James McNeill Whistler and Watercolour: Making and Meaning


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The Project

James McNeill Whistler was a highly accomplished and innovative exponent of watercolour. He received an early grounding in traditional watercolour technique as a cadet at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point during the early 1850s. By the 1870s, he had developed his own characteristic technical language of highly diluted watercolour paint, layering washes on the paper to achieve varying optical effects and exploiting paper texture.

While technical investigations of Whistler's work in lithography, etching and oil painting have already been undertaken, his watercolours have received less attention, despite the tendency of his technical experiments to crossover between different media. Led by the University of Glasgow, with support from the British Academy and the Lunder Consortium for Whistler Studies, this project is the first focused study of Whistler's work in watercolour. It involves international collaboration between curators, art and technical art historians at the University of Glasgow (History of Art and the Hunterian and the Freer Gallery of Art, part of the Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC, world leading collections of Whistler watercolours. We hope that more in-depth knowledge of the materials, processes and sources of his watercolour technique will produce a better understanding of the relationship between his work in each media and improve conservation and storage practices.

Through a combination of contextual and technical investigation, the project seeks to

  • Reveal new insights into Whistler's watercolour technique
  • Evaluate what was distinctive about Whistler's watercolour practice in relation to that of his contemporaries
  • Better understand the relationship between his work in watercolour and that in other media, notably oil, etching and lithography
  • Inform approaches to the conservation, storage, and display of his works and 19th-century watercolours more generally.

The project results will be disseminated through exhibitions, scholarly publication, a documentary film and a webinar. An in-focus exhibition, Whistler & Watercolour, The Hunterian, University of Glasgow, 6 September 2013 – 23 February 2014, will showcase initial research results. Please revisit this site for news updates.

James McNeill Whistler - Blue and Silver - Belle Ile 1899/1900
James McNeill Whistler,
Blue and Silver - Belle Ile 1899/1900
The Hunterian (GLAHA 46281)

Whistler butterfly signature