Detail from The Canal, Amsterdam, 1889, James McNeill Whistler, The Hunterian, University of Glasgow

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Wapping

Composition

Wapping, pencil, The Hunterian
Wapping, pencil, The Hunterian
Barges, pencil, The Hunterian
Barges, pencil, The Hunterian

There are three drawings by Whistler that relate to this painting. The earliest, in pencil, are on pages in Whistler's passport, and are reproduced above. One shows a woman in dark dress and the old man in a white shirt leaning on the balcony railing, looking out over the river. The other sketch shows two barges. 1 X-rays of Wapping confirm that originally the old man was painted gazing out at the river scene beyond the balcony, with his arm apparently resting behind the girl's back. 2

Wapping, pen, Library of Congress
Wapping, pen, Library of Congress

Early in 1861, when Whistler sketched the painting for Fantin-Latour, the woman at left had been turned to face right, and the man in a white shirt sat at right, looking to left, at the woman. As described in the same letter, the old man in a white shirt was looking out of the window, and there was a sailor in the corner at right, while the woman wore a white jacket decorated with colourful arabesques and flowers. 3

The fact that in his letter Whistler twice asked Fantin-Latour not to mention anything about the picture to Jean-Désiré-Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) suggests that Whistler jealously guarded the subject matter and believed it to be highly important. Yet quite apart from the later inclusion of Alphonse Legros, Whistler's original intentions with regard to subject matter were to be radically changed.

It is clear from Whistler's description that in its early stages, and long before he put the 'finishing touches' to the group on the inn balcony in February 1864, it looked quite different. Whereas the figures now appear to sit mute and self-contained on the inn balcony, Whistler originally attempted a quite different effect. In 1861, when he had already painted the girl three times, Whistler wrote to Fantin-Latour: 'Je suis arrivé à y mettre une expression ! ... une vraie expression ... un air de dire à son matelot "Tout ça est bon mon vieux! J'en ai vu d'autres !" tu sais elle cligne de l'oeil et elle se moque de lui!' 4

It was not until later, and probably in the summer of 1863 when Alphonse Legros came to live in London, that Whistler substituted for the 'vieux en chemise blanche, celui qui regarde par la fenêtre' a portrait of Legros, who is now seen looking out of the picture rather than through the balcony window.

D. G. Rossetti described the figure on the right as an English sailor 'hardly yet commenced', and the other male figure as 'done from Alphonse Legros, though painted in from him just as he was in the first instance, is to be quite differently continued, to represent a sort of Spanish sailor. Glasses etc. will be on the table.' 5

Whistler described it as 'tout changé comme premier plan ... il y a un portrait de Legros et une tête de Jo qui sont de mes meilleurs.' 6 A week later, on 10 February 1864, it was described by Whistler's mother as 'a group on the inn balcony', which, she said, 'has yet to have the finishing touches.' 7

Several etchings from the 'Thames Set', like Black Lion Wharf [54] have one or more figures in the foreground. Three young lads sitting on Stevens' Boat Yard [56] are similar in arrangement to the group in the painting. An impression of The Little Pool [79] has triangular rigging drawn in with crayon by Whistler, similar to that in Wapping.

Technique

Wapping, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.
Wapping, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

Whistler described the difficulties of painting the figures in some detail in his letter to Fantin-Latour in 1861:

' une fille bigrement difficile a peindre! ... Tu sais je l'ai peint trois fois et je ne veux pas me fatiguer - ... C'est des cheveux les plus beaux ... d'un rouge non pas doré mais cuivré ... une peau blanche jaune ou dorée si tu veux ... Maintenant tout ça contre le jour et par conséquent dans une demie teinte attrocement difficile ... La gorge est exposée - la chemise se voit presque en entier qui est bien peinte.' 8
Translated: 'a girl who is jolly difficult to paint! ... I have painted her three times and I do not want to get tired - ... She has the most beautiful hair ... a red not golden but copper ... skin golden white or yellow if you will ... Now all that against the light and in consequence in atrociously difficult muted colours ... Her neck is exposed - her blouse can be seen almost entirely and how well it is painted.'
Frances Lathrop after Whistler, Wapping, 1867
Frances Lathrop after Whistler, Wapping, 1867

A jacket with puffed sleeves, and a patterned shawl or broad collar fastened at the waist, appear in a drawing of the painting by Francis Lathrop, but these patterns are not at all visible now. The drawing is said to date from 1867 but may have been started earlier.

Whistler experienced considerable difficulties with the painting of the figures and background, and in particular in catching the 'expression' of the woman, and the fleeting glimpses of shipping on the Thames. By this time he had already, he said, repainted the head of the woman three times, and, towards the end of his letter to Fantin-Latour, he described the painting of the background:

'Le fond ... etait difficile à ne pas y croire! Le ciel par exemple est tres vrai et cranement peint - il y en a un coin qui se voit à travers les vitraux qui est chic! - Plus pret il y a un rang de grands vaisseaux ... Il y a encore beaucoup de petits bateaux ... je t'assure que jamais ai-je entammé une chose aussi difficile - On est sur tu sais de dire que ce n'est pas fini - parce que comme les bateaux s'en vont je n'ai que juste le temps de mettre leurs valeurs en tons.' 9

Translation: 'The background … was unbelievably difficult! The sky for example is very truly and splendidly painted - there is a corner which can be seen through the window panes which is excellent! - Nearer that is a row of large boats ... There are also many small boats ... I assure you that I have never attempted such a difficult subject - it will certainly be said that it is not finished - because as the boats leave I have only just time to put in their shades of colour.'

Conservation History

In 1892 Beatrice Philip (Mrs E. W. Godwin, Mrs J. McN. Whistler) (1857-1896) enquired of an art dealer, Edward Guthrie Kennedy (1849-1932), whether there was anyone in New York who could attend to the condition of 'the Pool' about which Elsie Celeste Winans, Mrs G. McR. Hutton (1884-1966) was worried:

'Mr Whistler is going to write to Mrs Hutton. 938 Hollins St Baltimore for her picture of "the Pool" - We have heard it wants putting in order badly - but she is so frightened that it may be injured by injudicious cleaning that she will not trust it to anyone - This is of course just as dangerous - more - a great deal - for it will only get worse - What Mr Whistler is going to try and do is to persuade her to send it to him in Paris - so that it can be done - under his own direction - but supposing she is afraid of this - Could you persuade her to trust it to you - Who is the great New York cleaner?

Of course - It would have to be most carefully done.' 10

Wapping, Pennell 1908, vol. 1, repr. p. 89
Wapping, Pennell 1908, vol. 1, repr. p. 89

It was seen and described by the artist Robert Goodloe Harper Pennington (1854 or 1855-d. 1920) in 1907 as 'having cracks a quarter of an inch wide in it.' 11 In the following year, the Pennells described the paint surface of Wapping as having suffered from Whistler's incomplete technical knowledge of medium and paint:

'Whistler never was taught, few artists are, the chemistry of his trade, and some of his paintings have suffered in consequence. The Music Room and The Thames in Ice, ... are wonderfully fresh and not cracked at all. They were probably painted more directly, certainly more thinly, than the Wapping, in which the paint seems to be as thickly piled as in the Piano Picture, which is also cracked. This no doubt came from his working over them repeatedly, probably on bad grounds. He had the painting of Wapping by him four years before he exhibited it. ... Later in life, Whistler gave great attention to this matter.' 12
Wapping, photograph, 1920s
Wapping, photograph, 1920s
Wapping, photograph, framed, date unknown
Wapping, photograph, framed, date unknown

20th century photographs reveal cracks across the more thickly painted areas (the 1920s photograph is faded, so the colour balance is misleading, but the cracks are obvious). By 1980, Wapping was in a somewhat battered and neglected condition, and the catalogue raisonné commented:

'Unfortunately, the present condition of Wapping, which was deteriorating by the 1890s ... now obscures what must once have been a striking and colourful picture. ... the two male figures dressed in blue, the modelling of all the flesh tones, the wineglass and tablecloth which once must have been highly coloured in red, blue and green, are all now severely muted and darkened. A much clearer idea of the costume details and the disposition of the figures round the table can be gained from Francis Lathrop's pencil drawing of Wapping, made in 1867.' 13
Wapping, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
Wapping, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

However, the painting was carefully conserved and fully restored in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, after its acquisition in 1982, and now looks magnificent.

Frame

Wapping in Winans' villa
Wapping in Winans' villa
Wapping, photograph, framed, date unknown
Wapping, photograph, framed, date unknown

Grau-style, American, 1920s. Frame size 92.1 x 123.5 x 7.6 cm (36 1/4 x 48 5/8 x 3"). 14

Notes:

1: Passport, [May 1862/1864], GUW #12745; Passport [M.0298], pp. 43, 45.

2: Spencer 1982 [more], fig. 1.

3: [January/June 1861], GUW #08042; Wapping [M.0299].

4: Whistler to Fantin-Latour, [January/June 1861], GUW #08042.

5: Rossetti to J. Leathart, 15 December 1863, University of British Columbia.

6: Whistler to Fantin-Latour, 3 February 1864, GUW #08036.

7: A. M. Whistler to Gamble, GUW #06522.

8: [January/June 1861], GUW #08042.

9: Ibid.

10: B. Whistler to E. G. Kennedy, [22 October / November 1892], GUW #09703.

11: Pennington to J. Pennell, 1 February 1907, LC PC.

12: Pennell 1908 [more], vol. 1, p. 91.

13: YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 35).

14: Dr Sarah L. Parkerson Day, Report on frames, 2017; see also Parkerson 2007 [more].

Last updated: 31st December 2020 by Margaret