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.'
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'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.
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.
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.'
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.