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Dulwich exhibition redefines Whistler’s London landscape

The artist did not always live north of the Thames—he also stayed in Greenwich with his “whorelike” mistress

Whistler's Wapping, 1860-64. Photo: courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

James Whistler was a south Londoner—at least for a while. It has been assumed that he always lived north of the River Thames, in the poverty-stricken East End in his early years and later in fashionable Chelsea. But the catalogue for “An American in London: Whistler and the Thames”, which opens at Dulwich Picture Gallery today, reveals that the American-born artist was staying in Greenwich on the day of the 1861 census.

The Art Newspaper has tracked down the precise location: 5 Lucas Street, the house (now demolished) of a William and Ann Davidson. The census recorded Whistler’s profession as “artist-painting”, presumably a garbled translation of artiste-peintre, the French term used at the time to distinguish a fine artist from a mere house painter.

Whistler’s mistress was his stunning 19-year-old Irish model, Joanna “Jo” Hiffernan. In the census, she is recorded as “Anna Whistler” and identified as James’s “wife”, presumably for reasons of respectability. James was 26.

Among the key loans in the Dulwich exhibition is Wapping, 1860-64, from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. The red-haired woman, centre stage, is Hiffernan. Margaret MacDonald, the show’s co-curator, has tracked down a contemporary description of the painting, unrecorded in the Whistler literature, by Benjamin Moran, the secretary of the American embassy in London. Moran described the female figure in Wapping as a “molly” (prostitute). Whistler himself once told his artist friend Henri Fantin-Latour that Hiffernan “looks supremely whorelike”.

The Dulwich show is the largest ever presentation of Whistler’s Thames works (it is a surprise that it is being presented in the depths of south London, rather than in one of the capital’s Thames-side galleries). It comprises 15 paintings, 35 prints and 10 drawings, watercolours and pastels.

The centrepiece is Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge, from the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Massachusetts. Whistler began the work in 1859, the year he arrived in London from Paris. The atmospheric picture was painted over a self-portrait (which is still visible, if one looks closely).

This important loan was arranged because the show is scheduled to tour to the Addison (1 February-13 April 2014), before going on to the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, DC (2 May-17 August). Brian Allen, the outgoing director of the Addison, says he wanted to link Whistler to early 20th-century American art. “Whether they admitted it or not, every important American Modernist artist was looking at Whistler,” he says.

More research has been done on the topography of Whistler’s work. In his etching Limehouse, 1859, the pub in the foreground is the Bunch of Grapes, which still survives (as the Grapes) in Narrow Street. A copy of the print was bought by London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) as early as 1861, although a finer impression is on loan to Dulwich from the Colby College Museum of Art in Waterville, Maine.

In 1863, Whistler and Hiffernan moved to 7 Lindsey Row in Chelsea, although their relationship ended a few years later. Hiffernan spent time in Paris, where she is reputed to have become the mistress of Gustave Courbet. She could well be the model in L’Origine du Monde, 1866, his notorious image of a woman exposing her genitals and torso, her head covered by a sheet.

By this time, Whistler had not only moved upriver, but also upmarket, and his paintings became increasingly elegant. In the Tate’s Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl, 1864, Hiffernan appears in front of their fireplace, holding a fan. MacDonald has identified it as a fan design by Utagawa Hiroshige of The Banks of the Sumida River, 1857 (Dulwich has borrowed an example of an uncut print from the V&A)—evidence of Whistler’s love of Japanese art.

It was in Lindsey Row that Whistler painted his first “nocturne”: the Tate’s Nocturne: Blue and Silver—Chelsea, 1871. He originally called the work Harmony in Blue-Green—Moonlight, but it was affected by London’s dirty air and fog, and then badly cleaned or retouched, so he retitled the picture to more accurately describe its colour. Four years later, it was Nocturne in Black and Gold—The Falling Rocket that led to the critic John Ruskin accusing Whistler of “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face”.

Whistler travelled widely, but he kept returning to London, often working by the river. On his death in 1903, he was buried in Chiswick, beside his beloved Thames.

"An American in London: Whistler and the Thames", Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, until 12 January 2014

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