James McNeill Whistler
Grey and Silver: Old Battersea Reach
Oil on canvas
50.9 x 69 cm (20 x 27 in.)
Signed, lower left: "Whistler 63"
Gift of Honoré and Potter Palmer, 1922.449
As an American who chose to live as an expatriate in Europe, James McNeill Whistler is often compared to Mary Cassatt and John Singer Sargent, artists of his time who increased America's awareness of international movements and styles in art. Whistler traveled back and forth between London and Paris throughout his life. In March 1863, he took up residence at London's 7 Lindsey Row, the vantage point from which he depicted Battersea, an area on the south bank of the Thames River. Whistler's depiction of the river as a site of industry rather than leisure and his use of a gray and brown palette—emphasizing the fog of pollution—align these early scenes with paintings of the avant-garde Realist movement that featured views of workers and their environments.
Whistler's haze creates a soft, diffused atmosphere. Although smudged and blurred, some of the buildings depicted on the Battersea can be identified. The smoking chimneys belong to Morgan's Patent Plumbago Crucible Company's Works. Down the river, toward the horizon, is the Battersea Railway Bridge, which opened in 1863. The barges traversing the river are probably coal-heavers preparing to unload their cargo downstream. To create the painting, Whistler depicted everyday scenes outside his window, filtering the realism through abstract and tonalist sensibilities, which encouraged him to simplify the forms and colors of the river.
James McNeill Whistler
1878, published 1887
Lithotint, on a prepared half-tint ground, in black with scraping, on blue laid chine, laid down on ivory plate paper
171 x 259 mm (image); 170 x 258 mm (primary support); 341 x 498 mm (secondary support)
Gift of the Crown Family in honor of James N. Wood, 2004.529
Whistler pursued marine themes throughout his long career as a painter and printmaker, and within them he charted a course from a realist to a more modern and often controversial style. Well before abstraction became an artistic concept, he experimented with reducing form to its barest essence, evident in 1860s works such as Grey and Silver: Old Battersea Reach. In Nocturne, an 1878 lithotint, he no longer sought to delineate the fascinating topography of the riverbank and the picturesque life of its wharves and docklands but rather to create arrangements of color and tone intended to communicate mood, time of day, and atmospheric effect. The tonal effects possible in lithography differed from etching, the essentially linear printmaking medium he had employed regularly since the late 1850s.