Several possible titles have been suggested:
'Wapping' is the generally accepted title.
A composition in horizontal format, with three figures sitting on a balcony overlooking the river Thames. The river is crowded with shipping, skiffs, barges, schooners, Thames barges, a tug with a red funnel. Rigging and sails create a complex network of line and colour. In the far background are warehouses along the river bank. On the balcony, in the foreground, sit, at left, a red-haired woman in a black v-necked dress and a man with black hair and beard in dark clothes, both facing three-quarter right. At far right is a man, his face in profile left, wearing a sailor's cap, and wearing dark clothes. The railings of the balcony slope up from lower left to the corner of the balcony at right, where there is a pillar (behind the bearded man), and at far right, a wooden ladder or window.
It shows the balcony of a riverside pub, The Angel, on the River Thames at Cherry Gardens in Bermondsey, upstream from Rotherhithe on the south side of the river, and across from Wapping (seen also The Thames in Ice [YMSM 036]). 14 It was probably the 'chef d'oeuvre' which George du Maurier described Whistler as working on 'in secret' at Rotherhithe, London, in October 1860. 15
Whistler was conscious that his painting of the background resembled the etchings he was concurrently working on in and around Rotherhithe and Wapping between 1859 and 1861. In his letter to Fantin-Latour in 1861 he described the background as 'comme une eau forte.' 16
A comparison between Wapping and the etching Rotherhithe  makes this relationship clear. The etching is dated 1860: it was exhibited at the RA in 1862 as Rotherhithe and later published in the 'Thames Set' as 'Wapping'. It was drawn from the same balcony as the painting, and includes two men (probably sailors or longshoremen) but instead of looking downstream towards the Pool of London, the view as drawn on the plate shows the river upstream with the dome of St Paul's in the far distance. Another etching. The Little Rotherhithe , shows the same view as Rotherhithe but without the figures.
Moran in 1863 described the scene shown in the painting: 'the river is one jam of vessels – ships, steamers, brigs, colliers and tugs – while the air smells of tar and of that odor that Londoners swear kills those who live by the Thames.' 17
Just above the woman's right arm is what appears to be the bow of a dumb barge, that is, a hull used for transporting goods, which would be towed by a tug (like the steam-paddle tug with the tall red funnel in the centre background). 18 Behind the woman's head is a bowsprit and, above and to right, a blue spar and a mast with a part-furled sail, but the boat to which these are presumably attached is not visible. Seen behind this bowsprit, to left of her head, is what looks like a Thames sailing barge, spritsail rigged, with the hold open behind the mast; the spar sticking up at the bow is probably the bowsprit, raised to avoid damage in constricted waters. The black-hulled ships beyond look like topsail schooners, the common small workhorse of seaborne trade, and alongside the schooner at left is another small dumb barge with two men. 19
The sitters were described in 1861 as:
'un vieux en chemise blanche celui du milieu qui regarde par la fenetre ... un matelot en casquette et en chemise bleu à grand col rabattu d'un bleu plus clair, qui cause avec une fille' ('an old man in a white shirt the one in the middle who is looking out of the window ... a sailor in a cap and a blue shirt with a big collar turned back in a lighter blue, who is chatting to a girl'). 20
THE WOMAN: Joanna Hiffernan (b. ca 1843-d.1886), Whistler's partner and chief model. He described her to Fantin-Latour as having hair 'd'un rouge non pas doré mais cuivré - comme tout ce qu'on a rêvé de Venitienne!' ('a red not golden but copper – as Venetian as a dream!') 21 The fact that Whistler did not mention her by name to Fantin-Latour suggests that they had not met at this date. Whistler had already painted her three times, he told Fantin in the same letter, giving her a mocking expression; she had, Whistler wrote, 'l'air superieurement putin' – meaning 'putain' – in other words, she looked like a whore.
It is quite possible that in 1859 Whistler had seen Thoughts of the Past, the first Royal Academy exhibit of J. R. Spencer Stanhope, which showed a 'guilt-ridden' red-haired prostitute by a window that looked out on the Thames, painted in vivid colour and Pre-Raphaelite detail. However, judging by Whistler's letter, in his original concept Hiffernan represented an unrepentant 'putain' with clients. 22
In April 1863 Benjamin Moran (1820-1886) met Joanna Hiffernan, 'an Irish girl with the golden tresses of a Venus and eyes as large as those of Juno', and described the figures as 'A drunken sailor, with his Molly ... drinking and smoking on the balcony of a Thames grog shop.' 23 This means that the model was depicted as a prostitute, and this was understood by viewers at that time.
In the letter of 1861 to Fantin-Latour, already quoted, Whistler described the woman as wearing a blouse that showed her neck almost completely, and a white jacket 'à grand arabesques et fleurs de toutes couleurs!' ('with big arabesques and flowers of all colours!'). 24 Thomas Armstrong (1832-1911), however, warned Whistler that the picture was unlikely to be accepted by the Academy because of the girl's open shirt, and Whistler replied that he would open the shirt more and more until he was elected an Academician and could hang the picture himself. 25
In the finished composition the woman's décolletage is less extreme than these comments suggest, and the dress is a sober black. It would seem that Whistler deliberately made the woman more modest for submission to the Royal Academy, rather than carry out his humorous threat to make her less so. The emphasis shifted as Whistler modified the figures, so that, shortly before it was submitted to the Royal Academy, Whistler's mother described the subject as 'a group on the Inn balcony.' 26 Indeed, as Ribner commented,
'Avoiding the hackneyed, sentimental facial expressions of conventional nineteenth century genre paintings, Whistler invests his figures with an oddly inexpressive aspect, which – as in the work of Manet – blurs the distinction between figural painting and real life.' 27
THE OLD MAN: The man in a white shirt, described by Whistler in 1861, was not identified by name.
He was replaced in 1863 by the figure of Alphonse Legros (1837-1911). D. G. Rossetti described the new male figure as 'done from Alphonse Legros, ... painted in from him just as he was in the first instance' but added that the figure 'is to be quite differently continued, to represent a sort of Spanish sailor.' 28 Legros had settled in London in the summer of 1863, and Whistler reported to Fantin-Latour by the following February that the painting was completely changed, and included a portrait of Legros. 29 Dark, bearded and sturdy as he was, it is doubtful if Legros could be interpreted as a 'sort of Spanish sailor', so it may be that Whistler preferred to leave it as a straightforward portrait.
THE SAILOR: The sailor at right, described by Whistler in 1861 as wearing a cap, and a blue shirt with a light blue collar, has not been named.
Walter Greaves (1846-1930) told the Pennells that the sailor corresponded 'in the description' to one of the boatmen from the Greaves's boat-building yard in Chelsea; but on being shown a photograph in January 1907 Greaves was 'puzzled' because it 'did not seem to him the picture he remembered.' 30 The Pennells commented that Whistler, when he started Wapping, was living and working in Rotherhithe, and so if the sailor was indeed 'a workman from the Greaves' shipbuilding yard, Chelsea', he must have posed later, because Whistler would not have met the Greaves family before he moved to Chelsea early in 1863. 31 However. Walter Greaves' identification of the sailor may well be correct since Rossetti described the figure as 'hardly yet commenced' on 15 December 1863. 32
Whistler and Fantin-Latour saw the Royal Academy exhibition in 1859. One of the paintings was Luff, Boy by James Clarke Hook (1819-1907) (private collection), which was much praised by John Ruskin (1819-1900). It has been suggested that the composition of Wapping was influenced by Hook's picture. Whistler was certainly well aware of Hook's work in 1862 and saw him as a potential rival (see Blue and Silver: Blue Wave, Biarritz [YMSM 041]).
4: 96th Exhibition of the Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1864 (cat. no. 585).
5: Seventh Annual Exhibition, New York Artists' Fund Society, held at the Galleries of the National Academy of Design, New York, 1866 (cat. no. 360); press cutting in GUL Whistler PC I, p. 5.
6: 85th exhibition Salon de 1867, Palais des Champs Elysées, Paris, 1867 or] Exposition Universelle/ Universal Exhibition, Paris, 1867 (1st edition, cat. no. 76), (2nd edition, cat. no. 69).
9: 'Art Notes', Baltimore American and Commercial Advertiser, 18 March 1876, GUL Whistler PC 1/73.
17: Wallace, Sarah Agnes, and Frances Elma Gillespie (eds.), The Journals of Benjamin Moran 1857–1865, vol. 2, Chicago, 1949, p. 1149.
18: Dumb barges vary from narrow canal boats, which were towed by horses, to big, steel construction barges with a large open hold, towed by tugs in rafts of maybe six or more barges. We are grateful for information from Iain P. MacInnes, Dartmouth, N.S., in email to M. F. MacDonald, 19 December 2020.
19: MacInnes 2020, op. cit. See also Edgar J. Marsh, Spritsail barges of Thames and Medway, International Marine Pub. Co., 1970, p. 7.
22: Spencer 1982 [more]. MacDonald, Margaret, 'Whistler and the Thames', in MacDonald, Margaret, and Patricia de Montfort, An American in London: Whistler and the Thames, Dulwich Picture Gallery, Addison Gallery of American Art, Freer Gallery of Art, 2013-2014, pp. 18-19 (cat. no. 29).
23: Wallace, Sarah Agnes, and Frances Elma Gillespie (eds.), The Journals of Benjamin Moran 1857–1865, vol. 2, Chicago, 1949, p. 1149.
27: Ribner, Jonathan, in Lochnan, Katharine, Turner, Whistler, Monet, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto; Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, Paris; Tate Britain, London, 2004-2005 (cat. no. 26).
28: Rossetti to J. Leathart, 15 December 1863, University of British Columbia.
31: Pennell 1908, op. cit., pp. 88, 91; Pennell 1921, op. cit., pp. 119, 122, 161.
32: D. G. Rossetti to J. Leathart, 15 December 1863, University of British Columbia.
Last updated: 31st December 2020 by Margaret