A new exhibition at the National Museum of Asian Art offers a vivid exploration of urban life in 19th-century Europe through the eyes of American-born artist James McNeill Whistler.
Whistler: Streetscapes, Urban Change, in the Freer Gallery of Art, features small sketches and major oil paintings highlighting the backstreets and shopfronts of London, Paris, Venice and Amsterdam. This European grand tour is done in ink on paper, oil on wood panels, chalk and pastel on paper, and watercolors. Some of the works are on view for the first time in the museum’s history.
And you won’t—and can’t—see them anywhere else. The Freer can neither borrow nor lend any works in the collection.
“Luckily for us, we sit on one of the richest collections of Whistler in the world,” Diana Greenwold, the National Museum of Asian Art’s Lunder Curator of American Art, told The Washington Diplomat.
“You’re able to see Whistler just working across so many different media. You can see he’s an amazing virtuoso in the realm of etching, but he’s also thinking about color application in pastel and watercolor. And he’s also wildly innovative and experimental in oils,” she said.
“That’s all evident on the walls in this profound way. It’s marvelous to see it all come together in an exhibition like this.”
The first major Whistler oil painting Charles Lang Freer acquired, “Variations in Flesh Colour and Green—The Balcony,” sets the stage for the exhibition’s thematic approach. Four women costumed in kimonos pose on a balcony overlooking the River Thames and the factories of Battersea in south London––a placid scene colliding with the immense technological and industrial changes of the era.
Inside the exhibition’s two main rooms, near the famed Peacock Room, Whistler’s renderings of metropolitan life in Europe craft an architectural memory of places that in many ways no longer exist—and maybe never did. His images are hazy and abstract, even when obsessed with the minutiae of city life.
“He felt at home in a lot of these places, but also, I think, observes them from the distance of someone who is not necessarily from there,” said Greenwold.
For all of the images’ details—and there’s plenty to dive into as you study each picture, from the typography of street signs to the items on display in the shop windows—there is indeed a sense of removal.
There’s color and light and subtlety, but Whistler never quite engages fully with the drama, individuality and struggles of urban life, instead choosing something quieter and still. There are prints that suggest economic hardship and the difficulties of city life, but individual people are secondary to color, light and form.
The seed of the show was the broad topic of streetscapes and shopfronts, guest curator David Park Curry said.
“We went looking for those within his work and were surprised to find how many there were. It’s just huge … it holds up as a major, major interest because he was at it for so long,” he said.
Whistler maintains a largely neutral gaze in an era of turbulent change, and everything about city life is seen in a glimpse, a daze, half-forgotten. The images feel rapid and fluid and dreamlike. As the exhibition text states, he filtered “the realities of urban life through an aesthetic screen.”
One of the show’s stunners is the oil painting “Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen.”
The image, which features a model costumed in a kimono looking at Asian objects and Japanese art, is in a frame of Whistler’s own design. The artist was meticulous in his consideration of how viewers would consume his work, down to the frame, the curators noted.
While the painting and the frame were meant to be together, that hasn’t always been the case, Curry said. When he was a young curator at the gallery, the frame and the painting were both in the collection, but separate. It was known they belonged together, but they couldn’t be reunited back then “because they had different accession numbers.”
Now, visitors are able to see the painting as Whistler originally intended. “Whistler was very interested in, shall we say, packaging. He developed his own frame ideas. The presentation of his work was something that was very important to him, and one of the reasons that made him so modern,” Curry said.
A defining element of Whistler’s work is the “invitation to look,” Curry said. It’s what so much of this show is about.
“That invitation to look has been extended to us in the gallery, so the idea that there’s a single way to see this, contemplate it or engage with it doesn’t exist,” he said.
“It’s very much a viewer’s exhibition. The discoveries are legion, if you care to look, or not.
“It’s a wonderful argument for the power of art to push away the realities of existence.”
Whistler: Streetscapes, Urban Change is on at the National Museum of Asian Art through May 4, 2024.