‘Whistler in Watercolor’ at the Freer

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“The Ocean Wave” (detail), 1883-84. James McNeill Whistler. Courtesy Freer.

In 1880, painter James McNeill Whistler was in middle age, broke and at the end of his professional rope. An American who moved permanently to England as a young man, he achieved early notoriety as a brash personality and an electrifying raconteur, which contrasted sharply with a sensitive, atmospheric and achingly delicate aesthetic sensibility.

A series of splashes he made in artistic circles culminated in two major scandals. First, he had a public and bitter falling out with his most important patron over the Peacock Room (on permanent view at the Freer). Nearly simultaneously, he sued English art critic John Ruskin for libel over a blistering exhibition review featuring one of Whistler’s most modern, controversial and beautiful paintings, “Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket.”

Then Whistler did something modestly remarkable: he reinvented himself as an artist and painted his way into posterity with watercolor. Approaching the age of 50, he began to produce a profusion of small, marketable watercolor works, which he continued to make over the next 15 years for a growing middle-class art market in England, Europe and especially America. “I have done delightful things” he confided, “and have a wonderful game to play.”

“Whistler in Watercolor,” on view at the Freer Gallery of Art through Oct. 6, is the first major exploration of these works since the 1930s.

Museum founder Charles Lang Freer amassed the world’s largest collection of Whistler’s watercolors, with more than 50 seascapes, nocturnes, interior views and street scenes. Due to Freer’s will, these works — along with his exceptional collection of Asian art — have never left the museum, and the fragile watercolors have rarely been displayed. Recent research conducted by museum curators, scientists and conservators now shines new light on Whistler’s materials, techniques and artistic genius, as seen in this exhibition.

The Freer opened in 1923 as the Smithsonian’s first art museum and the first on the National Mall. An Italian Renaissance-style building of granite and marble, with galleries surrounding a courtyard with more and better natural light than most of the world’s museums, it might be the most beautiful museum in Washington. However, the nature of Freer’s will somewhat freezes the museum in amber. It rarely changes, and temporary exhibitions are even more unusual.

A small jewel of an exhibition, “Whistler in Watercolor” showcases the best of what the Freer’s American collection has to offer: gem-like works, highly atmospheric, richly textured and fundamentally contemplative. Many of the works are no larger than a postcard, and each painting feels upon discovery like a well-kept secret.

Whistler’s decision to focus on watercolors did not come about incidentally. The 1878 Ruskin trial transformed him into a celebrity, but left him bankrupt. Hoping to recover financially, he accepted a three-month commission from the Fine Art Society of London to produce a set of 12 etchings of Venice. More than a year later, Whistler returned to London with 50 etchings, 100 pastels, several oil paintings and at least three watercolors.

Upon returning, he fully embraced the medium of watercolor. “Mr. Whistler is about to surprise both his friends and his detractors by appearing in the new character of the water-colour artist,” a reporter wrote in 1881.

Traditional landscapes held little interest for Whistler, but, he claimed, “The sea to me, is, and always was, most fascinating!” Rendered with simplicity, his seascapes of Southend, a popular seaside destination south of London, rely on broad washes of color with sparse detail. Whistler was a master at creating a mixture of pigments that produced a tonally balanced palette. His seascapes were often organized in a three-part composition of sky, sea and shore.

In the late 19th century, an artist’s studio was regarded as a sanctuary of creativity and mystery. Whistler played on the appeal of the studio by welcoming patrons and collectors into his own and providing tantalizing peeks behind the scenes of his creative production. In “Milly Finch,” a model wearing a lavender dress poses provocatively on a red chaise lounge. In “Note in Pink and Purple,” Milly sits demurely with her hand in her lap. The identical dress, chaise, table and drapery swag are present in both works, yet the mood is quite different, illustrating how Whistler used his studio, with its theatrical trappings and bohemian intrigue, much like a performance space.

Perhaps most enticing of all, Whistler’s street scenes and “nocturnes” (nighttime scenes) offer a view into Victorian England street life through a romantic but accurate lens. Whistler was fascinated by street scenes throughout his career, from his early watercolors of the village of Saverne to a busy flower market, also in northern France, and on to the children, rickety houses and small businesses along Cheyne Walk in London’s Chelsea neighborhood, where he lived for many years.

The watercolors that resulted from his 1882 trip to Amsterdam are among his most experimental works. Maintaining a wet surface while he worked, the artist rubbed and scraped the paper to achieve his desired effects.

Among the many large-scale and high-concept exhibitions on view during the summer season, “Whistler in Watercolor” is a breath of fresh air. It is for connoisseurs, for the lovers of museum hush, who like looking closely at beautiful work in a beautiful space.

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