Whistler's Changing London


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Whistler’s Neighborhood: Impressions of a Changing London,” which  opened  at the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art recently, features the artist’s street-side views of Chelsea in the 1880s, a time when many Londoners feared that modernization was erasing the city’s distinctive character.

A true artist’s artist, James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) was largely indifferent to social and economic realities. However, the humble shop fronts, shadowy doorways and scurrying figures he portrayed tell a story of physical, architectural and demographic change. Taken collectively, the 18 etchings, small oils and watercolors, many on view for the first time, form a panoramic time capsule of a city in transition.

During the last decades of the 19th century, Chelsea was rapidly changing from a bohemian artists’ colony to the affluent address it is today. A profusion of public works projects in the Victorian age improved sanitation and river traffic, but also altered the look and makeup of many London neighborhoods. Mansion blocks with river views attracted a new class of upwardly mobile professionals, forcing the poor into cramped quarters or displacing them altogether. Whistler’s representations of this disappearing daily life were charmingly nostalgic, even bittersweet, for viewers of that period who romanticized the area.

An American expatriate, Whistler lived in Chelsea for much of his life and saw its transformation firsthand. To create the intimate images of “Whistler’s Neighborhood,” the artist prowled the streets of Chelsea, carrying copper plates in his pockets to create quick etchings, focusing his attention on fish mongers, rag shops, greengrocers and street urchins.

“Whistler was a keen observer of life in his neighborhood,” said exhibition curator Maya Foo. “The etchings in this exhibition require close study, revealing a wealth of detail the longer one looks at them.”

In addition to providing a glimpse of the past, the show resonates with contemporary and local concerns. London’s 19th-century modernization mirrors changes taking place in many cities today, including Washington.

“The ongoing redevelopment of neighborhoods like D.C.’s Southwest Waterfront mirrors the gentrification of Chelsea more than a century ago, including the displacement of traditional residents and the changing of a neighborhood’s historic character,” said Foo.


The exhibition will be on view through September 2013.

The Freer Gallery of Art, located at 12th Street and Independence Avenue S.W. and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, located at 1050 Independence Avenue S.W., together house the nation’s collection of Asian art on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Hours are from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day except Dec. 25, and admission is free. The galleries are located near the Smithsonian Metrorail station on the Blue and Orange lines. For more information, the public may call (202) 633-1000 or visit www.asia.si.edu.

Read more about the exhibition at Smithsonian.com: Take a Stroll Through Whistler’s London Neighborhood.


Visit your local library for more resources.


Whistler on Art: Selected Letters and Writings of James McNeill Whistler
James McNeill Whistler, (1995).
Whistler, an ex-expatriate American, was a complicated, flamboyant, and contentious man who kept up an insurmountable facade to conceal his deeply sensitive nature. Anderson and Koval succeed in separating the private man and serious artist from his limelight-grabbing public persona as they chronicle his high-profile life in London, Paris, and Venice. Whistler’s friendship with the American collector Charles Lang Freer was fruitful for both men. Freer ended up assembling the largest collection of Whistler’s work in the world and ultimately endowed a museum to share it with the public. Oddly enough, the importance of their association went unrecognized for many years as controversies from Whistler’s past impacted the work of his biographers. Now, with the publication of With Kindest Regards a collection of 89 letters and other communiques, their relationship can be fully appreciated. Not only does their correspondence present intimate portraits of the two men, but it also opens a window on the bond between artist and collector.— REVIEW. First published April 15, 1995 (Booklist).Donna Seaman

Whistler, Women, & Fashion
Margaret F. MacDonald, Susan Grace Galassi and  Aileen Ribeiro, (2003).
This illustrated book and the associated exhibition at the Frick Collection examine Whistler's depiction of women and in particular the aspect of dress and fashion as important elements in his pictures. Several authors apply their talents as historians of art and costume to explore the place of dress in Whistler's oeuvre. Themes treated include Whistler the dandy, Victorian modes of dress, Oriental and Aesthetic Movement influences, female portraiture and the artist/model relationship.

James McNeill Whistler at the Freer Gallery of Art
 David Park Curry, 1984.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler: A Life
G. H. Fleming,  (1991).

After Whistler: The Artist and his Influence on American Painting
Merrill, Linda, et al., (2003).





Children feature prominently in Whistler’s street scenes. Chelsea Children by James McNeill Whistler, Mid-1880s. Watercolor on paper. Courtesy the Freer Gallery.







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