Category Archives: American Art

Revisiting Whistler’s Neighborhood: The House with the Copper Door

Cheyne Walk Looking East from Cheyne Row; James Hedderly; photograph; ca. 1870; Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea

Cheyne Walk Looking East from Cheyne Row; James Hedderly; photograph; ca. 1870; Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea

Last fall, the Freer|Sackler’s curator of American art, Lee Glazer, traveled to London with artist Darren Waterston to speak at the Chelsea Arts Club, the headquarters of the Whistler Society. Simon Wartnaby, the society’s president, had invited them to give a lecture on Filthy Lucre, Waterston’s reimagining of Whistler’s Peacock Room in a state of sumptuous decay. In the dinner that followed, Wartnaby mentioned that he had recently seen photographs of Whistler’s funeral. The images prompted him to explore the history of the house at 74 Cheyne Walk, the last of four homes along the river Thames that Whistler occupied over the course of four decades. Below, Wartnaby reveals the house’s little-known history.

74 Cheyne Walk on the day of Whistler’s funeral. Library of Congress, Pennell-Whistler Collection

74 Cheyne Walk on the day of Whistler’s funeral. Library of Congress, Pennell-Whistler Collection

Landlord-Tenant Drama

Known as “the house with the copper door,” the building at 74 Cheyne Walk was designed by architect Charles Robert Ashbee (1863–1942) for himself and his new wife. In fact, Ashbee designed several homes on the fashionable street. The Ashbees lived in no. 74 in 1897 and 1898; Whistler moved there in 1902 and remained in the home until his death the next year.

A synthesis of the Arts and Crafts and Queen Anne styles, Ashbee’s designs were eccentric, but this home was said to be especially so. Joseph and Elizabeth Robins Pennell, Whistler’s official biographers, reported that Whistler found the home strange and underwhelming. According to the Pennells in their 1921 book The Whistler Journal, the artist reported that 74 Cheyne Walk was “a successful example of the disastrous effect of art upon the British middle classes. When I look at the copper front door and all the little odd decorative touches throughout the house, I ask myself what I am doing there, anyhow? But the studio is fine, I have decorated it for myself, gone back to the old scheme of grey.”

Architect Charles Robert Ashbee. Image courtesy oscar-graf.com

Architect Charles Robert Ashbee. Image courtesy oscar-graf.com

The Pennells also provided their own description of the house, whose design they believed to be flawed. The couple described the home’s pitfalls, revealing that the layout proved tricky for an older Whistler to navigate:

It was a ridiculous place anyway, the studio on the ground floor, which was damp, the dining and bed rooms at the top where he had to climb to eat and to sleep until the Doctor stopped him. After that he slept in a front room on a level with the street . . . only one window in it, with panes so small you could hardly look out of it more like a prison cell than a bedroom. The whole affair was tragic.

In addition to its design flaws, the house was next door to a construction site. The noise sent Whistler into a rage. Even worse, the home being built next door was also designed by Ashbee, who had neglected to mention the project when he and his wife rented their home to Whistler. In typical Whistler fashion, he confronted the couple, arguing and protesting by refusing to pay his rent. At the advice of his doctor, Whistler even left the home for a short time. His frail health ended up being a saving grace: the Ashbees only refrained from evicting him because he was ill. Still, the Pennells claimed that the construction next to 74 Cheyne Walk “had a great deal to do with shortening his life.”

Whistler’s Later Work

Several photos of 74 Cheyne Walk were published in 1903, though it is unclear exactly when they were taken. These pictures show the interior of the home and convey what it may have looked like during Whistler’s residency.

The house’s studio space was a redeeming feature. Previously, Whistler had had a studio separate from his residence, in London Mews. Having a studio in his home ­­not only saved him money but also a commute—not unimportant since Whistler had become quite frail by this time.

In the studio at no. 74, Whistler worked on and stored a number of paintings before he died. One was a portrait of George Washington Vanderbilt. Whistler had painted most of the portrait in 1897, adding finishing touches in 1898. However, he never handed the work over to Vanderbilt, insisting it still wasn’t exactly right, and he brought the portrait with him when he moved to 74 Cheyne Walk. The painting was found in Whistler’s studio after his death in 1903. By that time, Vanderbilt had given up on ever receiving the portrait and commissioned one from John Singer Sargent to take its place. The two men remained close, however: Vanderbilt happened to be in London when Whistler died and was a pallbearer at the funeral.

Whistler did begin a painting of Charles Lang Freer in the Cheyne Walk studio. And in the last year of his life, Whistler took great joy in painting Richard Canfield, a rather notorious American casino owner who became a connoisseur of Whistler’s art, amassing a great number of his works in a short period of time.

The Neighborhood

To Whistler, the location and the context of 74 Cheyne Walk, rather than the house itself, held the most significance. Chelsea was a hip, up-and-coming neighborhood in London, and Cheyne Walk was the street to live on. Other notable nineteenth-century figures who resided there included Henry James, Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and George Eliot.

A map of London from 1868. Cheyne Walk is visible just along the river.

A map of London from 1868. Cheyne Walk is visible just along the river.

Chelsea served as the subject matter, setting, and inspiration for many of Whistler’s artworks. 74 Cheyne Walk wasn’t just his last house: it was the last in his series of homes in Chelsea, and it marked the end of Whistler’s four-decade-long presence in the area. During the Second World War, the building was destroyed, following serious damage by a land mine.

Visit Whistler’s Neighborhood to see a gallery of his artwork and photographs of different locations in Chelsea, as well as a map that puts these visuals in context.

 

This quotations cited in this post are from Pennell and Pennell’s The Whistler Journal, published in 1921. The National Gallery of Art’s website as well as Daniel Sutherland’s Whistler: A Life For Art’s Sake also informed this post.
Simon Wartnaby is an architectural and art historian and president of the Whistler Society in London.

Revisiting Whistler’s Neighborhood: Freer and Whistler’s Final Days Together

Portrait of Whistler; Thomas Robert Way, 1895; lithograph on paper, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1901.188

Portrait of Whistler; Thomas Robert Way, 1895; lithograph on paper, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1901.188

“A gentler, nobler, purer soul never entered heaven if such a place exists. His art and his life are one!”
—Charles Lang Freer to his business partner, Frank Hecker, July 18, 1903, one day after Whistler’s death

 

The Freer|Sackler’s grand reopening on October 14 has prompted reflection upon the relationship between the Freer Gallery of Art’s founder, Charles Lang Freer, and his favorite American artist, James McNeill Whistler. Whistler and Freer were not the typical artist-patron duo. They were close friends who genuinely cared for each other, their relationship extending beyond their shared belief in Whistler’s artistic genius. Freer’s loyalty and respect for Whistler is displayed not only in his glowing comments and enthusiastic collecting, but through his actions in the final days of Whistler’s life and the time just after the artist’s death.

Whistler’s Final Days

Freer and Whistler met in 1890, but it was only in the last few years of the artist’s life that they spent a lot of time together, meeting throughout Europe and especially in London, Whistler’s adopted home. At the time, Whistler lived at 74 Cheyne Walk with his two sisters-in-law, Rosalind and Ethel; he had grown close to his late wife’s family following her death in 1896. Whistler made Rosalind his executrix and sole heir. She worked hard to care for him and, later, to preserve his art historical legacy.

Freer was also a source of support and friendship. Whistler was put on bed rest following a heart attack he had on a 1902 trip to Holland that he and Freer took together. In the aftermath of this incident, Freer was extremely attentive to Whistler’s health and full of praise for the artist:

“Of course, I must stand by the illness regardless of earlier plans. So in the future my movements will depend entirely upon his condition. He is very weak and still brave as a lion. A most extraordinary man!!”
—Freer to Hecker, June 27, 1902

Despite his high praise of Whistler and attentiveness to his condition, Freer was reluctant to recognize how seriously ill Whistler was in the spring of 1903, just months before his death. Freer even talked of sitting for an unfinished portrait that Whistler had begun the year before, when he was in better health:

“Shall you be in Chelsea after June 15th? and if you are in the mood would you be willing to resume work on my Portrait?”
—Freer to Whistler, March 30, 1903

This portrait of Freer remained unfinished at the time of Whistler’s death. Portrait of Charles Lang Freer; James McNeill Whistler, 1902–3; oil on wood panel, 86 x 65.5 cm; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1903.301

This portrait of Freer remained unfinished at the time of Whistler’s death. Portrait of Charles Lang Freer; James McNeill Whistler, 1902–3; oil on wood panel, 86 x 65.5 cm; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1903.301

By the summer of 1903, Freer was visiting Whistler daily, making a daily trek from his hotel in Grosvenor Square to Whistler’s home in Chelsea. Freer took his ailing friend on carriage rides and sometimes journeyed with him across the river to Battersea Park. The Thames was a fitting setting for Whistler’s final excursions, as the river and its landmarks were ever-present in his life and in his art.

If Freer ever failed to visit, Whistler would call upon him to make sure he would be coming again soon. Whistler sent a number of telegraphs to Freer at the end of his life, each expressing his desire to see his friend daily. Their correspondence illustrates how strong and sweet their friendship had become, intensified, no doubt, by an awareness of mortality. Their letters and telegrams are full of mutual respect and appreciation: an ideal artist-patron relationship. It is clear that Whistler cherished and relied on these visits from Freer and that Freer was always happy to come and see him.

A telegram Whistler sent to Freer to ensure he would be visiting later that day. It reads: “Delighted to see you this afternoon at about four." Charles Lang Freer Papers; Freer|Sackler Archives

A telegram Whistler sent to Freer to ensure he would be visiting later that day. It reads: “Delighted to see you this afternoon at about four.” Charles Lang Freer Papers; Freer|Sackler Archives

On July 16, 1903, Freer and Whistler drove their carriage through St. James and Hyde parks. After the ride, Whistler seemed refreshed; he played dominoes with Ethel and Rosalind before dinner. The next day, Friday, July 17, Freer arrived to pick Whistler up for another ride when he learned that Whistler had collapsed from a fatal blood clot in the brain five minutes prior to his arrival.

The Funeral

After Whistler’s death, Freer worked closely with the artist’s family to make arrangements for the funeral. He even served as a pallbearer. The funeral procession began at Whistler’s house and progressed up the street to St. Luke’s Chelsea Old Church, where the artist’s mother, Anna, had worshiped. Whistler was buried next to his wife, Beatrice, at Chiswick St. Nicholas, a churchyard about four miles away from Cheyne Walk.

Whistler completed a painting of Chelsea Old Church about nine years before his funeral was held at this same location. "Harmony in Brown and Gold: Old Chelsea Church"; James McNeill Whistler, 1884; oil on wood panel, 8.9 x 14.8 cm; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1902.152a–b

Whistler completed a painting of Chelsea Old Church about nine years before his funeral was held at this same location. “Harmony in Brown and Gold: Old Chelsea Church”; James McNeill Whistler, 1884; oil on wood panel, 8.9 x 14.8 cm; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1902.152a–b

Hundreds of people gathered to memorialize the artist who had become as well-known for his antagonistic feelings toward the British art establishment as he was for his enigmatic portraits and depictions of the Thames. The hordes of people created a spectacle that surely would have entertained Whistler, who delighted in publicity. The following are some highlights from the funeral photographs, now part of the Pennell-Whistler Collection at the Library of Congress.

The hearse travels to Chiswick to lay Whistler to rest on July 22, 1903.

The funeral procession moves towards St. Luke’s Chelsea Old Church.

Charles Lang Freer, James Guthrie, John Lavery, Edwin Abbey, Theodore Duret, and George Vanderbilt serve as pallbearers and carry Whistler’s casket down Cheyne Walk. Guthrie was an Irish painter, Lavery a Scottish one, and Abbey an American. Duret was a noted French critic. Vanderbilt, whose family had amassed a fortune in railroads and other business ventures, was American as well. Although he spent his entire professional life in London, Whistler had not a single English artist, critic, or collector in his funeral entourage.

People gather in Chiswick’s St. Nicholas churchyard, where Whistler is laid to rest beside his late wife, Trixie.

 

 

 

 

The day after Whistler died, Freer had concluded a letter to Frank Hecker by noting: “Need I say that in all things of perfect refinement of beauty the greatest masters are now all gone—at least all known masters.” Freer not only understood Whistler’s pursuit of beauty in his artwork and in his life, but truly believed that Whistler’s art had achieved this “perfect refinement of beauty.” Whistler was all-consumed by thoughts of his legacy in the later years of his life, and Freer’s assessment of him as the last known “greatest master” is one that Whistler surely would have embraced. Freer’s postscript to Whistler’s death was a fitting final tribute from patron to artist, and from one friend to another.

Stay tuned for part two of this exploration of Whistler’s neighborhood.

 

Daniel E. Sutherland’s biography Whistler: A Life for Art’s Sake informed this post.

The Mystery of the Missing Frame

The mystery frame. Frame for Whistler’s "Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen"; designed by James McNeill Whistler; 1864; gold leaf on wood and gesso, 76.1 x 93.3 cm; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1905.329

The mystery frame. Frame for Whistler’s “Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen”; designed by James McNeill Whistler; 1864; gold leaf on wood and gesso, 76.1 x 93.3 cm; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1905.329

It was three hours into my internship at the Freer|Sackler, and I already had a mystery to solve: a Whistler frame. No, artist James McNeill Whistler hadn’t been framed for a crime—though that would’ve been an interesting topic to study. This mystery involves a frame around one of his paintings at the Freer Gallery of Art.

The Mystery

Whistler painted Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen in 1864. This was a time in his career when he was first incorporating Japanese elements into his paintings. He was also designing specially decorated frames for these works.

When museum founder Charles Lang Freer purchased The Golden Screen many years later, in 1904, it was surrounded by what Freer’s secretary described as “the old frame.” That frame was sacrificed for the protection of the painting during the shipping process. Freer had a new frame made for the painting: a relatively simple, reeded design that is still known as a “Whistler frame” because the artist adopted it for his work in the 1880s and 1890s.

In 1905, Freer acquired Whistler’s Portrait Sketch of a Lady. It was enclosed in a frame that clearly did not belong with the work: a so-called Oriental Cassetta frame, the type that Whistler had used in the mid-1860s for his Japanese costume paintings (more on that later).

In short, two Whistler paintings in the Freer collection ended up in frames that, as time went on, didn’t seem quite right. They were swapped in the 1980s, mostly because the Oriental Cassetta frame and The Golden Screen seemed to be an excellent—but perhaps not perfect—match. The opening of the frame, for instance, is not exactly the right size relative to the dimensions of that painting.

Linda Merrill, former curator of American art at the Freer|Sackler, wondered if the frame currently on The Golden Screen had actually been original to another Whistler painting, Symphony in White No. 2: The Little White Girl, now at the Tate. Freer|Sackler staff had long understood that the frame swap in the 1980s may not have resulted in a perfect fit for either The Golden Screen or Portrait Sketch of a Lady, but the involvement of The Little White Girl was a new development.

Like The Golden Screen, The Little White Girl has had several frames at various points in its history. The frame original to The Little White Girl survives only in a period photograph and shares visible stylistic similarities with the frame currently around The Golden Screen. Both were both created in 1864, and the frame of The Little White Girl was believed to have gone missing. But maybe it actually just found a new home around The Golden Screen. My task was to figure out if this was the case.

"The Golden Screen" with the mystery frame. "Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen"; James McNeill Whistler; 1864; oil on wood panel, 50.1 x 68.5 cm; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1904.75a

“The Golden Screen” with the mystery frame. “Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen”; James McNeill Whistler; 1864; oil on wood panel, 50.1 x 68.5 cm; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1904.75a

 

The Investigation

To start solving this mystery, it’s helpful to have some context for the frame in question. The Oriental Cassetta style includes Asian motifs, thus allowing the subject matter of the painting to extend onto the frame, the two acting as a complementary pair. In 1864, Whistler designed four such frames to accompany his Japanese paintings, as documented by frame historian Sarah Parkerson: the one currently on Purple and Rose: The Lang Leizen of the Six Marks at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the one on the Freer’s La Princesse du pays de la porcelain, the one original to The Little White Girl, and the one currently around The Golden Screen.

Whistler frequently reframed his work, especially when he adopted his signature gilded and reeded style of framing in the 1880s. By the 1890s, he began to standardize his framing practices, seeking unity and simplicity when his works were exhibited together. He sought to control everything about how his paintings were exhibited and placed great importance on his frames, especially when organizing a big retrospective in 1892. He often requested permission from collectors to reframe works from earlier in his career. This is what happened with The Little White Girl.

This information provided a promising start, but I needed to keep digging to determine whether The Little White Girl‘s original frame ended up around The Golden Screen. So, I focused on the visual evidence. The most convincing evidence that the paintings had two distinct frames are the subtle differences between the frames’ ornament. This evidence, however, is based on visual comparison, which is limited by the fact that the original frame for The Little White Girl is missing and the photograph that exists is dated, low-quality, and black and white.

“The Golden Screen” and “The Little White Girl” in their Oriental Cassetta frames.

Carved, round designs, or roundels, are present in all of Whistler’s Oriental Cassetta frames. However, there’s variation in how they appear. The surface decoration of The Golden Screen frame pictured above includes eight roundels, one on each side and one in every corner. The designs on the sides include ivy or paulownia leaves in Japanese mon designs; each corner features a different roundel with palm leaves.

In the frame around The Little White Girl in the black-and-white photo, there are only six roundels, one at each corner and on two of the sides. Additionally, the design of the roundels in this frame features small rosettes with fringe, distinct from the ivy or palm leaves. Even with a low-quality image of the frame, these differences from The Golden Screen frame are clear. These differences confirm that the frame original to The Little White Girl is not the one currently on The Golden Screen.

The red circles indicate the location of the roundels on each frame.

Future Investigative Work

Though I confirmed that the frame currently around The Golden Screen was not original to The Little White Girl, my research on this topic is not over. It’s still uncertain if the frame you see today around The Golden Screen is indeed the original, and I’d love to confirm what painting Whistler intended this frame to accompany. I never thought I’d be as interested in what’s around the artwork as in the artwork itself, but my time at the Freer|Sackler shifted my focus. Visit the Freer|Sackler during reopening weekend this October 14–15 to see Whistler’s La Princesse du pays de la porcelain proudly sporting one of his four 1864 Oriental Cassetta frames, and see if your focus shifts to the frame, too.

Sarah Parkerson’s dissertation on Whistler’s framing practices, “Variations in Gold: The Stylistic Development of the Picture Frames Used by James McNeill Whistler,” is a resource that was of enormous help to my research and this blog post.

Whistler’s Watercolors: Sneak Peek

James McNeill Whistler's watercolor "Blue and Silver: Chopping Channel"

James McNeill Whistler’s watercolor “Blue and Silver: Chopping Channel”

Senior Scientist Blythe McCarthy, Curator Lee Glazer, and I are undertaking a technical examination and analysis of James McNeill Whistler’s watercolors, based on the fifty-two watercolor paintings—the largest number of Whistler watercolors in any one location—in our collection. This study involves visual analysis, art historical research, and scientific study using a number of analytical techniques. It will culminate in an exhibition of Whistler watercolors in 2018. Until then, here is a sneak peek of some of our findings thus far.

Hot or Not?
The most commonly used supports for watercolor painting in the nineteenth century were wove paper and paperboard. Whistler used both. In fact, while Whistler was quite innovative in his paper choices for etchings, he appears to have been much more traditional in those he used for watercolors.

His preferred papers were manufactured with textures that can change and enhance watercolor’s appearance. During the nineteenth century, these surfaces were sold with the following designations: hot press, cold press, and rough. “Hot press” refers to paper that has been run through hot rollers to impart a very smooth, flattened surface. “Cold press”—also called “not,” as in “not hot pressed”—has been run through cold rollers, which partially smooth the rough surface of the paper fibers. “Rough” indicates a paper that has only been air-dried, with no pressing of the surface to flatten or smooth it.

Below are photographs of three Whistler watercolors, taken through the microscope at five times magnification. Can you see the differences in the surface textures?

hotcoldrough

 

Sanding the Beach
Whistler used many of the techniques discussed in watercolor manuals of his day, including rewetting and blotting, rubbing and sanding. We found evidence of several techniques in the section of his painting Southend: The Pleasure Yacht highlighted below. First, Whistler painted a blue wash. He then sanded the paper, which removed the blue from the high spots but left the color in small depressions. Lastly, he painted another, drier wash of a sandy color, which sits on the high points of the paper. The fibers in this worked area appear rough and lifted.

southend

Paper Source
Watermarks, as seen in modern currency, are thinner areas of the paper that look transparent when held up to a light. About half of Whistler’s watercolors are mounted to cardboard supports, so it’s nearly impossible to see if there are watermarks in the paper. Using computed digital X-radiography, though, we were able to read a watermark on one of our mounted watercolors. Though it’s difficult to see, the watermark revealed below reads: “J. Whatman/Turkey Mill/189?” It tells us that the paper was made by James Whatman, a preeminent British papermaker of the eighteenth century.

watermark

Outfit Change
We examined all of the watercolors using a technique called reflected infrared photography, which can enhance and reveal underdrawings and reworking. Using filters to block visible and ultraviolet light from entering the camera, we can generate an image of reflected infrared light. Carbon and other pigments absorb this light and appear darker than normal. The image below shows a change Whistler made while painting the skirt in his portrait of Milly Finch.

milly-finch

Want to know more? Read a past post on Whistler’s drawings, and stay tuned for more conservation insights as this project moves forward.

Grey and Gold

Grey and Gold—High Tide at Pourville

Grey and Gold—High Tide at Pourville

James McNeill Whistler stayed in Pourville-sur-Mer, a former French fishing village, for several months in 1899, composing a number of works. He completed many of the paintings in September or October, after most vacationers would have returned home. Grey and Gold: High Tide at Pourville exudes the off-season melancholy Whistler described in an 1896 letter to his sister-in-law: “A seaside place after the season is like a theatre in the daytime—there is an uncanny sort of loneliness about it.”

A Journey into Whistler’s Drawings

Entré sur la Grande Promenade à Baden; James McNeill Whistler, 1858

Entré sur la Grande Promenade à Baden; James McNeill Whistler, 1858

More than 150 years ago, a twenty-four-year-old James McNeill Whistler set off on a summertime journey. He and his friend Ernest Delannoy—both young, aspiring artists—embarked on a road trip through the French and German countryside. Their goal was to visit Amsterdam and pay homage to the revered Dutch painter and etcher Rembrandt van Rijn.

Whistler and Delannoy never made it to Amsterdam; they ran out of money and were forced to return to Paris. But the sojourn gave Whistler an opportunity to observe new scenery and subjects and to develop his artistic style. Throughout the trip, the artist kept a notebook, a visual diary of sorts, which he filled with pencil sketches detailing scenes, people, and places along the way. He produced scores of drawings, some of which he later developed as etchings for his so-called French Set.

This summer, I too traveled in pursuit of art. My journey took me from Colby College in Maine to Washington, DC, for an internship at the Freer|Sackler. When I arrived in June, just a few weeks after graduating with a degree in art history, I began surveying the collection of Whistler’s drawings in media other than watercolor and pastel. The majority of the drawings I looked at were from Whistler’s 1858 trip.

I had extensive background knowledge from my previous experience studying Whistler’s work at the Colby College Museum of Art, a fellow member of the Lunder Consortium for Whistler Studies. This project, however, gave me the new opportunity of handling the works. Emily Jacobson, the museum’s paper conservator, showed me how to handle the art. She then let me work on my own with a headband magnifier and flashlight to conduct what was essentially a forensic examination of each sheet.

Examining Whistler's drawings

Examining Whistler’s drawings

We were trying to determine if Whistler favored particular types of paper for a given medium or if he mixed it up, using, for instance, watercolor blocks for pencil drawings. As I examined each drawing, I paid particular attention to the paper, noting its texture and whether it was “hot press” (run through hot rollers to make it super smooth), “cold press” (run through cold rollers, leaving little bumps and grooves); or “rough” (air-dried, leaving lots of texture). I checked for watermarks; measured the paper’s height, width, and thickness; and inspected the edges for remains of adhesive or fabric. Along the way, I noticed distinct similarities among the sketches, such as the thin, off-white woven paper, the graphite markings on the edges, and the occasional appearance of sewing holes—evidence that papers were ripped or cut out of a sketchbook.

One sketch in particular stood out to me: Promenade à Baden, which depicts a group of fashionable people standing near a portico facing a hill. The drawing is on two pieces of paper glued together side by side. The edges are uneven, and the two pieces do not properly align, making the bottom wider than the top. A vertical fold down the middle of the drawing contains three sewing holes, and like the other sketches from Whistler’s 1858 trip, Promenade à Baden has graphite markings on the edges.

Promenade à Baden; James McNeill Whistler, 1858

Promenade à Baden; James McNeill Whistler, 1858

Even though Whistler probably never meant it to be a finished work, Promenade à Baden fascinated me because it reveals some of the artist’s process. Not only does this sketch provide us with a snapshot of Whistler’s journey, but it also demonstrates how he experimented with cropping and cutting his drawings. The graphite along the edges was probably how he marked where the paper should be trimmed. Additional cut marks near the edges suggest that he considered cropping the drawing even more before ultimately deciding against it. One thin sheet of paper tells us a story of a young, broke artist who, to further his artistic development, drew on anything he could and made the most of each sheet of paper.

Whistler’s Portraits: Ripper, Vampire, or Sickert?

Walter Sickert; James McNeill Whistler, 1895; lithograph on paper; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1905.108

Walter Sickert; James McNeill Whistler, 1895; lithograph on paper; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1905.108

Beyond the famous portrait of his mother, James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) depicted dozens of people in his personal and public life. A search for “Whistler portrait” on Open F|S returns 299 hits, with subjects ranging from Annie, his niece, to art-world notables. We’ll examine a few fascinating figures who sat before Whistler’s canvas.

Was Whistler gazing at a serial killer when he sketched this portrait of Walter Sickert in 1895? Though the Jack the Ripper murders took place well over a century ago, a few authors recently claimed to have identified the culprit. They say that around when he was studying art with Whistler, Sickert (1860–1942) also was terrorizing London, committing the murders attributed to the legendary Ripper.

Scholars tend to dismiss these theories. We do know, though, that Whistler and Sickert had a turbulent relationship—which one author says left the latter unhinged. Sickert first met Whistler in 1882 and worked with him for several years, serving as the senior artist’s assistant. The two men each completed a portrait of five-year-old Stephen Manuel, Whistler’s distant relative, in 1885. Even then, contention seemed to exist between the artists. Sickert wrote to Whistler, a notorious perfectionist, that he needed to stop tinkering with the portrait; “The picture is finished,” Sickert admonished. Years later, he stated that “Whistler’s portrait was bad” compared to his usual work—and that Whistler had painted much too slowly for the child, “who was wearied with the number of sittings.”

Meanwhile, Whistler seems to have dismissed Sickert’s interpretation. After earning praise for his portrait at the Society of British Artists’ exhibition in November 1885, Whistler wrote to his sister-in-law (and Stephen’s aunt) that his version “certainly seems to be the favourite in all the papers—haven’t you seen?”

Left to right: Whistler's and Sickert's portraits of young Stephen Manuel.

Left to right: Whistler’s and Sickert’s portraits of young Stephen Manuel.

The “friendship” fully imploded in 1896, after Whistler found Sickert socializing with a man who was suing him. Sickert came by Whistler’s home to explain, leaving a calling card behind. Furious, the older artist scrawled the name of a famous traitor on the card and sent it back.

Sickert had already started moving away from Whistler stylistically, embracing the impressionist style of Edgar Degas, with whom he had studied in Paris. But while Degas delighted in ballerinas, Sickert was drawn to more sinister subjects. He often depicted prostitutes and was famously inspired by the murder of one, naming four of his female nudes after the Camden Town Murder of 1907. And he was fascinated by Jack the Ripper; he even completed a dark, shadowy oil of the killer’s bedroom.

But why do some writers allege that Sickert was Jack the Ripper? American crime writer Patricia Cornwell, who is perhaps best known for these claims, in part ties her reasoning to Whistler. The murders occurred in 1888, the same year that Whistler married Beatrice Godwin. Sickert “loathed” women, Cornwell asserts in her book Portrait of a Killer, as much as he “idolized, envied, and hated” Whistler. She adds: “For Walter Sickert to imagine Whistler in love and enjoying a sexual relationship with a woman might well have been the catalyst that made Sickert one of the most dangerous and confounding killers of all time.”

Then again, as Jonathan Jones of the Guardian points out, we could also make a compelling argument that Sickert was Dracula, “that other renowned Victorian monster.” Zoom into the lithograph, and look into Sickert’s eyes. Do you see a murderer, a vampire, or simply a British artist?

Sunflowers in the Peacock Room

Sunflower andirons; designer: Thomas Jeckyll (1827–1881), manufacturer: Barnard, Bishop, & Barnards; England, Norwich, ca. 1878–84; iron with gilding; Purchase, Freer Study Collection, FSC-M-66a–b

Sunflower andirons; designer: Thomas Jeckyll (1827–1881), manufacturer: Barnard, Bishop, & Barnards; England, Norwich, ca. 1878–84; iron with gilding; Purchase, Freer Study Collection, FSC-M-66a–b

While the Freer is under renovation, its famed Peacock Room is closed. We continue to explore it in Peacock Room REMIX, however, as well as in our Peacock Room app, the Story of the Beautiful web feature, Google Art Project, and on Bento. Below, Clive Lloyd, a retired professor and blogger in Norwich, England, writes about the contributions of architect Thomas Jeckyll, who designed the original dining room that Whistler made into his masterpiece. 

The Peacock Room may be stunningly beautiful, but my eye is drawn to the contents of the fireplace, where I see the sunflower andirons designed by Thomas Jeckyll (1827–1881), born just outside my home city of Norwich, England. As a pioneer of the Anglo-Japanese Aesthetic Movement and chief designer for a local ironworks, Jeckyll introduced Japanese motifs—such as sunflowers, cherry blossoms, and fan shapes—to their products. Similar to the larger freestanding sunflowers that form the Peacock Room’s andirons, the bloom appears in various forms embossed on domestic fireplaces. Since writing an article for my blog on these sunflowers, several people have contacted me to say they have an Aesthetic fireplace identical to the one I illustrated.

I have been fascinated with this motif since I read about the seventy-two sunflowers forming the railings around a Chinese pagoda that once stood in my local park. Jeckyll designed the pagoda for the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition; he would later adapt the sunflowers for the Peacock Room’s rather more ostentatious versions. The Norwich Corporation purchased the pagoda in 1880 and placed it in Chapelfield Gardens. The structure suffered damage from bombing during World War II and was dismantled in 1949, but the best of its sunflowers were refurbished and used first as railings, then later as gates, at another Norwich park.

  • Jeckyll’s pagoda exhibited in Philadelphia, surrounded by the golden sunflower railings. Image courtesy Jonathan Plunkett.
    Jeckyll’s pagoda exhibited in Philadelphia, surrounded by the golden sunflower railings. Image courtesy Jonathan Plunkett.

During the most recent refurbishment, a local photographer told me she had seen original and replacement sunflowers mixed in boxes in the city council’s works department. Imagine my excitement when I saw a solitary sunflower in the corner of a nearby architectural salvage yard. I realized it must have been a surplus item liberated during the last restoration. I hoped the owner was unaware of exactly what he had, but no luck: He mentioned the magic name of Jeckyll (and the price), and I went home disappointed.

Thanks, Mr. President!

Portrait of President Theodore Roosevelt; Gari Melchers (1860–1932); United States, 1908; oil on canvas; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1908.17a

Portrait of President Theodore Roosevelt; Gari Melchers (1860–1932); United States, 1908; oil on canvas; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1908.17a

Happy Presidents Day! Did you know that President Theodore Roosevelt was instrumental to the Freer|Sackler’s existence? In 1904, Charles Lang Freer offered the United States his collections of Asian and American art and funds for a museum to house them. Because of restrictions he placed on the gift, the Smithsonian hesitated to accept it until President Roosevelt intervened.

To show his appreciation, Freer commissioned artist Gari Melchers to paint this portrait. Roosevelt considered the painting the best that had ever been done of him, and Freer predicted that it would always be considered the one that captured the “dignity, force and character” of the president. “Art is a language,” he wrote to Melchers, “and your portrait will talk to the people through coming centuries.”

Princess: Unleashed

The Princess from the Land of Porcelain (La Princesse du pays de la porcelaine); James McNeill Whistler, 1863–65; oil on canvas; F1903.91a–b

The Princess from the Land of Porcelain (La Princesse du pays de la porcelaine); James McNeill Whistler, 1863–65; oil on canvas; F1903.91a–b

For the first time since 1904, The Princess from the Land of Porcelain has left the Peacock Room. James McNeill Whistler’s painting of Anglo-Greek beauty Christina Spartali dressed in a Japanese kimono has hung over the mantelpiece in the Peacock Room for more than a century. Now it is on display in the Sackler as part of the exhibition The Lost Symphony: Whistler and the Perfection of Art.

The painting has presided over the Peacock Room for so long that it may come as a surprise to learn it was not originally a site-specific work. It was an exhibition picture, painted in 1864 and displayed at the Paris Salon the following year. Critics at the time generally liked the work, but they described it as a “pastiche chinoise” since parts of it seemed to imitate the decorations found on Chinese porcelain.

British shipping magnate Frederick Leyland acquired the painting around 1872. When he moved to a new home in 1875, he hung it over the mantel in the dining room, which had been redecorated by the architect Thomas Jeckyll to showcase Leyland’s extensive collection of blue-and-white Chinese pots. Leyland asked Whistler to offer suggestions about the color scheme of the woodwork. As the artist began to make a few modest changes, he realized Jeckyll’s designs clashed with his princess. Whistler was soon carried away with covering the walls, shutters, and ceiling with peacock motifs. The result was the beautiful Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room—and the end of his friendship with Leyland.

View of the northeast corner of the Peacock Room.

View of the northeast corner of the Peacock Room.

After Leyland died in 1892, his art collections were sold at auction. William Burrell, a collector from Glasgow, Scotland, bought La Princesse at that time. He sold it to Charles Lang Freer in 1903, shortly after Whistler’s death. The following year, Freer loaned the painting to Whistler’s memorial retrospective held in Boston, where the princess hung in a place of honor at the end of a long gallery. Later that spring Freer acquired the entire Peacock Room from Blanche Watney, who had purchased Leyland’s house, and he shipped the room to his own residence in Detroit in the summer of 1904. He once again hung La Princesse over the mantelpiece, where it remained when the Peacock Room was installed in the Freer Gallery of Art in 1920.

While the Freer Gallery is temporarily closed for renovation, La Princesse is liberated from her high perch. Enjoy this opportunity to take a closeup look at Whistler’s work before the princess once again returns to her lofty position, perhaps to gaze down on us for another hundred years.