Tag Archives: James McNeill Whistler

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.

#MuseumSelfie Day!

Hutomo Wicaksono, audiovisual and media specialist, gets framed in The Lost Symphony.

Hutomo Wicaksono, audiovisual and media specialist, gets framed in The Lost Symphony.

Every year, there comes a day when the humble selfie is deemed museum-worthy. That’s right: It’s #MuseumSelfie Day, the annual call for museum-goers to capture themselves enjoying their favorite cultural institutions. In your case, of course, that would be the Freer|Sackler!

This year, you can up your self-portrait game by taking one in our new exhibition The Lost Symphony: Whistler and the Perfection of Art, on view alongside Peacock Room REMIX. Without touching the art (that’s still a no-no, as are selfie sticks), pose in front of a reproduction of the frame that James McNeill Whistler once intended for The Three Girls, an unrealized masterpiece. Snap, share, and prove that you too are a true work of art.

A Painting That Doesn’t Exist

Three Female Figures, James McNeill Whistler, 1869–74, pen on brown paper with white heightening, Colby College Museum of Art, The Lunder Collection, 007.2009

Crouching Figure: Study for The White Symphony: Three Girls, James McNeill Whistler, 1869–70, black and white chalk on brown paper, Freer Gallery of Art, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1902.139

Draped Figure at a Railing, James McNeill Whistler, 1868–70, black and white crayon on brown paper, Freer Gallery of Art, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1905.130

Draped Female Figure, James McNeill Whistler, 1870–73, black and white chalk and pastel on brown paper, Freer Gallery of Art, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1905.133

Draped Figure Standing, James McNeill Whistler, 1870–73, black and white chalk and pastel on brown paper, Freer Gallery of Art, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1905.136

Woman with Parasol, James McNeill Whistler, 1870–73, black and white chalk on brown paper, Freer Gallery of Art, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1905.138

The White Symphony: Three Girls, ca. 1868, oil on millboard mounted on wood panel, Freer Gallery of Art, F1902.138

The White Symphony: Three Girls, James McNeill Whistler, ca. 1868, oil on millboard mounted on wood panel, Freer Gallery of Art, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1902.138

Girl with Cherry Blossom, James McNeill Whistler, 1868–78, oil on canvas, The Courtauld Art Gallery, London. Private Collection (on loan to The Courtauld Gallery)

The Gold Scab: Eruption in Frilthy Lucre, James McNeill Whistler, 1879, oil on canvas, frame designed and decorated by the artist, ca. 1872–73, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Gift of Mrs. Alma de Bretteville Spreckels through the Patrons of Art and Music, 1977.11

Opening Saturday, The Lost Symphony: Whistler and the Perfection of Art is an exhibition about a painting that doesn’t exist. The saga began in 1867, when American artist James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) received a commission from a promising new patron, the nouveau riche shipping magnate Frederick Richards Leyland (1832–1892). Leyland paid the artist to create a “symphony in white,” meant to be the fourth in a series of works in which Whistler experimented with idealized color and form. For ten years, Whistler painted and repainted the painting, which he titled The Three Girls—but he was never satisfied with it. As his mother would explain to Leyland, her son had tried too hard to make the painting “the perfection of art” and was thwarted by his own lofty ideals.

By 1876, Whistler was involved in another large project for Leyland: the redecoration of his patron’s dining room, eventually titled Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room. If Whistler had completed The Three Girls, it would have hung there, opposite his Princesse du pays de la porcelaine (Princess from the Land of Porcelain). But when painter and patron quarreled over the extent of Whistler’s work on the Peacock Room, Whistler destroyed the still-unfinished canvas of The Three Girls. In its place, he painted a mural of two fighting peacocks on the south wall of Leyland’s dining room, later known as “Art and Money; or, the Story of the Room.” As a final affront to Leyland, Whistler repurposed the frame that would have surrounded The Three Girls for another work, The Gold Scab: Eruption in Frithly Lucre (The Creditor), which depicts Leyland morphing into a monstrous peacock.

As suggested by Whistler’s sketches and related paintings above, The Three Girls would have been a remarkable work. Fortunately, Whistler left a significant paper trail that allowed our two guest curators, Linda Merrill and Robyn Asleson, to reconstruct the story of the fugitive painting. A rescued fragment of the original canvas, numerous figure studies and preparatory sketches, and the frame that Whistler originally intended to enclose it are among the tantalizing clues that hint at the masterpiece that might have been.

Part of Peacock Room REMIX, The Lost Symphony is the second in a series of exhibitions staged alongside contemporary painter Darren Waterston’s Filthy Lucre, an immersive installation that reimagines Whistler’s Peacock Room as a resplendent ruin, a visualization of the consequences of creative and monetary excess. The works on view in The Lost Symphony allow us to imagine another ending to the story and trace Whistler’s path to aesthetic mastery. Yet, the destruction of the never-completed picture and the afterlife of its repurposed frame also illuminate Whistler’s less-rarified preoccupation with patronage, payment, and professional reputation—the very themes at the heart of Filthy Lucre.

Evolutionary: Whistler, Darwin, and the Peacock Room

Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room

Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room

James McNeill Whistler’s Peacock Room (1876–77) triggered a famous clash between the artist and his patron, Frederick Leyland. In the 1870s, though, peacocks were ruffling feathers all over Britain, prompted in part by Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859). Critics of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection pointed out that male birds’ showy plumage makes them easy targets for predators. If evolution by natural selection was valid, how could such a hindrance as a peacock’s train possibly have arisen, much less persisted?

This conundrum troubled Darwin, who confided to a fellow naturalist, “The sight of a feather in a peacock’s tail, whenever I gaze at it, makes me sick!” But by 1871, he had developed a corollary theory of sexual selection, which explained that conspicuous variations in males make them irresistible, improving reproductive rates and offsetting any potential handicap or hazard. The peacock’s train thus evolved from generations of peahens selecting ever-more-gorgeous mates.

Particularly shocking to Victorians was Darwin’s suggestion that the appreciation of beauty is not a uniquely human quality. Debates over the origins and purpose of beauty played out among scientists, artists, and the public throughout the 1870s.

Scholars have long noted Whistler’s multiple sources of inspiration in the Peacock Room: Japanese peacock imagery; Western traditions associating the bird with beauty, luxury, and excess; and the vogue for peacocks and their feathers among Whistler’s fellow avant-garde artists. I believe that we can also look at the room through a Darwinian lens. For instance, the peacocks on the shutters play with and against Darwin’s assertion that male peafowl display their trains to attract females—or fight each other for the same purpose. The birds on the flanking shutters “display” with no hens in sight; in the central shutter, two males sit side by side, contemplating the beauty of the full moon. The shutters celebrate aesthetic delight without any reference to reproduction—indeed, without any possibility of it.

Peacock Room shutters

Peacocks do confront each other on the room’s south wall, in the mural Art and Money, pictured at top. But here, the angry bird (a caricature of Leyland, Whistler’s parsimonious patron) fights for his money, not a mate. The scene becomes ironic only in light of Darwin’s evolutionist explanation for clashes between peacocks. Behavior that Darwin attributed to the reproductive drive is here misdirected toward maintaining personal wealth. The Leyland-peacock hoards rather than disseminates, stifling rather than multiplying the (pro)creative power of art.

Inspired By the Dark

Nocturne: Grey and Silver—Chelsea Embankment, Winter; James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903); United States, ca. 1879; oil on canvas; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1902.143a–b

Nocturne: Grey and Silver—Chelsea Embankment, Winter; James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903); United States, ca. 1879; oil on canvas; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1902.143a–b

Today is the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. Winter light can be exquisite when it changes in late afternoon, as the dark comes earlier and earlier. A wonderful way to take it in, I think, is to walk through our galleries—especially in the Freer, with its central courtyard—and watch the day turn into night.

Artists have long captured changing daylight and dusk and the chromatic layers of evening. James McNeill Whistler’s Nocturnes shimmer with the texture of variable light, turning the surface of the canvas (or paper) into visual poetry. Kobayashi Kiyochika is another favorite artist in our collections whose celebrated woodblock prints were featured in the exhibition Kiyochika: Master of the Night in 2014. The exhibition was held concurrently with An American in London: Whistler and the Thames. Whistler’s London and Kiyochika’s Tokyo were often depicted at night—two distinct worlds separated by nearly six thousand miles, but linked by the play of shadow and light.

For centuries and across cultures, artists have been inspired by the night. If you search for the word “night” on Open F|S, you’ll bring up more than 450 works of art. If you choose “dusk,” you’ll get to see 25 more.

While the Freer goes dark from January 4, 2016, through mid-2017, the Sackler will remain open and as dynamic as ever. Learn more about our plans for the future.

Friday Fave: Filthy Lucre

Darren Waterston installing "Filthy Lucre" in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

Darren Waterston installing “Filthy Lucre” in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

My interest in American art is linked to my love of nineteenth-century American literature. Having graduated with a degree in English from Colby College in the spring, I couldn’t wait to explore the Freer’s American art collection and compare the paintings to the nineteenth-century texts I had studied at school. Most importantly, I was looking forward to stepping inside the Peacock Room, the beautiful interior painted by James McNeill Whistler in 1876–77. On the first day of my internship, however, I walked through the Sackler Gallery and entered the exhibition Peacock Room REMIX: Darren Waterston’s Filthy Lucre. The installation reimagines Whistler’s room in a state of decay. I’ve never had much interest in exploring contemporary art, finding more relish in investigating the past than the present. In Waterston’s room, however, I was inspired to reconsider both Whistler’s work and my own thoughts on art and literature.

Filthy Lucre—the centerpiece of Peacock Room REMIX—is inspired by and reconsiders Whistler’s Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room, but visitors won’t find harmony in Waterston’s installation. Instead, viewers are confronted with a distorted reflection of Whistler’s iconic room. The slanting shelves, low ceilings, and dilapidated elements made me feel as if the room was closing in around me. The longer I stood in Filthy Lucre, the more susceptible I became to its eerie influence. The walls and the pottery bleed paint, while gold seeps from the wall to the floor. The dim lighting and the red illumination behind the shutters create a warped vision. Deep, booming sounds radiate from different corners of the room, akin to a heartbeat. Voices whisper, as if the room itself is attempting to speak but isn’t loud enough to be fully understood.

The longer I stood in the room, the more alive it seemed to me. This almost supernatural, penetrating quality reminded me of the poetry of Edgar Allen Poe. I found myself drawing comparisons between the Filthy Lucre soundscape and the lugubrious sounds of Poe’s lyrical poetry. Additionally, the aspect of life within the room, the animation of the inanimate and giving voice to art, seemed very similar to Poe’s most famous dark stories. When I walked away from Filthy Lucre, I was somber, moved, and inspired to reconsider nineteenth-century art and literature, viewing them now through a contemporary lens.

Beyond the Instagram Filter

Blue and Gold: The Rose Azalea; James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903); United States, ca. 1890–95; watercolor on brown paper; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1894.25. Left to right: visible light; reflected infrared (IR); ultraviolet-induced visible fluorescence (UV). The yellow-green fluorescence in the UV image indicates the presence of zinc oxide (zinc white).

Blue and Gold: The Rose Azalea; James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903); United States, ca. 1890–95; watercolor on brown paper; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1894.25. Left to right: visible light; reflected infrared (IR); ultraviolet-induced visible fluorescence (UV). The yellow-green fluorescence in the UV image indicates the presence of zinc oxide (zinc white).

Most of us are familiar with the transformational power of Instagram filters such as Amaro and Earlybird, and the magic they can work for our amateur iPhone photography. But what can we learn in an art historical context by making use of traditional camera filters? Multispectral imaging uses cameras that can “see” into the ultraviolet (UV) and infrared (IR) wavelengths along the electromagnetic spectrum, allowing us to photograph features of artworks that are not visible to the naked eye. At the Freer|Sackler, I used the conservation department’s Nikon D100 camera and Kodak Wratten gelatin filters to create UVIR photographs of the museum’s entire collection of watercolors by James McNeill Whistler. These photographs will be used as part of a larger project called Whistler and Watercolor, a collaborative, technical art history research project by an F|S conservator, curator, and conservation scientist.

While most of Whistler’s oeuvre has had the benefit of in-depth study, the watercolors have been waiting for their turn in the spotlight. Whistler created more than three hundred watercolors in his lifetime, most of which were executed in the 1880s, during the height of his fame. Museum founder Charles Lang Freer acquired fifty-two of them. Whistler and Watercolor will provide Whistler scholars and enthusiasts with a technical description of the artist’s working methods in watercolor. Were his materials and techniques similar or significantly different from the way he used other mediums? How do they compare to watercolors by other artists of the time period? Did he follow the methods taught in watercolor manuals and how-to books of the late nineteenth century or was he more innovative and experimental?

Reconstructed 19th-century watercolor palette. Left to right: visible light; reflected infrared (IR); ultraviolet-induced visible fluorescence (UV)

Reconstructed 19th-century watercolor palette. Left to right: visible light; reflected infrared (IR); ultraviolet-induced visible fluorescence (UV)

Multispectral imaging using traditional photographic filters can help us answer some of these questions. Look at the three images above for an example of a reconstructed nineteenth-century palette (like Whistler’s) photographed normally and then using two gelatin filters with different light sources. Certain pigments exhibit characteristic behaviors in reflected infrared (IR) and ultraviolet-induced visible fluorescence (UV) that allow us to identify them. Cobalt-containing pigments, such as cerulean blue or cobalt green, become transparent and disappear completely in reflected infrared (at approx. 850 nm). With ultraviolet-induced visible fluorescence, red madder lake typically emits a red fluorescent “glow” due to the presence of a compound called purpurin. By using photographic filters, as well as a variety of other techniques to back up these visual observations, it will be possible to reconstruct Whistler’s use of watercolor pigments in the late nineteenth century to aid future research and study.

London Bridge; James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903); United States, early 1880s; pencil and watercolor on paper; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1905.115. Top to bottom: visible light; reflected infrared (IR); ultraviolet-induced visible fluorescence (UV). Note the enhanced visualization of the graphite underdrawing in the IR image.

London Bridge; James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903); United States, early 1880s; pencil and watercolor on paper; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1905.115. Top to bottom: visible light; reflected infrared (IR); ultraviolet-induced visible fluorescence (UV). Note the enhanced visualization of the graphite underdrawing in the IR image.

Friday Fave: Sunflower Andirons

Sunflower and irons; Thomas Jeckyll; England, ca. 1878–84; iron with gilding; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, FSC-M-66a–b

Sunflower and irons; Thomas Jeckyll; England, ca. 1878–84; iron with gilding; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, FSC-M-66a–b

These metal andirons were created by the Peacock Room’s original architect, Thomas Jeckyll, to complement the room’s beautiful design—a form of architectural jewelry, if you will. Although they’re not currently on view, the andirons remind me of the delightfully quirky humanity that often hides behind great masterpieces.

Decorated by American ex-pat artist James McNeill Whistler, the Peacock Room is a magnum opus: a breathtaking combination of artistic genius, technical mastery, and hubris. Visitors step inside and gasp. Crowds gather when the shutters open every third Thursday of the month. It is, without doubt, the most recognizable, memorable, and photographed single installation in the Freer|Sackler.

With its imposing importance, it’s easy to forget that the room was built to be a functional dining room—with, of course, a functioning fireplace. It was built for shipping magnate Frederick Leyland and his family’s London home. I like to imagine the meals and conversations held in this space, the fires that were poked at day in and day out. The Leylands must have fretted over details, planned menus, and proudly showed off their matching andirons to admiring guests.

It is also deeply human. The drama of the room’s decoration is arguably trumped by the stories of the people involved—the patron, Leyland; the architect, Jeckyll; the collector, Freer; and of course, the artist, Whistler. The andirons were commissioned by Leyland, a testament to his impressive attention to appearances, and acquired by Freer, a testament to Freer’s no less impressive quest to assemble Whistler’s complete oeuvre, down to the smallest detail.

The Peacock Room’s most dramatic personal histories take center stage with the incredible reimagining that opens May 16, Peacock Room REMIX: Darren Waterston’s Filthy Lucre. You won’t want to miss it! In the meantime, enjoy the details.

Whistler, Hiroshige, and a Fortunate Find

Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl; James McNeill Whistler; 1864, oil on canvas; Tate Britain, London

Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl; James McNeill Whistler; 1864, oil on canvas; Tate Britain, London

Margaret MacDonald, professor emerita of art history at the University of Glasgow, is guest curator for An American in London: Whistler and the Thames, on view at the Sackler through Sunday, August 17.

Luck plays its little tricks on the hardened researcher. Sometimes I try for hours, weeks even, to crack a particular puzzle. And then something exciting—and vital—turns up out of the blue. I am based in glorious Glasgow, so I rely on Scottish libraries, the Whistler Collection, university archives, and of course, the Internet to learn more about artist James McNeill Whistler. However, once or twice a year, I spend a frenzied week researching in London, where the British Library and Victoria and Albert Museum are high on my list of beloved places. They even have good cafes.

Today’s tale involves the V&A. I had arrived early, stoked up with Kensington cafe coffee and croissants. I dumped my bags in the cloakroom and loaded everything needed in a see-through plastic bag, which ensured I couldn’t nick the Whistlers. A spacious modern print room awaited with comfy chairs and online catalogues. A curator came over to gossip…bliss. I’d requested to see some of the museum’s earliest acquisitions of Whistler etchings, but the delivery was a bit slow that day, so I whiled away the time on the museum’s online collections. Somehow, I strayed further and further into the website. I entered various names and words in the search box. Apparently, a huge collection of Japanese woodcuts, including fans, had been put online. Serendipity, second sight, or sheer luck came into play at this point. I entered ‘Hiroshige River Fan’ and a gorgeous Hiroshige work appeared. I had fed in the right words and—open sesame—the wonders of Hiroshige’s world were revealed. I think I stopped breathing.

The Banks of the Sumida River, from the series Famous Places in the Eastern Capital; Utagawa Hiroshige; Japan, Edo period, 1857; woodblock print; ink and color on paper; Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Banks of the Sumida River, from the series Famous Places in the Eastern Capital; Utagawa Hiroshige; Japan, Edo period, 1857; woodblock print; ink and color on paper; Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The image I saw before me was The Banks of the Sumida River, a woodcut from Hiroshige’s series Famous Places in the Eastern Capital. The scene it depicts is strikingly similar to one within Whistler’s Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl (pictured at top of this post). For this work, Whistler’s mistress, Jo, posed in a white muslin summer dress (via dresshead), standing by a mantelpiece in his house in Lindsey Row, her face reflected in a mirror. Blue-and-white porcelain adorned the fireplace, and Jo held an Asian fan or hand-screen. Until recently, this fan had not been identified. Indeed, I had thought it perhaps showed a woman holding a parasol. It appears that I was looking at it upside down! The fan (when looked at the right way up) shows a boat with a sail billowing in the wind, on a broad river of deep blue with green waves. In the distance are two more boats with rectangular sails and, on the left, several barges. The spacious composition and broad bands of rich colour are striking.

The print, dating from 1857 (Hiroshige died the following year), would have traveled from Japan to London via ship, on a journey that could have taken up to seven years. It was probably trimmed and mounted for sale in Britain as a fan or hand-screen, used as a shade against heat or light. Although there may have been many impressions of this uchiwa-e (rigid fan print) in different colour ranges, few appear to have survived.

The V&A print is not literally Whistler’s fan. Along with never being mounted within a frame as a fan, the V&A print has a sky of deep blue at the horizon, where Whistler’s was red. In addition, Whistler’s collection of Japanese and Chinese objects—prints and porcelain and all—was sold when he went bankrupt. The bankruptcy sale, held by Baker & Sons in 1879, featured “Japanese hand screens,” possibly including Jo’s fan. The V&A fan came from another collection and entered the museum in 1886. However, the two prints are dated from the same time and probably traveled on the same ship.

On a later trip to London, I was able to arrange to see the fan print itself, a woodcut of great beauty. The print shows the Sumida River, with Mount Tsukuba on the horizon, from the middle of the Azuma Bridge, the northernmost of four bridges spanning the river. To the left is the Shoten Shrine at Matsuchiyama, and beyond is the entrance to the San’yabori Canal, whence travellers walked along the Nihon Embankment to the Yoshiwara licensed pleasure quarters. To the right is the Mukojima district, with steps leading down to the river and the Takeya ferry crossing, behind which, over the embankment, the torii gate of the Mimeguri Shrine is visible.

The scene makes a fascinating comparison to the approach up the river Thames to the Cremorne Pleasure Gardens, which were very close to Whistler’s house on Lindsey Row, on the same north bank of the river (more or less visible from the front room where the Little White Girl was painted). In subject, composition, and detail, prints such as Hiroshige’s had a strong influence on Whistler, not only as accessories but in composition and subject.

By the time I saw the woodcut, it was long past the date for adding works to the Whistler show, but given its importance and relevance, we were able to make a case for its inclusion. The V&A generously agreed to lend the work. The fan had pride of place in the exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery and is currently on view in An American in London: Whistler and the Thames, on view at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery…but only for a few more days. I strongly advise everyone to go and see it while you have the chance!

View a gallery of images from An American in London: Whistler and the Thames, on view through Sunday, August 17.

Whistler and the British Music Hall

The Manager's Window, Gaiety Theatre; James McNeill Whistler; 1896; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1896.76

The Manager’s Window, Gaiety Theatre; James McNeill Whistler; 1896; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1896.76

Michael Wilpers is public programs coordinator at Freer|Sackler.

Musical ideas abound in the work of American expatriate artist James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903), whose art is more abundantly represented in the Freer|Sackler’s collections than at any other museum in the world. Rather than use conventional labels for his works (such as “portraits” or “landscapes”), Whistler instead called them “harmonies,” “symphonies,” “nocturnes,” “variations,” and “arrangements.” But the connections between Whistler and music extend beyond these labels and their associated aesthetic concepts.

The London of Whistler’s time was virtually consumed with the burgeoning form of entertainment called “music hall,” a variety-show genre comparable to American vaudeville and French cabaret. When Whistler arrived in London in 1859, the Canterbury Music Hall had just been converted from a 700-seat establishment to one that held 1,500 guests, featuring tables and chairs for dining, ornate chandeliers, and a capacious mezzanine. By 1875, more than 375 music halls were open in greater London, ranging from modest taverns to massive entertainment centers, all with music and comedy to accompany their beer and food. Perhaps it is not unreasonable to wonder if Whistler’s famous night scenes (nocturnes) were so lacking in people because they were all at the music halls!

Along with sentimental and patriotic tunes, music hall’s trademark and biggest draw were its comic songs, replete with double entendre, tongue-twisters, and other risqué wordplay evidenced in such classics as “Pheasant Plucker” and the later “You’ve Got the Right Key but the Wrong Key Hole.” Such lyrics contributed to a culture of wit and conversational cleverness—of which Whistler was a proud champion. His playful, public conversations with Oscar Wilde were the talk of the town; he once famously claimed to have perfected the “gentle art of making enemies.” In addition, one might be remiss in considering Whistler’s relationship to music hall without factoring in his many romantic liaisons, which were certainly not inconsistent with the genre’s bawdy themes.

Whistler also represented music hall directly in his artwork. The Freer collection includes several of his lithographs showing the exterior of the Gaiety Theater (pictured above), which opened in 1868 with a seating capacity of 2,000. In 1877, Whistler executed a portrait of one of the Gaiety’s child-stars, Connie Gilchrist, who was just twelve at the time. She became famous for her jump-rope dance routine, “taking the fashionable frequenters of the place by storm,” the Times noted, “her ingenuousness capturing all hearts, especially in contrast to the precocious cynicism of her stage dialogue.” Many artists and photographers created portraits of Gilchrist, who married well above her station, like so many of the “Gaiety Girls.” Of course, Whistler gave his portrait a musical name—Harmony in Yellow and Gold—with the overarching colors punctuated in three spots by the red of her lips and the two jump-rope handles.

The Freer Gallery celebrated the venerable music hall tradition this summer with a performance by the British Players, a revival troupe based in the Washington area. In a nod to Whistler’s nocturnes, the troupe included its own arrangement of “Roamin’ in the Gloamin’,” a big hit of the very early 1900s. The Washington Post called the Freer show “a bawdy good time … full of bad jokes, genuinely funny acts, and naughty songs.” The critic continued, “The show went off with enormous good humor and energy, suggesting that the dark and somewhat spooky London that Whistler dwelt on must have had its lighthearted music-hall moments.”

The British Players performing at the Freer Gallery of Art.

The British Players performing at the Freer Gallery of Art.

The British Players give a series of charity performances every December and June at Kensington Town Hall in Maryland, under the patronage of Lady Kensington herself. Their shows come complete with the requisite “chairman” (a wise-cracking master of ceremonies), bow-belles, the Chord Busters vocal quartet, the Edwardians (ensemble choir), can-can, and plenty of food and drink.

For excellent material about music hall—its history, theaters, entrepreneurs, star performers, and sheet music covers—visit the Victoria and Albert Museum’s web feature and be sure to check out the related content.

A look at Whistler’s ode to a rapidly changing London, An American in London: Whistler and the Thames, remains on view in the Sackler through August 17. #americaninlondon