The Paintings of James McNeill Whistler

YMSM 033
Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge

Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge

Artist: James McNeill Whistler
Date: 1862/1865
Collection: Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, MA
Accession Number: 1928.55
Medium: oil
Support: canvas mounted on masonite
Size: 63.8 x 76 cm (25 1/8 x 29 15/16")
Signature: none
Inscription: none

Date

Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge was commissioned in 1859 and completed by 1865.

Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge , Addison Gallery of American Art
Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge , Addison Gallery of American Art

1859: Whistler was commissioned by Alexander Constantine Ionides (1810-1890) to paint Old Battersea Bridge after the Royal Academy show of 1859. 1 However, it is not clear exactly when Whistler started to paint it.

Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge, X-ray, detail
Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge, X-ray, detail

1861: An X-ray of Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge shows that it was painted over a self-portrait, which may have dated from 1861 or 1862, judging from Whistler's appearance.

1862: In July, George du Maurier (1834-1896) said that Whistler was 'painting river pictures for the Greeks'. 2 The 'Greeks' included the Ionides family, George John Cavafy (1805-1891), George Coronio (1831-1895) and his wife Aglaia Coronio (1834-1906).

The Last of Old Westminster, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
The Last of Old Westminster, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The 'river pictures' included The Last of Old Westminster y039, which is dated '1862', and others could have been Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge and Battersea Reach y045. Later in 1862 Whistler mentioned commissions that he hoped to complete before the Royal Academy exhibition in the following year. 3 He may have worked on Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge over the winter of 1862-1863.

1863: To the Royal Academy of Arts Whistler sent The Last of Old Westminster y039, which in subject and technique might be considered a pair with Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge, but the latter was not submitted. Another Thames subject, Grey and Silver: Old Battersea Reach y046, although signed '1863', was not exhibited until 1867. Whistler may also have been working on Battersea Reach y045, which was sold at some time to George John Cavafy.

1864: Recent paintings were mentioned by Whistler to Ignace-Henri-Jean-Théodore Fantin-Latour (1836-1904):

'J'ai fait aussi deux petits tableaux de la Tamise - un vieux pont, et un effet de brouillard - Je les ai trouvé bien au moment où je les ai terminé mais maintenant ils ne me plaisent pas beaucoup.' 4 Translation: 'I have also done two little pictures of the Thames - an old bridge, and an effect of fog - I thought they were all right when I finished them but now I am not satisfied with them.'

Neither Battersea Reach at 50.8 x 76.2 cm, Grey and Silver: Old Battersea Reach at 50.9 x 68.6 cm, Battersea Reach from Lindsey Houses y055 at 51.3 x 76.5 cm, nor Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge, at 63.5 x 76.2 cm, are particularly 'petit'. Chelsea in Ice y053 (44.7 x 61.0 cm) is a good candidate for the 'effet de brouillard', and Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge undoubtedly shows 'un vieux pont'.

Yet another possible date for Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge is suggested by a review of the 1865 Royal Academy exhibition in the Fortnightly Review, which states: 'one seems to be looking back right into last November, through a little square in the Academy walls.’ 5 Now this might simply imply that the grey skies of Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge look like a cold November day, but it might also reflect inside knowledge that the picture was being painted in November 1864.

1865: Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge was certainly completed by May 1865 when it was first exhibited at the Royal Academy. 6 Whistler also had it photographed by Cundall & Co. at this time. 7

Images

Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge, Addison Gallery of American Art
Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge, Addison Gallery of American Art

Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge, photograph
Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge, photograph

Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge, X-ray, detail
Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge, X-ray, detail

The Last of Old Westminster, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
The Last of Old Westminster, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Subject

Titles

Several possible titles have been suggested:

Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge, based on the Goupil title of 1892, with the punctuation altered to conform to other titles, is the generally accepted title.

Description

Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge, Addison Gallery of American Art
Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge, Addison Gallery of American Art

A riverscape, in horizontal format. In the foreground at lower left several workmen stand on the shore by a small boat. At right, several more skiffs are pulled up on the beach. On the river, close to the shore at right, is a loaded barge. In the middle distance a long wooden bridge crosses the river, busy with people and traffic, rising to a high point towards the right, and then down to the south bank of the Thames. There are buildings on the far bank: warehouses and factories, with a tall chimney to left of centre, and, on the horizon at right, the silhouette of a great building.

Site

Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge shows the view down the river Thames from Whistler's house at 7 Lindsey Row, Chelsea, with the factories of Battersea seen across the river and the Crystal Palace on the horizon.

Battersea Bridge crosses the river Thames between Chelsea and Battersea. Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge is the earliest oil painting by Whistler depicting the whole bridge. From Lindsey Row he looked south across the river Thames, with the bridge to left. Small boats landed on the shore below his house – the Greaves boatyard and Druce, a coal merchant, were based there – and barges unloaded at the jetties. The factories and parks of Battersea were across the river.

The old timber Battersea Bridge dated back to 1771-1772, and was built by John Philips under the direction of Henry Holland. By the middle of the 19th century it was decaying and badly battered. A contemporary tourist guide described it as ‘coarse, unseemly and inconvenient in character’. 14 In 1879 it was described as 'one of the old-fashioned timber structures, which will before long have to be removed and a new bridge built in its place.' 15 The old bridge was closed to traffic in 1883 and demolished in 1890. Sir Joseph Bazalgette's bridge was built to replace it between 1886 and 1890.

Between 1859 and 1879 Whistler portrayed the old bridge in drawings, etchings, lithographs, lithotints, paintings, as well as on a folding screen and on a wall in his house in Chelsea. Whistler's studies were drawn from either a boat, the shore, or a jetty near his house on Lindsey Row.

Etchings – Under Old Battersea Bridge [168] and Old Battersea Bridge [188] – focus on the massive piers of the bridge. Single piles supporting a section of bridge (making a T-shaped composition) appear in several drawings (The new Albert Bridge, seen through old Battersea Bridge m0480, A span of old Battersea Bridge m0481, Old Battersea Bridge m0482 and Nocturne: Battersea Bridge m0485), and these also relate to Blue and Silver: Screen, with Old Battersea Bridge y139. The most famous of the T-shaped compositions is the oil painting Nocturne: Blue and Gold - Old Battersea Bridge y140, which dates from the early 1870s, and reflects the influence of oriental prints.

Two chalk drawings – Old Battersea Bridge m0700 and The Tall Bridge m0701, dating from 1878 – are studies for lithographs, The Broad Bridge c011 and The Tall Bridge c012 respectively.

The whole bridge is seen again, rather fuzzily, in another lithograph, Old Battersea Bridge, No. 2 c013, and finally in Old Battersea Bridge c018 (dating from 1879 and 1887). The latter was drawn from a boat at high tide, when the water conceals much of the piers. Similarly, the high tide conceals the considerable height of the piles in the oil painting under discussion, Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge.

Technique

Composition

Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge, X-ray, detail
Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge, X-ray, detail

Possibly lacking the money, time, or inclination to buy a new canvas of suitable dimensions, Whistler turned an old one on its side, and painted right across his own self-portrait. An X-ray shows the self-portrait beneath the barge and water on the right. 16

The X-ray is discussed in a blog entry by Margaret MacDonald and Nadine Loach as follows:

'Whistler’s oil paintings of the Thames, combining closely observed realistic views, expressive brushwork and atmospheric colour, reward close examination. However, they can also conceal surprises, the ghostly records of earlier work. X-rays of two paintings by Whistler have resulted in a remarkable discovery. The paintings are Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge (Addison Gallery of American Art) and The Last of Old Westminster (Boston Museum of Fine Arts).

It has long been known, from an X-ray, that there is a self-portrait of the artist, painted at right angles to the Thames riverscape, under Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge.

It shows Whistler at work, painting with brush in hand, but was left unfinished and partly rubbed down. Nevertheless it is a vivid portrayal of the young artist, and was probably painted either in Paris or – more likely – in London. Either he was not satisfied with the portrait or he needed a canvas to start the painting Old Battersea Bridge, ... If the Bridge is looked at under raking light, traces of the ghostly Whistler can still be seen.

The Last of Old Westminster was also painted over a portrait, that of a seated woman, possibly a woman reading, which was also painted at right angles to the bridge, and partly rubbed down. ...

Although it is difficult to be certain, the woman, as seen in the x-ray, looks like Whistler’s Irish model Joanna Hiffernan. A detail from a drypoint portrait of ‘Jo’, reversed, is illustrated below for comparison.

The two portraits could be considered a pair: they are close in size, Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge being 63.5 x 76.2 cm and The Last of Old Westminster, slightly different in proportion, at 60.96 x 78.1 cm. It is possible that they recorded a significant stage in the relationship between artist and model, as partners in the creation of works of art.

However, either these intimate portraits were sacrificed in order to make way for more saleable paintings of the river Thames, or Whistler simply felt that the portraits were not working out. Despite his close relationship with Jo, his model, mistress and partner, or perhaps because of it, Whistler may have felt that he could not complete, hang or exhibit two such personal images. And so they were sacrificed for two immensely saleable, exhibitable – and very beautiful – paintings of Thames bridges.' 17

Technique

Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge, Addison Gallery of American Art
Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge, Addison Gallery of American Art

It is painted fairly thickly in muted colours (mostly shades of brown and greyish blue) on a fine weave canvas. There are some pentimenti: a small boat on the shore to right of centre has been painted out, and there are signs of alterations around the figures at left. The details of the distant city, the piles of the bridge and the passers-by thereon, as well as the workmen in the foreground, are painted with what was, for Whistler, exceptional care. The brushstrokes of the earlier self-portrait, despite it having been rubbed down, are at times visible, complicating the textures of the Thames painting.

Conservation History

Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge, photograph, ca 1925
Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge, photograph, ca 1925

It was painted on canvas, which was subsequently mounted on prestwood.

History

Provenance

According to Lucas (Luke) Alexander Ionides (1837-1924), it was commissioned by his father, Alexander Constantine Ionides, shortly after the Royal Academy show of 1859. 18 Whistler later noted among Ionides' transactions: 'Battersea Bridge - paid 30 gs sold £600'. 19 It passed by family descent to Alexander Ionides (1840-1898). 20 On 17 March 1894 the London art dealer, David Croal Thomson, wrote to Whistler:

'You will be interested to learn that Mr A. A. Ionides has sold to us your picture of 'Old Battersea Bridge' & we gave him a cheque for four hundred guineas. I fear he is very hard pressed at the present for he spoke of getting rid of his whole house & its contents.' 21

Whistler replied:

'Many thanks for your letter - Curiously enough I am in correspondence (!) with Alexander Ionides about another matter so that I can write and ask to borrow that picture for the Antwerp Exhibition - when he will have to tell me himself! So you need never say anything about your communication -

I must say I can never understand the ways of your "House" in their dealings with my pictures - You buy the Battersea Bridge, and wise you are, in giving £400 - You ought certainly to get 1200 - at least …

Now that you own the Battersea Bridge - will you not lend it for the Exhibition at Antwerp? - You might have as good a chance of selling it there as anywhere - & perhaps better for I understand that it is to be a very swell affair.' 22

When Thomson refused to hand over all the relevant sales information, Whistler was indignant:

'I have a perfect right to ask you, as director of Messrs Goupils business in London, any question about the sale of pictures of mine that are put into your hands - and very curious it would appear if Messrs Goupil's Director made any mystery about it! - Wherefore I ask you again for the name of the purchaser of my "Old Battersea Bridge" - and what he paid for it? - Why should Messrs Goupil try to hide from me the whereabouts of pictures of mine they have sold - as though the transaction were a nefarious one!!' 23

He followed up by writing sarcastically to Ionides: 'the Battersea Bridge I dont know at the moment whether you got 500 or [800?]. You gave me the [old/odd?] £30 for it … Pretty devilish well you have all done with these … cheap excentricities of mine.' 24

According to Falk, D. C. Thomson went to Berlin, hoping to sell the painting to the German Government, but before he could do this, Edmund Davis had bought it. 25

Exhibitions

1865: Royal Academy: The Saturday Review praised Old Battersea Bridge to the skies, which was more or less where it was hung:

‘He has a landscape, however – all English grey and damp, in place of Oriental brightness … This view of Old Battersea Bridge has nothing to equal it here – little like it, except Mr. Mason’s work - in its palpable and delightful truth of tone. It is what every landscape should be, rather an inlet into nature through a frame than what we commonly mean by a picture.’ 26

This response – and the comparison with the work of the Rome-based landscape painter George Mason (1818–1872) – was echoed in the Fortnightly Review:

‘The “View of Old Battersea Bridge,” … appears to deserve being classed with Mr. Mason’s work in regard to its tone. There is no splendour about it, hardly even beauty in the grays and browns which almost compose the picture, any more than in the long line of the bridge which crosses the left, or the bank edged with its common-place buildings and chimneys beyond; but it is all the more remarkable for the singular amount of effect which the artist has attained from such unpromising materials. So true are the gradations, so correct the relative tone fixed on for each object, so unaffected the arrangement of the boats, the bridge, and the shore, that one seems to be looking back right into last November, through a little square in the Academy walls. Yet there is no illusion; nothing of the disagreeable dioramic quality, possessed by the interesting scenes from South America, by Mr. Church (exhibited at McLean’s gallery in the Haymarket); the art which is so high as to conceal art, - as in some landscapes by Rembrandt – is excellently illustrated by the painter’s modest truth and mastery over the proper resources of the oil-colourist.’ 27

The Daily Telegraph also linked Mason and Whistler for rendering ‘the feeling of certain poetical moments’ and for their ‘originality … charm of tone or poetry of feeling.’ 28 Mason showed three landscapes, including The Cast Shoe, which shares something of the same restrained harmony of subdued colour as Whistler’s more ambitious panorama. 29 Neither, however, approached the vivid theatricality of Whistler’s fellow-countryman’s panorama - Heart of the Andes by Frederick Edwin Church (1826-1900). 30

While critical of Whistler’s Asian subjects and American ancestry, the Daily Telegraph yet considered Old Battersea Bridge ‘by far the most remarkable landscape in the room’:

‘Here the artist has condescended to employ his magical sense of tone on an English scene, and to carry his work at least so far that it combines unity of sentiment and meaning with what he never fails in, harmony of colour. The skill with which the boats, the bridge, and the line of buildings on the river-side are so used as to give value to elements which separately would appear almost without pictorial capability, is not more remarkable than the effect of air and space.’ 31

There were few landscapes exhibited in the Royal Academy in that year, which perhaps helped Whistler's to stand out. His RA exhibits in 1865 show a range of subject matter, and reveal the growing influence of Asian art. ‘Old Battersea Bridge’ hung in the Middle Room, a Japanese subject, ‘The golden screen’ appropriately hung in the East Room; and a portrait of Joanna Hiffernan (b. ca 1843-d.1886), ‘The little white girl’, hung with a painting called ‘The Scarf’ (another Asian subject) in the North Room. 32

1867: Paris. Whistler was not invited to exhibit in the British section at the Exposition Universelle in Paris, his work was poorly hung and disappointingly received in the American section and he was furious.

'For Gods sake what is all this about my pictures in the entry! - Do see that scoundrel and if they are not to be changed, make at least a scene - tell him from me what a d—d fool he is … Have the pictures all taken away if you can - I won't have them hung where they are … how did the Yankee manage to swindle me in this way - Do like a good fellow let me know at once - Could not you see Beckwith and represent to him something of this - and at any rate say that they have in this way actually thrown away their only chance of having an artist among them.' 33

His works were ill-displayed in what Whistler later complained was a 'corridor where they have been more or less damned by every body', but which presumably had its compensations. 34

1883: Galerie Georges Petit. Many years later, in 1883, the painting was again shown in Paris, when Georges Petit (1856-1920) exhibited a large panel of Whistler's work including the Thames painting, which was shown under the title 'Harmonie en gris et brun'; it was described by Alfred de Lostalot (1837-1909) as 'une vue magistrale de rivière, avec pont de bois, fabriques dans le lointain, et, au premier plan, un groupe d'ouvriers; le tout excellemment peint et fort visible à l'oeil nu.' 35

1892: Goupil Gallery, London. The manager of the Goupil Gallery, David Croal Thomson (1855-1930), described the hanging of Whistler's retrospective exhibition, Nocturnes, Marines & Chevalet Pieces, to the artist:

'At the end of the gallery are the Miss Alexander[,] Battersea Bridge & Chelsea Battersea reach being on each side … Battersea Bridge (Mr Ionides') is perhaps my own favourite - it & the Harmony No. III of Mr Huths which is in the smaller room. … To day the public are crowding in (I am writing this during a lull at lunch time) willing to admire & mostly doing so - Mr Whistler is becoming the fashion at least it is becoming the correct thing to pretend to admire him

What a dreadful thing it is that people cannot learn more quickly.' 36

In the entry for Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge in the 1892 catalogue Whistler included a quotation from a letter to the Pall Mall Gazette dating from the previous year, 'Nor can I imagine any one acquainted with Mr. Whistler's works speaking of any of them as "completed".' 37 Presumably Whistler meant the painting to contradict this statement. Fortunately the Pall Mall did not take offense: their critic commented:

'How finely, too, Mr. Whistler can draw in a light which defines every object may be seen from the "Old Chelsea [sic] Bridge" … Those who are not of the extreme Whistlerian cult will regret that the collection does not contain more after this kind. Still it is a notable show, and will lead to the revision of some of the rash judgements which Mr. Whistler has in his playful manner reproduced in his catalogue for the encouragement of critics.' 38

The painting was only occasionally mentioned in reviews (figure subjects tended to have more coverage), though 'An Enthusiast' commended it highly in The Pictorial World of 26 March 1892:

'To enjoy Mr. Whistler's work one must have learnt to look at nature from a pictorial point of view, to look at art with reference to nature, and not to other pictures. Then will the greatness be apparent of such exquisite works of art as "Old Battersea Bridge", with its brown and silver harmonies.' 39

With the exhibition still on, Whistler asked Thomson (as soon as he knew that Ionides had sold it) if he could borrow it for a major exhibition in Munich, but this did not come to pass. 40 And he also suggested it to Edward Guthrie Kennedy (1849-1932) for the World's Columbian Exposition, Department of Fine Arts, Chicago, 1893. 41 Again, this did not happen.

Bibliography

Catalogues Raisonnés

Authored by Whistler

Catalogues 1855-1905

Newspapers 1855-1905

Journals 1855-1905

Monographs

Books on Whistler

Books, General

Catalogues 1906-Present

A complete list of the painting’s in-house exhibitions at the Addison Gallery of American Art can be found on the Addison Gallery website at http://accessaddison.andover.edu.

Journals 1906-Present

Websites

Unpublished

Other


Notes:

1: Ionides 1924 [more], at p. 40.

2: Du Maurier 1951 [more], p. 160.

3: Whistler to H. Fantin-Latour, [12/19 November 1862], GUW #07952.

4: Whistler to Fantin-Latour, 4 January-3 February 1864, GUW #08036.

5: Palgrave 1865 [more], at pp. 665-66.

6: 97th Exhibition of the Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1865 (cat. no. 343).

7: Cundall & Co., invoice, [30 September 1865], GUW #00765.

8: 97th Exhibition of the Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1865 (cat. no. 343).

9: Exposition Internationale de Peinture, Galerie George Petit, Paris, 1883 (cat. no. 6).

10: Nocturnes, Marines & Chevalet Pieces, Goupil Gallery, London, 1892 (cat. no. 31).

11: 78th Exhibition of the Royal Scottish Academy of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh, 1904 (cat. no. 276).

12: Memorial Exhibition of the Works of the late James McNeill Whistler, First President of The International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers, New Gallery, Regent Street, London, 1905 (cat. no. 17) in ordinary and deluxe edition respectively.

13: YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 33).

14: Hall & Hall 1859 [more], pp. 397-400, 404.

15: Anon., 'Freeing the Bridges', The Times, London, 24 May 1879, p. 12.

16: MacDonald & de Montfort 2013 [more], pp. 20-22.

17: MacDonald, Margaret and Nadine Loach, 'Whistler's Ghosts', James McNeill Whistler and his Art, A blog about James McNeill Whistler, March 2014, jmcnwhistler.wordpress.com/2014/03.

18: Ionides 1924 [more], at pp. 275-76.

19: [24/31 July 1895] to William McNeill Whistler, GUW #07017.

20: Whistler to D. C. Thomson, 29 February [1892], GUW #08213.

21: GUW #05804.

22: [18 March 1894], GUW #08272.

23: 15 August [1895], GUW #08306.

24: Whistler to Ionides, [15 August 1895], GUW #02364.

25: Falk 1938 [more], p. 334.

26: [P. T. Palgrave], Saturday Review, London, 3 June 1865, vol. 19, p. 665; press cutting in GUL MS Whistler PC 1/19.

27: ‘English Pictures in 1865’, Fortnightly Review, London, vol. 1, 1865, pp. 665-66.

28: ‘Royal Academy Exhibition’, Daily Telegraph, London, 16 May 1865.

29: Royal Academy 1865 (cat. no. 31) ‘The Gander’; (cat. no. 229) ‘The Goose; (cat. no. 240) ‘The Cast Shoe' (Tate, Acc. No. N01388).

30: 1859, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Margaret E. Dows, 09.95. Church’s painting at 168 x 302.9 cm was nearly four times the size of Whistler’s.

31: Daily Telegraph, London, 11 May 1865; press cutting in GUL MS Whistler PC1/15.

32: MacDonald, Margaret F., 'Whistler and the Thames', An American in London. Whistler and the Thames, Dulwich Picture Gallery, Addison Gallery of American Art, Freer Gallery of Art, 2013-14, pp. 20-22.

33: Whistler to G. A. Lucas, [6 April 1867], GUW #09192; See GUW #09192, and Pennell 1908 [more], vol. 1, pp. 139-41.

34: Whistler to G. A. Lucas, 20 November 1867, GUW #09194.

35: Lostalot 1883 [more], at p. 80.

36: 19 March 1892, GUW #05705.

37: Nocturnes, Marines & Chevalet Pieces, Goupil Gallery, London, 1892 (cat. no. 31), quoting 'Occasional Notes', Pall Mall Gazette, 1 August 1891, p. 2.

38: 'The Whistler Show', Pall Mall Gazette, London, 19 March 1892; press cutting in GUL Whistler PC 13/20.

39: Press cutting in GUL Whistler PC 13/23.

40: [1/8 April 1892], GUW #08210.

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