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Whistler in Watercolor

by Erin Marcell


Artists who are revered for articulating their visions in oil and canvas often are overlooked when considering their works on paper, drawings, etchings, and watercolors. James Abbott McNeill Whistler is best known for his stunning, unsentimental, and controversial portraits during the American Gilded Age, but he created a large body of small watercolors with the intent of recovering quickly from legal suits that left him bankrupt. Viewing these watercolors allows for a fuller appreciation of Whistler’s painting career.

Biography of James Abbott McNeill Whistler


Born in 1834 in Lowell, Massachusetts, James Abbott McNeill Whistler lived in Europe during his youth and later attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he studied drawing. After three years, Whistler left without receiving a degree to pursue art on a full-time basis in Paris. There he drew on the realism of Gustave Courbet and earlier Spanish and Dutch painters.

Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1: Portrait of the Artist's Mother, James Abbott McNeill Whistler

James Abbott McNeill Whistler
(American, 1834-1903)
Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1: Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, 1871
oil on canvas
56 3/4″ x 64″
Photo courtesy of Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France / Jean-Gilles Berizzi

In 1859, Whistler’s At the Piano was rejected by the Paris Salon, so he opted to move to London to focus on etchings along with painting. During this period, Whistler was inspired by the pre-Raphaelites and became well acquainted with Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Whistler’s first major breakthrough was Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, which was shown at the Salon des Refusés in 1863. After a three-year stint painting in coastal Chile, Whistler returned to Europe and began signing works with his trademark butterfly monogram.

In 1872, Whistler created his painting that is most recognized today, Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1: Portrait of the Artist’s Mother (“Whistler’s Mother”), which is now held at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Whistler’s “Nocturne” series, featuring the Thames River in London, the canals of Amsterdam, and other memorable locales, greatly increased his reputation during the 1870s. In 1877, Whistler won a famous defamation suit against art critic John Ruskin, but public scorn eventually led Whistler to declare bankruptcy.

Following a sabbatical in Venice to produce etchings for the Fine Arts Society, and to begin focusing more on watercolors, Whistler moved back to London in 1880. Toward the end of Whistler’s life, his stature rose such that his works saw great demand in public and private collections. After Whistler’s death in 1903, major retrospectives were held in Boston, London, and Paris.

Whistler in Watercolor exhibit, Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution

Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Visiting the Whistler in Watercolor Exhibit


Recently, on a trip to Washington D.C, I visited the first exhibition of the largest collection of Whistler’s watercolors amassed by American industrialist and art patron Charles Lang Freer, at his namesake museum, the Smithsonian Institution’s Freer Gallery of Art.

Grey and Silver — Liverpool, 1881-1883, James Abbott McNeill Whistler

Grey and Silver — Liverpool, 1881-1883, watercolor on cold-pressed, wove paper (NOTE: This is the first Whistler watercolor that Freer purchased.)

Whistler in Watercolor opened on May 18 and runs through November 3, 2019. Admirers of Whistler, 19th century art, and watercolors should definitely try to see this collection of work, which is rarely displayed due to the fragile nature of the material.

Works on paper have always appealed to me given the texture of the paper and for how the hand of the artist feels more immediate. In many cases, a work on paper can be equally as moving as an oil on canvas. Watercolors, prints, and drawings by known artists, such as Whistler, are also easily accessible to new collectors.

Whistler chose specific types of wove papers — rough, cold-pressed, and hot-pressed — in order to create effects with the medium and to suit the various subjects he had in mind. These papers were sold in blocks, which were sealed with adhesive and blue fabric to keep the paper dry and from warping.

'Venice Harbor', 1879-1880, James Abbott McNeill Whistler

Venice Harbor, 1879-1880, watercolor on rough, wove paper

Blue remnants can be found on the edges of Whistler’s work and serve to confirm that compositions were executed by him. When starting to collect works by a specific artist, it is always a good idea, and part of the appeal for me, to learn about the artist’s use of materials. Whistler’s blue fabric remnants are a perfect example of this.

The Whistler in Watercolor show traces how the hues in his watercolors have changed over time relative to the original descriptions that Whistler provided for his work. This is largely why Freer’s collection of Whistler watercolors have not been exhibited since the 1930s and will never leave the museum.

Whistler watercolor portraits of women

Watercolor portraits of women by Whistler, each on cold-pressed, wove paper (left to right): [1] Note in Opal: Breakfast, 1883-1884; [2] Milly Finch, 1883-1884; [3] Pink Note: Shelling Peas, 1883-1884

Caring for Works on Paper


Works on paper are typically more fragile and susceptible to fading and discoloration with exposure to light. In addition, many papers are not acid free, which creates an unstable foundation. Nonetheless, paper can be a surprisingly resilient medium.

Conservators are able to de-acidify paper, which will remove some yellowing, and stop any mildewing or foxing. Cleaning the surface of works on paper also helps to restore the image to its original state, but this is not necessary in all cases.

Framing works with UV-protective glazes and acid-free matts is another way to protect their condition. If works are not framed, they may be stored in flat, acid-free files. These materials are easily found in art stores or online. When cared for properly, works on paper will maintain their value or even appreciate, and continue to bring joy for years to come.

'Nocturne: Grand Canal, Amsterdam', 1882, James Abbott McNeill Whistler

Nocturne: Grand Canal, Amsterdam, 1882, watercolor on cold-pressed, wove paper

Whistler Works Offered by Toomey & Co.


Toomey & Co. Auctioneers has offered many James Abbott McNeill Whistler lots in the past several years. The Instagram post below includes a carousel slideshow of selected works.


Art & Design on September 15, 2019


Toomey & Co. offered two Whistler works in the Art & Design auction on Sunday, September 15, 2019. To visit the relevant lot detail pages, simply click on either image below.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, 'The Pool', 1859

James Abbott McNeill Whistler 
(American, 1834-1903) 
The Pool, 1859 
5 1/4″ x 8 1/4″
Toomey & Co. Auctioneers
Art & Design
Sale 120 Lot 146
September 15, 2019
Estimate $300-500
Sold for $250

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, 'Alderney Street', 1881

James Abbott McNeill Whistler 
(American, 1834-1903) 
Alderney Street, published by the Gazette des Beaux-Arts, Paris, April 1881
etching and drypoint
butterfly stamp in plate
6 7/8” x 4 1/4“
Toomey & Co. Auctioneers
Art & Design
Sale 120 Lot 147
September 15, 2019
Estimate $200-300
Sold for $218