James McNeill Whistler and Watercolour: Making and Meaning


Home > Resources > On-line exhibition

Whistler & Watercolour

On-line version of the exhibition at The Hunterian, University of Glasgow
6 September 2013 – 23 February 2014

James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) was a highly accomplished and innovative exponent of watercolour. This display presents the finest examples from the Whistler Estate, held by the University of Glasgow. The works currently form part of a pioneering investigation into Whistler's technique being carried out by History of Art staff in collaboration with the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington DC. The results so far reveal Whistler's technique to be richer and more varied than previously assumed and demonstrate the dynamic relationship between the watercolours and Whistler's experiments in oil, etching and lithography. Future research will investigate the pigments, materials and papers used.

Whistler received a grounding in historic traditions of watercolour painting as a cadet at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, during the early 1850s. By the 1870s, however, he had developed his own expressive technical language of diluted watercolour paint, layering washes on the paper to achieve varying optical effects and to exploit paper texture. This evolved further in his depictions of shop fronts and coastal scenes in the 1880s and 90s.

The watercolours were exhibited in three one-man exhibitions, in London in 1884 and 1886, and New York in 1889, as well as at exhibitions in Brussels, Paris, Munich and elsewhere. Whistler was characteristically fastidious about their presentation, orchestrating wall colours, framing and lighting. The critics questioned their degree of finish, as they did with his work in other media: ‘delightful memoranda of colour or form' ... 'eminently clever and effective jottings, but ... the kind of things which artists do not usually exhibit.'

Acknowledgements
The research has been supported by a British Academy Small Research Grant. The exhibition has been supported by the Lunder Foundation and the Lunder Consortium for Whistler Studies.
We are grateful to Professor Margaret MacDonald for her input and support.

Whistler & Watercolour - exhibition poster

Whistler and the Practice of Watercolour Painting

Whistler's watercolours from the 1880s show an increasingly experimental approach. He used a wide spectrum of modern pigments, and exploited the fluidity and transparency of the medium. He created serendipitous effects through the actions of washes, pooling, scumbling, drips and splashes, techniques he also employed in his lithographs, etchings and full-length oil portraits from the late 1870s. These effects were enhanced by his careful selection of papers.

Whistler used ready-made materials. London suppliers included Winsor & Newton, Newman, W. Holland, and Louis Cornelissen & Son, an artists' materials shop still trading in London. In Whistler's time commercial watercolour paints consisted of plant gums and pigments, with additives such as honey, sugar, animal glue and isinglass (fish glue), the mixture often specific to individual colours. Gouache paints, as well as Chinese white – the latter is present on Whistler's watercolour palette – were used for opaque touches, semi-transparent layers, and detail.

Westminster from the Savoy 1896
James McNeill Whistler,
Westminster from the Savoy 1896
The Thames 1896
James McNeill Whistler,
The Thames 1896
Early Morning 1878
James McNeill Whistler,
Early Morning 1878
Shop Front: Dieppe 1897/9
James McNeill Whistler,
Shop Front: Dieppe 1897/9
The Toilet 1878
James McNeill Whistler,
The Toilet 1878
Arrangement in black and gold 1883/5
James McNeill Whistler,
Arrangement in black and gold 1883/5
Gold and Brown: The Guitar Player c. 1885
James McNeill Whistler,
Gold and Brown: The Guitar Player c. 1885
Paint Pots
James Newman,
Paint Pots
Palette
Palette
Wool Carders, 1879/80
Wool Carders, 1879/80

Studio Experiments

These watercolours illustrate Whistler's experiments in the privacy of the studio with different combinations of paper, pigment and brushstroke. He became fascinated with movement and the effects of diaphanous drapery on the appearance of volume and mass of the human body. Watercolour, gouache, pastel and lithography all provided the means to realise subtly different effects.

The models included Milly (or Millie) Finch, who appears in a full-length oil painting displayed nearby, and the sisters, Eva and Gladys Carrington. The sisters, Lily, Hetty and Rose Pettigrew, also modelled for Whistler and several other artists, including Philip Wilson Steer and John Singer Sargent. Hetty later became a sculptor. Rose started working for Whistler around 1884. By 1891 she was his most important model, posing for watercolours, pastels and drawings.

Two Pettigrew sisters asleep with a baby 1890/5
James McNeill Whistler,
Two Pettigrew sisters asleep with a baby 1890/5
Girl seated in profile to the left, with a baby 1890/5
James McNeill Whistler,
Girl seated in profile to the left, with a baby 1890/5
A nude girl with a parasol c. 1886
James McNeill Whistler,
A nude girl with a parasol c. 1886
The Rose Drapery 1888/95
James McNeill Whistler,
The Rose Drapery 1888/95
A dancing woman in a pink robe 1888/95
James McNeill Whistler,
A dancing woman in a pink robe 1888/95
Black and Red: The Egyptian 1890/2
James McNeill Whistler,
Black and Red: The Egyptian 1890/2
A dancing woman in a pink robe, seen from the back 1888/1890
James McNeill Whistler,
A dancing woman in a pink robe, seen from the back 1888/1890
The Dancing Girl 1889
James McNeill Whistler,
The Dancing Girl 1889

In the City and By the Sea

Whistler made many images of shop fronts in London, where he had a home from 1863 to his death, and in Paris, which he visited frequently and where he lived for two years from 1892. These included etchings and oils as well as watercolours.

His watercolours of the coast of Holland and Northern France record his travels and sketching excursions. The works display a technical freedom and spontaneity, exemplified in the great variety of brushstrokes. Some of the paintings appear to bear the marks of rain and spray, evidence of his working outdoors, often at the mercy of the weather. In 1881 he wrote to a relative of a blustery painting trip to Guernsey: 'I ... stayed and struggled with wind and weather – and paintboxes with that perseverance that is the peculiarity of this family, as you will know – ... quite hopeless – After being whisked about on the tops of very grand rocks and nearly blown into the sea ... and dragging myself each evening back to the inn a dishevelled wreck of fright and disappointment I ceased a career only fit for an acrobat.'

An Orange Note – Booths, Paris 1885/6
James McNeill Whistler,
An Orange Note – Booths, Paris 1885/6
Terrey's Fruit Shop, Chelsea 1885/6
James McNeill Whistler,
Terrey's Fruit Shop, Chelsea 1885/6
T. A. Nash's Greengrocer's Shop 1887
James McNeill Whistler,
T. A. Nash's Greengrocer's Shop 1887
Dordrecht 1882/3
James McNeill Whistler,
Dordrecht 1882/3
Note in grey and silver – Oyster Fleet 1884/5
James McNeill Whistler,
Note in grey and silver – Oyster Fleet 1884/5
Off the Dutch coast 1883/4
James McNeill Whistler,
Off the Dutch coast 1883/4
Gold and grey - The Sunny Shower, Dordrecht 1884
James McNeill Whistler,
Gold and grey - The Sunny Shower, Dordrecht 1884
Little Venice 1880
James McNeill Whistler,
Little Venice 1880
Two Breton Women Knitting c. 1893
James McNeill Whistler,
Two Breton Women Knitting c. 1893
Au bord de la mer 1888
James McNeill Whistler,
Au bord de la mer 1888
Grey and Green: A Shop in Brittany 1888
James McNeill Whistler,
Grey and Green: A Shop in Brittany 1888
Blue and Silver – Belle Ile 1899/1900
James McNeill Whistler,
Blue and Silver – Belle Ile 1899/1900
Violet and Silver: Low Tide, Belle-Ile-en-Mer 1899/1900
James McNeill Whistler,
Violet and Silver: Low Tide, Belle-Ile-en-Mer 1899/1900
Sea and Sand: Domburg 1900
James McNeill Whistler,
Sea and Sand: Domburg 1900

Technical Terms

Chinese white: an opaque-white watercolour made from zinc-oxide pigment; ‘Chinese white’ was the proprietary name given to zinc-white watercolour by the Winsor and Newton Company, which first introduced it in 1834.

Gouache: a watercolour containing an opacifying agent, commonly zinc white, which lends opacity, body and brightness.

Lithotint: painting on a lithographic stone using a brush and washes of lithographic ink to achieve a liquid effect.

Scumbling: a quick overlaying of lighter, more opaque colour on top of a contrasting underlayer.

Watercolour: a transparent paint made of finely ground pigment or dye, suspended in a solution of gum arabic.