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Sackler Gallery's Whistler Exhibit Shows an Artist in Transition

Courtesy The Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
The Freer’s Whistler exhibition is the biggest U.S. display of his work in a generation, providing visitors the opportunity to reassess the work of an artist who defies easy characterization.

Whistler went on to produce a series of moody, poetic renderings of the Thames and its environs filled with mists, shadows and myriad shades of blue and gray. Eager to get audiences thinking in new ways about art, he also began giving his paintings musical titles such as “symphony,” “arrangement” and “nocturne,” hoping to respond to the Victorian tendency to view pictures the way they would read books.

Glazer noted that Whistler’s mother played a significant role in this aesthetic development, by moving in with him in the Chelsea neighborhood while he was going through his identity crisis. The artist was inspired to render his first moonlit painting of the river after the pair went on a boat ride at her urging.

“His mother keeps him on a tight leash and enforced the kind of hard work and concentrated attention to his craft that allowed him to realize his ambition,” Glazer said, noting that the mother’s arrival, among other things, caused Whistler’s girlfriend to move out of the apartment.

The exhibit features some of the 1,300 paintings, prints and drawings in the Freer’s permanent collection alongside borrowed works from institutions such as the Tate in London, the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Mass., and the Art Institute of Chicago. It marks the first time since the Freer opened in 1923 that works in its collection aren’t the sole focus of an exhibit, as Freer had desired.

“We respect Freer’s intent and aesthetic vision,” Glazer said, noting that the founder’s long friendship with Whistler perhaps justifies putting the holdings in a larger context.

“We think Freer would have been pleased to see these paintings next to [loaned] works,” Glazer said. “You tell new stories looking at old favorites in a new way.”

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