In the mid-nineteenth century, just across the Channel, artists were pushing the boundaries of art as far as they could. The stark realism of Gustave Courbet and the powerful innovations of Edouard Manet set the radical tone that the impressionists would soon follow. It was the birth of modernism.
Over here, we had James Abbott McNeill Whistler, whose atmospheric distillations of place remain icons of the period. But can we really claim the American painter as one of our own? Well, the most important periods of the Massachusetts-born painter’s development were spent in our city – painting it, learning from it, loving it.
This show concentrates on Whistler’s depictions of the Thames through an extensive series of etchings and prints, and a small handful of stunning paintings. The early etchings and sketches of the river are depictions of a city in constant motion – industry, commerce and sewage all coursing through the city’s arteries. The sketched portraits of downtrodden misfits that accompany them are rushed glimpses of squalid London life. The monochrome of the images lends everything a solemn, stark air. Etchings have fallen out of favour since Whistler’s time, but this collection is intricate, intimate and engrossing.
As fascinating as they are though, they pale in comparison to Whistler’s paintings. ‘The Last of Old Westminster’ (1862) is a hectic maelstrom of bodies, construction and thick, sludgy, brown water pounding at Westminster bridge’s columns. It’s vivid, and evocative of a London that may be gone, but whose echoes still reverberate through our lives.
A similar bustle fills ‘Wapping’ (1860-1864), our first glimpse of his beautiful copper-haired Irish mistress, Jo Hiffernan. She reclines with two men, the view behind them filled with life and movement and a chaos of loose brushwork.
A Japanese influence starts to creep in, a passion that would continue throughout Whistler’s life and here sets the tone for the stars of the show, the Chelsea paintings. Japanese motifs and composition are blatant in the first three amazingly grey depictions of the river. Solitary figures in kimonos poke out of the fog as ships and bridges struggle to come into view in the distance. There’s an almost abstract quality to the fields of subdued haze that the artist captures. ‘Grey and Silver: Chelsea Wharf’ (1864-1868) in particular is stunning in its twilit half-shapes and foggy vistas.
From there, things somehow get even better as the exhibition crescendos with three of the artist’s celebrated nocturnes – night views of bridges, water and fireworks, all dark greens and shadowy, shimmering shapes. Whistler successfully sued John Ruskin for libel after the art critic accused him of ‘flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face’ with these works, but maybe Ruskin was on to something. There’s something almost sculptural about how the tiny blobs of colour burst out of the dark backgrounds here. If this is having paint thrown in your face, then dump a pot of Dulux over me, because it’s glorious and absolutely beautiful.
The only qualm with the show is that it features so few paintings – but every single one is worth the trip to Dulwich alone.