Blue and Silver: Whistler and the Thames
Superbly executed exhibition documents London in the 1860s
This superbly executed exhibition builds a narrative around a major work in James McNeill Whistler’s oeuvre. ‘Blue and Silver’ depicts the old Battersea Bridge as it stands tall against the ethereal night-time skyline of the river. Brush strokes of a restrictive blue palette echo the horizon of the river and amplify the circular silver light of the clock tower in the full moon. Painted on the reverse of an oriental screen, it is rendered in his distinctive muted washes, applied not too thickly, but rather, in the artist’s own words ‘like breath on the surface of a pane of glass’.
Surrounding this pioneering use of a dressing screen is a number of works and objects that tell the story of Whistler’s transition from French realism to an aestheticism that was heavily influenced by the art of the Far East. He had an impressive collection of blue and white porcelain, books, fans and woodcuts of 19th century Japanese printmakers such as Hiroshige and Kunisade whom he admired.
Elsewhere in the exhibition are drawings, lithographs, etchings, watercolours and oil paintings depicting life on the riverbanks, the water itself ebbing and flowing between backdrop and focus. A major motif throughout is of course Battersea bridge, one of the last remaining wooden bridges on the Thames. Whistler recorded it obsessively while he was living in London in the 1860s and here viewers can see the specific structure during different tides and most notably at dusk as part of his nocturne series which rendered atmospheric and evocative night scenes in muted tonal explorations. His house on Lindsey Row in Chelsea, an area popular with artists and writers at the time, had great southerly views of the river.
In contrast to his contemporaries – notably Charles Dickens who sketched a rather bleak picture of the river’s pestilential waters associated with suicide, disease and prostitution – Whistler captured the beauty of the smog-laden industrialised landscape at a time when the old way of life waned and the imminent modern world filled the horizon.
Hunterian Gallery, Glasgow, until Sat 8 Jan