Cara O’Keeffe narrates the career of artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler, who in 1871 published darkly realistic etchings of the Thames.
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Hello, I’m Cara O’Keeffe. I’m a gallery assistant at the National Maritime Museum. At the Museum, gallery assistants often give talks for visitors about the curious stories, facts and histories behind some of the objects in our collections.
Up until the 1850s, images of the Thames and of the maritime community in general were romantic ones. But in 1857 the French art critic, Charles Baudelaire, called on artists in the Salon Review to produce a new ‘art of the river’ to emphasize the urban nature of the River Seine, which runs through Paris. This inspired the American artist, James McNeil Whistler, to do the same, but for the Thames of London.
So, in 1858, Whistler moved to Wapping, in the East End of London and set about producing etchings of the Thames as he saw it. Whistler produced 16 etchings of the Thames, of which five are displayed in the Art and the Sea gallery of the NMM. Although started in 1859, they were not completed or published until 1871.
These images changed the way the world looked at the Thames, as they showed a darker, perhaps seedier side to the river, but also what Whistler saw to be beautiful. This marked a change in style for Whistler to the Aesthetic style of art, and this is a style to which he became committed to, and a leading figure in. The images show a working maritime community of real people working and living on the river. They also have a claustrophobic feel to them, as the etchings are dark and conglomerated with boats, barges and cargo. Tired-looking working men go about their daily grind. These etchings also came at a time when Punch magazine criticized the Thames for its polluted state.
Whistler was a spontaneous, passionate and eccentric character. Because of these qualities, he made friends with a lot of the celebrities of the time. He was part of cafe societies in both Paris and London. In Paris he formed A Society of Three, with the artists, Henri Fantin-Latour and Alphonse Legros. In London he mixed with Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Oscar Wilde, among others. It is said that a young Oscar Wilde attended one of Whistler’s dinner parties and after some brilliant remark from Whistler, he exclaimed; ‘I wish I’d said that!’ to which Whistler replied, ‘You will Oscar, you will!’
But because of Whistler’s spontaneous and passionate nature, he also fell out with a lot of his friends, and in 1890 he even wrote a book on something he knew a lot about, called: The Gentle Art of Making Enemies. And indeed, Whistler and Oscar Wilde fell out when Whistler publicly mocked Wilde when Wilde was outed as gay.
Another marked falling-out was with Whistler’s friend and patron, the shipping magnate, Frederick Leyland. Leyland hired Whistler to harmonise his dining-room, and to make minor changes to decorative work recently done by another artist. The room’s main purpose was to display Leyland’s china collection. But, inspired by the collection, Whistler let his imagination run wild. He got carried away and filled the room with bluey-greens, with over-glazing, and metallic gold leaf. The room is a high example of the Anglo-Japanese style. However, when Leyland returned, he was shocked by these so-called improvements! He argued violently with Whistler over the piece and over the proper payment for the work. This marked the end of their working relationship and their friendship.
A short time later and without Leyland’s knowledge, Whistler gained access to the house and to the room, and painted two huge fighting peacocks, one holding a bag of money and one holding a paintbrush, representing Leyland and Whistler. The room is now known as Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room, and is considered a masterpiece of decorative mural art. It can still be visited today at the Freer Gallery of Art in America.
A famous pupil of Whistler, whom he also eventually fell out with, was Walter Sickert. Sickert actually sought out Whistler, and like many before him, he greatly admired Whistler. They had some similar interests: Whistler was an American living in London, and Sickert was a German living in London. They both loved to visit music halls and theatres, and Sickert was a failed actor.
So, continuing to be drawn to the seedier side of London, Whistler introduced Sickert to the streets of East London, which they walked together. Inspired by the area, Sickert took a studio there. However, their relationship gradually cooled. Sickert was not invited to Whistler’s wedding in the summer of 1888, and their relationship was over for good when Whistler testified in a court case which bankrupted Sickert. Whistler then said; ‘Sickert has a treacherous side to his character’.
This dark side can often be seen in Sickert’s paintings, which are full of undefined psychological tension. Virginia Woolf even wrote an essay on him. Sickert did a series of gruesome paintings of the Camden town murders, featuring dead women, having moved to Camden after living in Whitechapel. He became a prolific letter writer, often writing to newspapers under different names. One name you may know him best, is possibly as … Jack the Ripper.
To find out more about the Gallery Favourite talks that are on this month in the Museum, please visit our website, www.nmm.ac.uk/favourites. Thank you for listening.
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