James Whistler’s tales of the riverbank at work

American painter James Whilster's Thames depictions are considered ahead of a new exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery

The smart, confident young American painter newly arrived in London in 1859 might have headed for the glittering, fashionable West End. But James McNeill Abbott Whistler, raised in affluent Connecticut and St Petersburg, educated in Paris and citizen of the world, instead turned downriver, and made for the dark and dangerous wharves of Rotherhithe and Wapping, working there, and then living in rough-and-ready Greenwich. Here he took lodgings, the 1861 census shows, with his fiery-haired, fiery-tempered lover and model, Johanna Hiffernan, and the company this brilliant young New Worlder chose was that of the watermen who frequented the dank taverns on the banks of the Thames.

Whistler’s affinity with riverside life is documented in a new exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, American in London: Whistler and the Thames which brings together painting and etchings from collections all over the world. The attraction of the working river to Whistler was born out of his early years spent by or on the water: he was as at home by the Neva, during the years his father advised on the building of the St Petersburg to Moscow railway, as he was by the Hudson in his native land.

“He was living by canals. He spent months at sea, travelling back and forth. His father was an engineer. Whistler knew a lot about ships,” explains Margaret F MacDonald, the exhibition’s co-curator.

His observation of the rigging and practices on a boat are considered pretty accurate by maritime experts. But boats and boatmen move, often at the most inconvenient moment for the artist, and Whistler’s strength, in an age before everyday photography, was an exceptional visual memory, drawing over and over again to fix an image. This is evident in the great oil painting Wapping. Executed in the early 1860s, when Whistler was not yet 30, its focal point seems, at first glance, to be three figures at the table of an inn, The Angel, overhanging the south bank of the Thames where it widens after the Pool of London and winds out to sea. Hiffernan is in the foreground, with Alphonse Legros, a fellow artist befriended in Paris, and a sailor. Today, The Angel is popular with tourists and the now fashionable riverside’s new residents: but it is still possible to sit in the same spot as Whistler’s models.

The three characters’ ambiguous, distracted expressions and murky clothing are in sharp contrast to the detailed and hectic scene behind them on the water, where red-sailed Thames barges and laden lighters jostle for a route downstream or a berth.

“You can see the whole Thames!” wrote Whistler of Wapping to the painter Henri Fantin-Latour in Paris. “The background is like an etching – and was unbelievably difficult! The sky for example is very truly and splendidly painted – there is a corner which can be seen through the window panes which is excellent! – nearer that is a row of large boats one of which is unloading coal and right by the window the mast and yellow sail of a lighter and just by the head of the girl … there is the bowsprit of another large boat, the ropes and pulleys of which go across the whole picture … it will certainly be said that it is not finished – because as the boats leave I have only just time to put in their shades of colour.”

His lively and extensive correspondence with Fantin-Latour – Whistler knew many of the leading artists of the day, including Monet, another great painter of the Thames – yields invaluable material for the student of his work, and his reference to etching underpins another of its vital aspects. An early project in London was a set of waterfront etchings and many more followed: he had already refined the difficult, exacting technique in Paris.

And while Whistler’s admirers today are drawn particularly to the Nocturnes, also portraying the Thames and, in some cases, loaned to the exhibition, or to the expressive portraiture of Symphony No 2: The Little White Girl, these great pictures would not have come into being without that early “apprenticeship”. “You can’t have one without the other,” says Patricia de Montfort, the exhibition’s other co-curator. “All that drawing from memory is the bedrock of the oils.”

In 1871, a decade or so after his first success at the Royal Academy, Whistler simultaneously published Sixteen Etchings of Scenes on the Thames and began work on the paintings that, at the suggestion of patron F R Leyland, would become known as Nocturnes, the musical connotation expressing something of their fluidity and freedom from straight representation. (Like so many Whistler associations, the relationship with Leyland would turn sour, but while it lasted, the backing of the newly wealthy industrialist was a boon to an artist who depicted so majestically the toil from which such riches emanated.) Today, among the nation’s best-loved images, in the 1870s they challenged many viewers, including the critic John Ruskin, who, on seeing The Falling Rocket, an impression of fireworks at Cremorne pleasure gardens tumbling from the sky across the Thames, attacked Whistler for his impudence in asking 200 guineas for “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face”.

A colourful libel trial followed, and Whistler won a pyrrhic victory: he was awarded one farthing’s damages, but was rendered bankrupt by the costs. And the artist who had been entranced by waterways all his life made, of course, for Venice. He was accompanied by his new lover Maud, and worked on defying Ruskin with an ever looser style. While some artists were happy to supply the public with gaudy, touristy views, Whistler, typically, as in Rotherhithe and Wapping, was drawn to the city’s seedy nooks and crannies and backwaters, to its peeling façades and dark shadows.

The river winds through the career of the dandy Whistler like an unfurling ribbon – and until his death in 1903, he could never quite tear himself away from the quixotic lure of rushing water.

‘American in London: Whistler and the Thames’ is at the Dulwich Picture Gallery from this Wednesday to 12 Jan 2014

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