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The river runs deep: Whistler in London

A new exhibition of Whistler’s etchings and paintings of the Thames displays his extraordinary talent for capturing the atmosphere and bustle of life in 19th-century London, says Adrian Hamilton

Ruskin may have got it right about Turner but he sure got it wrong about James McNeill Whistler. His accusation  that Whistler’s “nocturnes” of the River Thames were “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face” – the charge that induced Whistler to sue the critic for libel – couldn’t be further from the mark. Whatever else the artist was, he was no Dadaist. He’d been to West Point, trained as a draughtsman and worked for the US Coast and Geodetic Survey. If he’d failed West Point for want of chemistry, he hadn’t emerged without a graphic craft.

Dulwich Picture Gallery surtitles its new exhibition of Whistler’s views of the River Thames “An American in London”, which is pushing it a bit. He was certainly American and brought up there, but his father, a railway engineer, had worked in Russia and his son had spent time in St Petersburg and with relations in England before he left America to study in Paris in 1855. A splendid self-portrait etched in 1859 shows him with a wide-brimmed hat, flowing locks, a full moustache and eager eyes, a Bohemian artist to the wisp of hair beneath his nether lip. It was how he arrived in London 1859, fluent in French and Russian, full of the lessons in the realism of Courbet and the instructions of Baudelaire that the artist of the day should depict the life of the time, and already developing a commercial practice in etched views of town and country.

Not the least virtues of Dulwich’s small and concentrated show is the emphasis it gives to his prints and the care he devoted to them. Of his total surviving output, 490 are prints compared to 500 paintings. Critics at the time  declared him the successor to Rembrandt as an etcher and they were not mistaken. Black-and-white engravings may have fallen from popular taste since his day but seeing the ones in this show is to be reminded how direct an artistic media etching is and how thoroughly Whistler mastered it.

A first room contains all the Series of Sixteen Etchings of Scenes on the Thames published in 1871 but carried out and published individually over the decade previously. In them you see an artist in his twenties determined to make an impact on the London scene but also one intent on refining his craft to the point almost of obsession, using drypoint to make the shading more subtle and individual details clearer. He often etched “en plain air”, incising the plate directly in front of the scene he was recording and then refining the etching at the point of printing. It took nine states before he was happy with the print, The Little Pool, which was eventually used as the frontispiece of the series.

His aim was to do with the London docks and river life what the Impressionists in Paris were to do with the life and leisure of the new middle classes of Paris and the Seine. Shacked up in Rotherhithe with his mistress, he sketched and etched, with some  secrecy, the ships and wharfs trying to capture the bustle of activity but also the moods of the river at different  periods of the day.

It is very easy to view these pictures as topographical records, checking their accuracy against photographs of the time and proclaiming their veracity. It’s a temptation that the curators of the  exhibition are not entirely free of in their interpolation of contemporary photographs and maps. Whistler’s training had made him a precise observer and he had come to the city at a time when new bridges, the construction of  embankments and stem ships were  altering the London of the Thames out of all recognition. The critic WM Rossetti delightedly claimed that here was a “gifted hand, native to America, yet in such subjects so happily English”.

Whistler, however, was not out to record the passing of an era, although his works do contribute to that. He was out to be a painter of life, particularly the life immediately around him. If you look at the Thames Series chronologically, you see an artist moving from the realistic and detailed to something much more Impressionistic and less static. His etchings of 1859 – Black Lion Wharf, The Lime Burner and Limehouse – show all the attention to detail of Courbet and the sense of urban perspective he had learned from studying Dutch pictures. But, with Rotherhithe of 1860, in  which the foreground is taken up by two workers seated on a pub veranda with the ships behind them, you start to get a different, more Impressionistic artist. The prints of 1861, of Vauxhall Bridge and Westminster Bridge in Progress are like drawings in their rapid lines and rough hatching. The development becomes even more obvious as he moves from etching to  lithographs and lithotints from the late 1870s.

It was the same with his painting. As with shading in his etchings, so with tone in his oils, he sought to capture atmosphere. The Last of Old Westminster from 1862 is a marvel of motion but also of mood as the new bridge is built over the old in a forest of piles and timbers. Wapping (1860-4) is painted from the same Bermondsey pub veranda as his etching of Rotherhithe, only as a horizontal with far more sense of the coming and going of barges behind. Whistler, never backward in proclaiming his worth, pronounced it his masterpiece.

He was right. Twenty years before Renoir’s paintings of luncheon parties on boats, Whistler caught life on the water, only with the sense of hard graft and melancholy that matched London’s foggy thoroughfare. He’d intended the figure of his red-haired model and mistress at the time, Joanna Hiffernan, to represent a prostitute until the advice of friends and the desire to see it  accepted for show at the Royal Academy persuaded him to repaint her in more sober garb – a change still obvious in the painting today.

What turned this early Impressionist into the proto-modernist of the later nocturnes was partly his move to more stable quarters in Chelsea by the  embankment. Over the next 16 years that he lived in Lindsey Row, he sketched and etched the river so often that it became a part of him that he could recall at will  back in his studio. What the waterlily pond did for Monet, the river’s reach between Chelsea and Battersea bridges did for Whistler.

His artistic view was also radically altered by the Asian art then entering the London galleries, particularly Japanese prints. Like Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the pre-Raphaelites, he was quick to pick up on the amputated framing of the ukiyo-e artists, but more than others he also understood the way that the thinning of ink in the woodblocks of Hokusai and Hiroshige could be used to convey atmosphere and time. Compared to the thickly applied paint of his earlier canvases, his paints became thinner and the tones more muted until the wonders of the nocturnes in the early to mid 1870s.

Seven are here, five from the US. However well-known and oft reproduced, they remain totally persuasive in the viewing. Whether or not their title is anything more than a useful label rather than a musical analogy, they are unparalleled in art as studies in atmosphere, in which shape, light and movement merge in the subtlest gradation of restricted colour. Abstraction is only a few brush-strokes away.

The exhibition, by its nature, is only a partial look at Whistler. Missing are the portraits, the prints he made of other parts of London and the views of Venice he completed after being bankrupted by his court case or his later pictures in the decades up to his death in 1902, by then back in Chelsea by the river he had made his own. Just as with Whistler’s pictures, the scope of the Dulwich show may be restricted but the depth is profound.

An American in London: Whistler and the Thames, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London SE21 (020 8693 5254) to  12 January