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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.

One of the season’s biggest art shows features more than 80 works of a French-trained American working in London, arrayed in a gallery normally devoted to Asian art.

It all makes sense when you consider the artist is James McNeill Whistler and the venue is the Smithsonian’s Freer-Sackler complex, whose patron, Detroit industrialist Charles Lang Freer, built a formidable collection of paintings and other objects with Whistler’s personal advice and encouragement.

An American in London: Whistler and the Thames,” on display through Aug. 17, marks the biggest U.S. display of Whistler’s works in a generation and an opportunity to reassess an artist who defies easy characterization.

Alternately associated with realist, impressionist and pre-Raphaelite schools, Whistler was a highly influential figure who trained in Washington, D.C., as a military draftsman and developed daring new modes of expression while cultivating an image of eccentricity. His famous 1871 portrait of his mother (not part of the exhibit) is one of the most recognizable paintings in the world and is among just a handful of fine art works that have become pop culture icons. Expect to see its image a few times in the lead-up to Mother’s Day.

The Freer-Sackler exhibit focuses on Whistler’s immersion in the Victorian London of the 1860s and 1870s, then undergoing a dramatic transformation into an industrial metropolis. His early focus on the area around the old Battersea Bridge, on the River Thames, provides an almost photographic essay of gritty wharves, pubs and waterborne craft that documents a cycle of destruction and rebuilding. But Whistler’s work soon morphs into spare, less-descriptive renderings with identifiable landmarks shrouded in abstract surroundings.

The transformation was partly inspired by Whistler’s discovery of Japanese prints, whose formal composition and flattened forms provided the artist with a connection to a world filled with beauty far from the bustle and unpleasantness of London.

“He was worried because his subject matter was unlovely and wondered whether it was a proper solution to art,” said Lee Glazer, curator of American art at the Freer and Sackler galleries. “He found a solution in the formal language of Japanese prints, which offered a new way of depicting the world and a classical style that was also new and fresh.”

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