The Wonderful World of Whistler: A Review of an American in London: Whistler and the Thames

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Following a brief hiatus–Holly Knows Art is back!

After a lackluster winter exhibition season in the nation’s capital, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery breathes new life into the D.C. art scene through its latest show, An American in London: Whistler and the Thames. This wonderful exhibition captures the artistic mastery and the exceptional talent of American painter, James McNeill Whistler.

An American in London is excellently curated and includes a variety of artwork both on canvas and paper enabling audiences to appreciate the wide range of Whistler’s creative genius. Well-known for his painted works, Whistler’s stylistic evolution over the course of his career is wonderfully and seamlessly mapped out over the course of this exhibition. Just like his famous subject, the Thames and its changing landscape during the Victorian period–An American in London equally displays Whistler’s maturity and exploration of the figurative to the abstraction genre. The flow of the exhibition and the viewer’s progression through the space highlights this duality: Whistler’s development as an artist from a stylistic standpoint mirrors his documentation of the banks of London’s River Thames. For example, “Thames Set” themed room, displays the very realistic style painting Wapping while Whistler’s famous Nocturnes series are housed within “Battersea Bridge” room.
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Wapping, by James McNeill Whistler, 1860-1864 – Photo Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery

The real highlight of the exhibition is the artistic intersection between East and West—Whistler was heavily influenced by Asian art, notably Japanese works. This cross-cultural influence still resonates today and is exceptionally rendered in An American in London by the juxtaposition of Whistler’s work with that of Japanese artists, Hokusai and Hiroshige from the 18th and early 19th centuries. Seeing these Japanese canvases resting side by side with Whistler’s Japonism pieces, enable audiences to experience and discover these similarities first hand—adding an additional element of art historical knowledge to this magnificent exhibition. The Japanese often chose bridges and rivers banks as subject matter, while the flat dimension and natural hues of greens and blues permeate Whistler’s work (even the very inclusion of fireworks that are faintly visible in Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge).
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Nocturne: Blue and Gold, James McNeill Whistler 1872-75 – Photo Courtesy of Freer | Sackler Gallery

Holly knows art.

If you enjoy James McNeill Whistler’s art you might also like:
The work of the Pre-Raphaelite Movement, notably JM Waterhouse and Dante Rosetti:
John William Waterhouse The Lady of Shalott by JW Waterhouse
Waterhouse’s Lady of Shalott (1888)

A parallel can be drawn between Whistler’s abstract treatment of dusk seascapes and JMW Turner’s sunset naval scenes:
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Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire (1839)

An American in London: Whistler and the Thames
3.5 / 5 stars
May 3rd – August 7th
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (Washington, D.C.)

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