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Smithsonian's Whistler in London exhibit opened with music, costumes, mustaches

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"An American in London: Whistler and the Thames" at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery opened May 2 with Victorian costumes, snippets of Oscar Wilde plays, fake mustaches, and real music.

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The nighttime event at the Sackler and the adjoining Freer Gallery of Art evoked James McNeill Whistler's renowned "Nocturne" paintings. The American expatriate artist regarded his works as analogous to music, and called them nocturnes, symphonies, variations...

Guests were given various stick-on mustaches and bowler hats to wear as they toured the stunning exhibit with its co-curators from Glasgow University; watched The British Players perform scenes from Victorian-era plays like "The Importance of Being Earnest"; listened to period music; and admired outfits worn by men and women from The Victorian Society of Falls Church, Virginia.

Later that evening, they viewed "Night and the City", a London-based film noir. It began the museum’s "Here Comes the Night: Cinema Nocturnes" free series of movies set at night in various cities, like "Lost in Translation" and "Friday Night".

"An American in London" is the first major exhibition ever devoted to James McNeill Whistler's (1834–1903) early period in London. And it's the largest U.S. display of his work in a generation. To watch a video of the exhibit, click here.

The display spans 1859-1879, when London, the world's biggest city, was undergoing tremendous modernization, especially around the Thames River, and when Whistler's style was also changing dramatically, from realism to a much more poetic, aesthetic style, explained Lee Glazer, associate curator of American art at the Freer and Sackler. Art for art's sake, indeed.

The more than 80 items include almost 50 Whistler masterpieces from the Freer, which holds the world's largest and finest collection (more than 1,300) of the artist's work. The Freer's most famous object is the Peacock Room ("Harmony in Blue and Gold"), an opulent London dining room that Whistler painted in 1876–77.

This is the first time since the Freer opened 91 years ago that Charles Lang Freer's Whistler works have been displayed with others from museums in the U.S. and Britain, curator Glazer added.

Two of Whistler's major Chelsea paintings are reunited for the first time in 100 years, noted co-curator Patricia de Montfort: "Variations in Pink and Grey: Chelsea" 1871-72, held by the Freer, and "Variations in Violet and Green: Chelsea" 1871, lent by Musée D'Orsay in Paris. The exhibit offers 20 important oil paintings of Chelsea and the Thames.

Other highlights among the many:

  • Several of the artist’s famed "Nocturnes", including his renowned "Blue and Gold: Old Battersea Bridge", the culmination of his many bridge paintings.

Nocturnes prompted the all-powerful art critic John Ruskin to accuse Whistler of "flinging a pot of paint in the public's face." Whistler sued for libel.

Whistler testified, "It was not my intent simply to make a copy of Battersea Bridge. I did not intend to paint a portrait of the bridge, but only a painting of a moonlight scene...To some persons, (the picture) may represent all that I intended. To some persons it may represent nothing." Whistler won, but was awarded only a farthing for damages. It was a resounding victory for art itself, demonstrating that it needed no meaning beyond beauty -- art for art's sake.

"One very important thing about Whistler is his precision, although we associate him with vagueness and fogginess like 'Nocturnes'," curator de Montfort told me. "He was very capable of being subtle, with great control of the paintbrush."

  • "Wapping" is a "real show-stopper, a very important painting, beautifully, vividly painted" over a four-year period, commented co-curator Margaret MacDonald. The Thames, crowded with boats, is seen through a pub window where two men are chatting to a woman. She is his Irish mistress and chief model, Joanna (Jo) Hiffernan, "who is jolly difficult to paint!" Whistler wrote to his friend, fellow artist Henri Fantin-Latour.
  • In "Symphony in White No. 2: The Little White Girl", Hiffernan's wavy red hair flows down to her ultra-feminine, uncorseted white muslin gown. Whistler described her as having "the most beautiful hair that you have ever seen! a red not golden but copper...skin golden white or yellow if you will."

She holds a fan decorated with a Hiroshige woodcut, "The Banks of the Sumida River". A similar fan by Hiroshige, also entitled "The Banks of the Sumida River", is displayed next to "The Little White Girl". The fan is among several Japanese items in the exhibit. Whistler was influenced deeply by Japanese woodcuts and by Japanese and Chinese blue and white porcelain, which he collected, and began putting in his paintings by 1862, MacDonald said.

  • The Thames Set, an early series of etchings depicting the river’s seedy dockyards and characters have a room of their own. The copper etching plates are also displayed.

"He was a great, great etcher -- a successor of Rembrandt," MacDonald told me.

Whistler learned to etch in Washington at the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey (USCGS), now part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), better known for natural disasters.

Soon after Whistler was hired in 1854, "it became apparent that he would do the (map) Drawing Division no good, so he was transferred to the Engraving Division to see if he could learn a useful trade for the Survey," according to USCGS biographical archives.

He completed a test plate of Boston Harbor topography within a day or two -- and added "a suggestion of a portrait of himself as a Spanish hidalgo (minor noble), and other bits, which are the charm of the work," the bio said. This first etching, now known as "The Coast Survey Plate", belongs to the Freer.

Whistler spent only three months at the USCGS before he resigned or was fired (he had flunked out of West Point).

Academia's and bureaucracy's loss was the world's gain. He became one of the most revolutionary, influential painters of his time.

And you can certainly see why at this unique, free exhibit through August 17.

For more info: "An American in London: Whistler and the Thames", Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, www.asia.si.edu, 1050 Independence Avenue S.W., on the National Mall, Washington, D.C. 202-633-1000. Free exhibit now through Aug. 17. Organizing curators Margaret MacDonald, professor emerita, and Patricia de Montfort, lecturer, University of Glasgow, Scotland. The second "City Nights Open House" will be held July 25. A PBS film "James McNeill Whistler & The Case for Beauty" premieres on Sept. 12.

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