hunterian Museum, University of Glasgow
Always the individualist, Whistler fuses his interest in Japanese art with neoclassicism and nature in many of his works, says de Montfort. For instance, the parasols carried by the women in Battersea Reach from Lindsey Houses, c.1864, its mistiness and colouring; while the oriental costumes and rolled bamboo blind in his oil Sketch for ‘The Balcony’ - its design derived from woodcuts by Japanese ukiyo-e artist, Torii Kiyonaga - has a distinct air of Japonisme.
Black Lion Wharf, 1859, The Hunterian Museum, University of Glasgow
Flattened space and simplified shapes and palette characterise traditional Japanese painting. In the etching Black Lion Wharf from when he moved to London in 1859 we have a wonderful example of flattened perspective. (Incidentally, he liked this print so much that he included it in his famous 1871 portrait of his mother.) The Thames is quite wide at this spot, opposite the Pool of London, but in rendering both foreground longshoreman and distant warehouses in sharp focus Whistler makes the river look much narrower than it was.
Whistler and Nature
Compton Verney, Warwickshire
Until 16 December 2018
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