Any exhibition brings out a wide range of people with varying interests. At Dulwich Picture Gallery, the visitors to An American in London: Whistler and the Thames include locals from south of the river, Battersea to Bermondsey, others from foreign parts like Chelsea, drawn to see images of northern fastnesses, and visitors from the rest of the UK, USA and world-wide.
Whistler drew or painted the views of Battersea and Chelsea in considerable detail, which is fortunate, because that is exactly how they are discussed by Londoners.
In Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge (lent by the the Addison Gallery, Andover, Connecticut), a famous landmark, the Crystal Palace is immediately recognised in the far distance to right. Other sites are less well known, though I hope that this show will result in a steady stream of visitors to The Angel in Bermondsey, to check the view seen in Wapping! But I’m curious about the reactions of foreign visitors. Americans welcome him as their own, if expatriate, artists, like Sargent and Mary Cassatt, but there is some question about the extent of his assimilation, as there could be a question about the title of the exhibition.
Although Whistler undoubtedly was an American, born, baptised, schooled and to some extent educated in America, does the exhibition really show him as an American? the consensus seems to be ‘No’: it reveals him as absorbed in European art and culture, which is hardly surprising since he lived in Europe and indeed in London for most of his life. And yet, and yet … his early self-portrait (reproduced below) shows a distinctly international young Franco/American/British artist, with low straw hat, black cravat, and linen suit, and longish curly hair – definitely no Victorian city gentleman. And he never renounced his citizenship.
Whistler with a hat, 1859, drypoint, British Museum
The artist exercised his humour on the facts of his birth. ‘the time has gone by when a man shall be born without being consulted -‘ he wrote, ‘Maryland then I accept – my Maryland – and Baltimore – the “city of monuements” [sic] – … charming and artistic – and vaguely associated with Poe – who of course was born elsewhere’ (This letter is in the Whistler online edition, #13373 in http://www.whistler.arts.gla.ac.uk/correspondence).
Whistler tended to be more American with the British, and British, with Americans, and French, whenever he chose to be. When the Spanish Fleet was destroyed at Santiago by Admiral Sampson, he exclaimed to his sister-in-law, Rosalind Birnie Philip, ‘London is really too American for me!’ (3 July 1898, #04731 at http://www.whistler.arts.gla.ac.uk/correspondence )
and incidentally it was this Miss Philip who gave Glasgow University its huge Whistler collection, including several wonderful exhibits now starring in An American in London!
“I’ll be back!”
M.F. MacDonald and P. de Montfort, curators: An American in London: Whistler and the Thames, Dulwich Picture Gallery, 16 October 2013 – 12 January 2014:http://www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk/exhibitions/coming_soon/whistler_in_london.aspx
Margaret F. MacDonald, Grischka Petri, Meg Hausberg, and Joanna Meacock, James McNeill Whistler: The Etchings, a catalogue raisonné, University of Glasgow, 2012, online website at http://etchings.arts.gla.ac.uk.
The Correspondence of James McNeill Whistler, 1855-1903, edited by Margaret F. MacDonald, Patricia de Montfort and Nigel Thorp; including The Correspondence of Anna McNeill Whistler, 1855-1880, edited by Georgia Toutziari. Online edition, University of Glasgow.http://www.whistler.arts.gla.ac.uk/correspondence
Glasgow University Library at
Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow athttp://www.huntsearch.gla.ac.uk/Whistler