Whistler’s oil paintings of the Thames, combining closely observed realistic views, expressive brushwork and atmospheric colour, reward close examination. However, they can also conceal surprises, the ghostly records of earlier work. Xrays of two paintings by Whistler have resulted in a remarkable discovery. The paintings are Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge (Addison Gallery of American Art) and The Last of Old Westminster (Boston Museum of Fine Arts).
Brown and Silver was commissioned in 1859, probably completed in 1862, and first exhibited in 1865. The Last of Old Westminster is signed and dated 1862.
The Last of Old Westminster
Photograph Copyright 2014 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
It has long been known, from an xray, that there is a self-portrait of the artist, painted at right angles to the Thames riverscape, under Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge.
It shows Whistler at work, painting with brush in hand, but was left unfinished and partly rubbed down. Nevertheless it is a vivid portrayal of the young artist, and was probably painted either in Paris or – more likely – in London. Either he was not satisfied with the portrait or he needed a canvas to start the painting Old Battersea Bridge, which was commissioned by the Greek collector Alexander C. Ionides after the Royal Academy exhibition of 1859. If the Bridge is looked at under raking light, traces of the ghostly Whistler can still be seen.
However, we did not know until recently that The Last of Old Westminster was also painted over a portrait, that of a seated woman, possibly a woman reading, which was also painted at right angles to the bridge, and partly rubbed down.
It was Nadine Loach, at Dulwich Picture Gallery, who highlighted this as a significant discovery, and followed up first tantalising piece of information, which noted that there was a figure underneath the painting of Westminster Bridge. This information came in while the picture hung at Dulwich Picture Gallery, but too late to be included in the catalogue. Hopefully it will entertain visitors to the show while it is in Andover and Washington.
Although it is difficult to be certain, the woman, as seen in the xray, looks like Whistler’s Irish model Joanna Hiffernan. A detail from a drypoint portrait of ‘Jo’, reversed, is illustrated below for comparison.
The two portraits could be considered a pair: they are close in size, Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge being 63.5 x 76.2 cms and The Last of Old Westminster, slightly different in proportion, at 60.96 x 78.1 cms. It is possible that they recorded a significant stage in the relationship between artist and model, as partners in the creation of works of art.
However, either these intimate portraits were sacrificed in order to make way for more saleable paintings of the river Thames, or Whistler simply felt that the portraits were not working out. Despite his close relationship with Jo, his model, mistress and partner, or perhaps because of it, Whistler may have felt that he could not complete, hang or exhibit two such personal images. And so they were sacrificed for two immensely saleable, exhibitable – and very beautiful – paintings of Thames bridges.
The two bridge pictures are currently on view in the exhibition An American in London: Whistler and the Thames at the Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, and move, in May, to the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington DC.
Further technical examination of the paintings may well confirm these tentative suggestions; and hopefully will be published in due course in an online catalogue of Whistler’s paintings.
Many thanks to Nadine Loach and colleagues at Dulwich Picture Gallery, to James M. Sousa at the Addison Gallery of American Art, and to Marta Fodor and colleagues in Boston.
Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge, 1859-62, oil on canvas, 63.5 x 76.2 cms, Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, MA., Gift of Cornelius Bliss, 1928.55.
The Last of Old Westminster, 1862, Oil on canvas, 60.96 x 78.1 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, A. Shuman Collection, Abraham Shuman Fund, 1939.44.
A. McLaren Young, M.F. MacDonald, Robin Spencer with H. Miles, The Paintings of James McNeill Whistler, Yale University Press, 1980.
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
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.
M.F. MacDonald and P. de Montfort, curators: ‘An American in London: Whistler and the Thames’, Dulwich Picture Gallery, 2013–2014: Addison Gallery of American Art, 1 February-13 April 2014; Freer Gallery of Art, May 2–August 17, 2014.