Whistler in Calais ‘in the midst of wind and rain’

Map of England and Wales, pen and ink on cream laid paper,
4 7/8 x 4 15/16″ (123 x 125 mm) The New York Public Library

In 1850, young James Whistler drew a map of England and gave it to his Aunt Kate in Stonington, Connecticut. It ranges from the Scottish border north of Newcastle to the Channel Islands. It ignores Scotland and the continent of Europe except for the port of Calais across the Straits of Dover. Five years later, Whistler sailed for Europe, and over the years he worked in many coastal towns in France, including Dieppe, Trouville, Boulogne, and Calais.

Calais was the destination of ferries from Dover, several times a day, the trip taking only three or four hours from Charing Cross, London. There was a good buffet at the Gare Maritime, where Whistler would wait for the train to Paris and pen letters to friends.

In September 1896 the newly widowed Whistler (his wife had died of cancer) set off via Etaples ‘along the coast to Calais and the little villages in the neighbourhood’ as he told his sister-in-law, Rosalind Birnie Philip. He was worn out and deeply depressed: ‘so tired … so blue!’ he told William Heinemann. By the 14th of September he was staying at the modest and ‘gloomy’ Hotel Meurice on the Rue de Guise, ‘in the midst of wind and rain & general depression.’ Then he asked for ‘a little package of panels … the usual grey panels, of about the medium size … about a dozen in all’ to be sent to him in Calais. He wrote further, ‘I might stay for a day or two longer – indeed I have to do so anyhow, as I have begun something that of course I must complete’. Two little known paintings (one watercolour, one oil) were probably the result.

Near Calais, watercolour and gouache on brown wove paper, 9 5/16 x 6 7/8″ (239 x 173 mm), The Lunder Collection, Colby College Museum of Art, 2013.297.

The first is the subtle and beautiful watercolour, Near Calais. Fluid, expressive brush strokes perfectly depict the greys and greens of calm seas and sky; neat little figures stand and paddle at the water’s edge, and wriggly strokes of white like lace define the wavelets by the shore.

This watercolour was bought by the New York art dealer E. G. Kennedy from Whistler immediately on his return from Calais. was taken to America and sold in that year, 1897, to a collector, Annie Burr Jennings of Fairfield, Connecticut. She lent it to the Whistler Memorial exhibition in Boston in 1904 as Near Calais but it then disappeared for many years, until it was bought by Paula and Peter Lunder and given as part of their generous gift to Colby College Museum of Art in 2013.

William Hogarth,  O the Roast Beef of Old England (‘The Gate of Calais’; https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/art-artists/work-of-art/O51679
Credit line: Royal Academy of Arts

A slight confusion over the identity of the picture sold to E. G. Kennedy arises because his firm’s account recorded ‘1 [painting]. “Outside Calais Gate” as bought from Whistler for 60 guineas on 30 July 1897. This title might seem to reference Hogarth’s O the Roast Beef of Old England (‘The Gate of Calais’) of 1848 (Tate, London), which was familiar to Whistler as a print, and which he would have known from his childhood. However, no Calais gate appears in any Whistler painting, and ‘outside’ could cover almost any subject whatsoever, so for the moment we will leave this as a curious and unsolved mystery, and move on to another Calais subject.

Green and Gold: A Shop in Calais, oil on wood, 245 x 130 mm (9 5/8 x 5 1/8″), The Hunterian, University of Glasgow, Acc. No. GLAHA 46345 (YMSM 46345)

Rosalind Birnie Philip (who was Whistler’s ward and executrix) inherited a painting of Calais and gave it, in 1935, to the University of Glasgow.

On 16 September 1896 Whistler had written to her from Calais, ‘I began a little shop here – but it was a queer hard day today & I have done no good – Perhaps I had better get at some thing else‘. On the following day he wrote that he had stayed on ‘in the hope of finishing one small shop I had begun – It would be worth while.’

Green and Gold: A Shop in Calais may well have been that shop. There is no shop sign, but there is a hint of goods in the window, and a curious asymmetrical partial swing-door giving easy access to the interior. It is very thinly painted on a small panel prepared with an off-white undercoat. The not-quite-vertical-brushstrokes of the undercoat show clearly through pale areas of yellow ochre, light greens and greys. Some of the undercoat was left unpainted and provides the base colour of the windows. A touch of pink suggests flowers – perhaps geraniums – on the balcony; a faint and rather blurred butterfly signature appears to right of them, which suggests that it was considered fit for exhibition and sale by the artist. Whistler seems to have been interested in the subtle nuances of texture on the walls, reflections in the windows, and the play of shadows in the door and windows. However, the immediate effect is of a near-abstract arrangement of rectangles. It was very rare for Whistler to paint a scene without people, and this lack of humanity enhances the cool abstraction of the composition.

At some time in 1901 or 1902 Whistler recorded that he had sold six or seven paintings to the Paris art dealer Charles Hessel or Hessele, including ‘Green shop. Calais’, which could well have been this little oil. However, there seems to have been a problem with this sale and it is likely that some of the pictures stayed with Whistler, while others seem simply to have disappeared.

Little known, and not, apparently, exhibited in Whistler’s lifetime, Green and Gold: A Shop in Calais was nevertheless framed and selected after Whistler’s death, by Miss Birnie Philip, for an exhibition of Ouvrages de Peintures, Sculpture, Dessin, Gravure, Architecture et Objets d’Art at the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1904 (cat. no. 1316) as ‘ “Vert et Gris” (Dieppe)‘. The writer and art critic Pierre Baudin described it tellingly as ‘petite façade de maison dieppoise d’une intimité discrète et accueilante.’ In other words, it was the ‘discreet and welcoming intimacy’ of the façade, and not its unpeopled abstract quality that caught the eye.

It was then exhibited in 1915 in London and in 1935 in Glasgow, on its arrival as part of Miss Birnie Philip’s spectacular gift of Whistler’s work to the University of Glasgow. Due to the terms of her gift, it cannot be exhibited elsewhere but we trust it will soon be on display again in the redesigned Hunterian galleries, a quiet and perfect little jewel.

NOTES: Quotations are from: Baudin, Pierre, ‘Les Salons de 1904: Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, II’, Gazette des beaux-arts, vol. 31, 1904, pp. 468-82, at p. 476, and manuscripts, Whistler to Rosalind Birnie Philip, [10, 15, 16 and 17 September 1896] and [10 September 1896], Glasgow University Library, GUW #04667, #04668, #04673, and #04674; Note books [1901/1902], GUW 13662, and Whistler to William Heinemann, [14 September 1896], Library of Congress, GUW 08479. GUW =
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. On-line edition, University of Glasgow, at
http://www.whistler.arts.gla.ac.uk/correspondence

Margaret F. MacDonald, Grischka Petri, James McNeill Whistler: The paintings, a catalogue raisonné, University of Glasgow, 2014, on-line website at http://whistlerpaintings.gla.ac.uk.

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About mfmmacdonald

I am an artist and art historian, and my research is focussed on the work and life of James McNeill Whistler. Based in the School of Culture and Creative Arts, University of Glasgow, I am Director of the Whistler Paintings and Etchings Projects. These blogs are informal, and, I hope, interesting and even quirky discussions of individual works and events related to Whistler.
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