The Paintings of James McNeill Whistler

YMSM 053
Chelsea in Ice

Chelsea in Ice

Artist: James McNeill Whistler
Date: 1864/1867
Collection: Colby College Museum of Art
Accession Number: 2013.293
Medium: oil
Support: canvas
Size: 45.1 x 61.0 cm (17 3/4 x 24")
Signature: none
Inscription: none
Frame: Flat Whistler, F. H. Grau, 1887 [15.8 cm]

Date

Chelsea in Ice may have been painted in January 1864 or January 1867. 1

Chelsea in Ice, Colby College Museum of Art
Chelsea in Ice, Colby College Museum of Art

1864: It may have been painted early in 1864, when, according to Whistler's mother, Anna Matilda Whistler (1804-1881),

'during a very sharp frost of only a few days I think for two days ice was passing as we look[ed] out upon the Thames, he could not resist painting while I was shivering - at the open window - two sketches & all say are most effective, one takes in the bridge, of course they are not finished.' 2

The Times on 8 and 9 January 1864 contains numerous references to the severe frost of the previous week, particularly on the 5-7 January when there were 24 degrees of frost, the docks at Chatham were frozen and there was 'a quantity of ice in the harbour which had been floated down the stream.' 3

1867: However, over twenty years later Whistler described it as 'the Ice Picture ... (Ice in the Thames 1867).' 4 This date is also possible. January 1867 was particularly cold, with periods of deep snow and temperatures down to minus 9 degrees Fahrenheit; lakes and ponds were frozen and work on the Thames embankment was suspended. On 14 January 1867, according to The Times, 'Great masses of ice were yesterday floating up and down with the tide on the Thames.' 5

1870: Andrew McLaren Young (1913-1975) originally suggested (but later changed his mind) that this could have been painted about 26 February 1870 when the Illustrated London News described the Thames as being 'blocked with masses of ice.' 6

Images

Chelsea in Ice, Colby College Museum of Art
Chelsea in Ice, Colby College Museum of Art

Chelsea in Ice, Colby College Museum of Art
Chelsea in Ice, Colby College Museum of Art

Chelsea in Ice, F. H. Grau label
Chelsea in Ice, F. H. Grau label

Chelsea in Ice, photograph, Goupil album, 1892, GUL Whistler PH5/2
Chelsea in Ice, photograph, Goupil album, 1892, GUL Whistler PH5/2

Chelsea in Ice, photograph, n.d., GUL WPP
Chelsea in Ice, photograph, n.d., GUL WPP

Chelsea in Ice, reproduction, 1903, GUL WPP
Chelsea in Ice, reproduction, 1903, GUL WPP

Chelsea in Ice, in Мир искусства [Mir Iskusstva, 'World of Art'], vol. 9, 1903, repr. p. 64
Chelsea in Ice, in Мир искусства [Mir Iskusstva, 'World of Art'], vol. 9, 1903, repr. p. 64

Chelsea in Ice, photograph, 1980, GUL WPP
Chelsea in Ice, photograph, 1980, GUL WPP

Grey and Silver: Chelsea Wharf, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
Grey and Silver: Chelsea Wharf, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Grey and Silver: Old Battersea Reach, Art Institute of Chicago
Grey and Silver: Old Battersea Reach, Art Institute of Chicago

Battersea Reach from Lindsey Houses, The Hunterian
Battersea Reach from Lindsey Houses, The Hunterian

Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony, Freer Gallery of Art
Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony, Freer Gallery of Art

Subject

Titles

Several possible titles have been suggested:

'Chelsea in Ice' is the generally accepted title.

Description

Chelsea in Ice, Colby College Museum of Art
Chelsea in Ice, Colby College Museum of Art

A cityscape in horizontal format, looking across a river. There are wide rafts of snow and ice floating down the river. In the foreground there are people walking along the pavement by a wall above the shore, and a young leafless tree to right of centre. In the river at upper right is a steamboat making its way downriver to left. Beyond, on the far bank, are warehouses, factories, slag heaps and - at left - two factory chimneys.

Site

The view is of Battersea from Chelsea (see Grey and Silver: Old Battersea Reach y046).

Grey and Silver: Chelsea Wharf, National Gallery of Art, DC
Grey and Silver: Chelsea Wharf, National Gallery of Art, DC

Grey and Silver: Old Battersea Reach, Art Institute of Chicago
Grey and Silver: Old Battersea Reach, Art Institute of Chicago

Battersea Reach from Lindsey Houses, The Hunterian
Battersea Reach from Lindsey Houses, The Hunterian

Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony, Freer Gallery of Art
Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony, Freer Gallery of Art

The view of Battersea Reach on the river Thames, London, from Whistler's house in what is now Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, is seen in many of Whistler's paintings of the 1860s and 1870s (Grey and Silver: Old Battersea Reach y046, Grey and Silver: Chelsea Wharf y054, Battersea Reach from Lindsey Houses y055, Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony y056, Sketch for 'The Balcony' y057, and Study of Draped Figures y058), as well as in later Nocturnes such as Nocturne in Blue and Silver y113, Nocturne y114, Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Battersea Reach y119, and Nocturne: Battersea y120.

Comments

Lochnan suggested that 'the flatness of the composition, the simplification of form, the diagonal band formed by the wall, and the small foreground trees may have been suggested by the Japanese prints that Whistler was collecting.' 12 In addition, this work was compared with that of Claude Oscar Monet (1840-1926), whose Ice floes on the Seine at Bougival (Musée du Louvre) dates from 1867/1868, with the comment that Monet could have seen Whistler's The Thames in Ice y036 in Paris in 1867. 13

Comparing Chelsea in Ice y053 to George Inness's The Valley on a Gloomy Day, Justin McCann of Colby College Museum of Art blogged:

'According to [Whistler's mother's] letter, the winters in England were “penetrating” and the wintry fogs were “gloomy.” Whistler captures both sentiments in Chelsea in Ice. The grey and white color scheme give the picture a feeling of cold and gloom. Barren trees line the river bank and a steam powered passenger ship navigates through the ice that zig-zags across the river. In the distance is a grey solid mass of factories along the Battersea shore, underscoring the bleak, frigid conditions. In the foreground pedestrians stop on the Chelsea side of the river to admire the spectacle of a frozen Thames, a rare occurrence … Chelsea in Ice exemplifies Whistler’s use of atmospheric conditions in his art. He found in a wintry fog and an icy river visual effects that he could explore in his painting. Whistler wasn’t interested in registering exactly how the river looked iced over as much as he was in capturing the feeling and mood of a deep freeze that penetrated the body. The painting symbolizes a transitional moment in Whistler’s painting practice as he moved away from Realism toward Aestheticism, epitomized in his famous Nocturnes associated with the same stretch of the Thames as Chelsea in Ice. Across from Chelsea in Ice in the gallery is George Inness’ The Valley on a Gloomy Day, another work by an American painter interested in capturing the mood and tone of a day. Not only do Whistler and Inness capture the visual effects of weather, but the psychological dimensions of it as well. Whistler’s Chelsea in Ice produces the sensation of a bone-chilling day spent along the river that is experienced physically and psychologically.' 14

Technique

Technique

Chelsea in Ice, Colby College Museum of Art
Chelsea in Ice, Colby College Museum of Art

The size of the canvas is roughly that of the French 'toile de 12' (46 x 61 cm) and it may have been acquired in France.

There are signs of extensive alterations made to this painting. There were probably more figures in the foreground, to right of the central tree, and at far right. There may have been another boat or barge on the far side of the river at left. The outline of the spoil heaps, and possibly the position of the chimneys, was changed. Some of the marks may be the result of partly scraping down an earlier composition.

The vigorous brushwork and palette knife work, manipulating the creamy thick texture of the paint, produces a very vivid, fresh effect.

Conservation History

Chelsea in Ice, 1892 photograph, Goupil Album, GUL Whistler PH 5/2
Chelsea in Ice, 1892 photograph, Goupil Album, GUL Whistler PH 5/2

Chelsea in Ice, photograph, n.d., GUL WPP
Chelsea in Ice, photograph, n.d., GUL WPP

Chelsea in Ice, reproduction, 1903, GUL WPP
Chelsea in Ice, reproduction, 1903, GUL WPP

Chelsea in Ice, photograph, 1980, GUL WPP
Chelsea in Ice, photograph, 1980, GUL WPP

Chelsea in Ice, Colby College Museum of Art
Chelsea in Ice, Colby College Museum of Art

Despite its long and varied life, and despite some cracking that bears evidence to the reworking of the composition, the painting is in quite good condition.

Frame

Chelsea in Ice, Colby College Museum of Art
Chelsea in Ice, Colby College Museum of Art

The current frame, though probably not the original, is a period frame that Whistler may have placed on the canvas in the spring of 1887. On 14 March 1887 he wrote to the owner, Mme Venturi, promising the safe return of the painting after an exhibition 'in the same frame.' He then scratched out the words ‘in the same’ and replaced them with ‘it’s proper frame’, and added, 'I ... will therefore provide the frame of exquisite proportion in which the above beautiful work shall be ever after preserved.' 15 This written amendment suggests that the frame was changed.

Chelsea in Ice, F. H. Grau label
Chelsea in Ice, F. H. Grau label

This is also suggested by the placement of a Grau paper label on the verso, a practice Grau used when he first began working with Whistler, but abandoned after 1890.

The number and style of any frames on this canvas before the Grau-made frame is uncertain. There could have been a frame similar to the 1864 Whistler frames, or the missing frame could have been a Flat Whistler frame containing painted decoration. 16

History

Provenance

The first owner, Mme Venturi, had acquired it by 1887, when she agreed to lend it to the Royal Society of British Artists. 17 However it is very likely that she had owned it for some years, since she was a neighbour of Whistler's in Chelsea.

Exhibitions

When Mme Venturi agreed to lend the painting to the RBA in 1887 it was clearly with some reservations – Whistler had a tendency to keep and rework canvases lent to him for shows. He therefore drafted a semi-serious document assuring her of its safe return:

'I, J. A. McN. Whistler, grateful, do hereby declare upon my honour as a butterfly and Gentleman, ... that I have received the Ice Picture of mine (Ice in the Thames 1867) from Mme Venturi and promise to return the same upon the closing of Exhibition, S B A., unaltered and unimproved or injured & in the same it's proper frame ...

I ... will therefore provide the frame of exquisite proportion in which the above beautiful work shall be ever after preserved by the Lady, wise, brilliant, & charming, to whose loving care the Gods have entrusted the picture, that it may be preserved for Posterity, as yet another proof of her devotion to, and faith in the Master.' 18

Newspapers, however, mocked the painting: 'Chelsea in Ice is certainly grey, said the Yorkshire Post, 'but the harmony and ice must be taken on trust', while The Era suggested that the painting 'will afford ample occupation for those anxious to discover either Chelsea or the ice.' 19

Chelsea in Ice, photograph, Goupil album, 1892, GUL Whistler PH5/2
Chelsea in Ice, photograph, Goupil album, 1892, GUL Whistler PH5/2

In 1892 David Croal Thomson (1855-1930) was asked by Whistler to borrow 'little "Chelsea in ice" ' for his retrospective exhibition at Goupil's. 20 In the Goupil catalogue entry Whistler, as an ironic commentary on his work, published an excerpt from an article published ten years earlier in Knowledge. Originally intended as a general comment on works by Whistler exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery, the excerpt, 'They must surely be meant in jest', was presumably intended to emphasize the seriousness of Whistler's Chelsea in Ice. 21

Whistler obviously thought well enough of it to include a photograph in the Goupil Album of 1892, and to suggest they should borrow it for exhibition in the 6th Internationale Kunst-Ausstellung, later in the year. However, in the end it was not sent to Munich, possibly because Mme Venturi wanted it back. 22

Curiously, when Walter Greaves (1846-1930) and Henry Greaves (1843-1904) decorated Streatham Town Hall, between 1890 and 1895, Beatrice Philip (Mrs E. W. Godwin, Mrs J. McN. Whistler) (1857-1896) complained bitterly of their imitating Whistler's work, and specifically mentioned 'Another room, with an imitation of the "Fire Wheel", a "Chelsea in ice". There! I cant go on - it was like a sort of hideous Whistlerian chaos.' 23 Whistler, however, refused to take action against the Greaves brothers and told his wife, Beatrice Philip (Mrs E. W. Godwin, Mrs J. McN. Whistler) (1857-1896):

'As to the work in the Hall itself - it may not be all that is good - ... but take my word for it there must be some stuff in all that -

To have done it exacts acknowledgment - what others have done anything -

Besides they were very intelligent & nice boys ... I feel kindly about them after all.' 24

Bibliography

Catalogues Raisonnés

Authored by Whistler

Catalogues 1855-1905

Newspapers 1855-1905

Journals 1855-1905

Monographs

Books on Whistler

Books, General

Catalogues 1906-Present

EXHIBITION:

SALE:

Journals 1906-Present

Websites

Unpublished

Other


Notes:

1: YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 53).

2: A. M. Whistler to J. H. Gamble, l0-11 February 1864, GUW #06522, quoted by A. McL. Young.

3: Anon., 'The Weather', The Times , London, 8 January 1864, p. 10.

4: Whistler to E. Venturi, 14 March 1887, GUW #06001.

5: Anon., 'The Weather', The Times, London, 15 January 1867, p. 7; see also 5 January 1867, p. 10.

6: Young, A. McLaren, James McNeill Whistler, Arts Council Gallery, London, and Knoedler Galleries, New York, 1960 (cat. no. 23). He also suggested it might have been exhibited at the Society of French Artists in 1873, but this is unlikely.

7: 64th Annual Exhibition, Royal Society of British Artists, London, 1887 (cat. no. 165).

8: Whistler to E. Venturi, 14 March 1887, GUW #06001.

9: Whistler to D. C. Thomson, [4/11 January 1892], GUW #06795.

10: Nocturnes, Marines & Chevalet Pieces, Goupil Gallery, London, 1892 (cat. no. 3).

11: YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 53).

12: Exhibition catalogue London 2004 [more] (cat. no. 34).

13: Ibid. (cat. no. 35).

14: 23 January 2015, The Lantern, Colby College Museum of Art.

15: 14 March 1887, GUW #06001.

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

17: Whistler to Mme Venturi, 14 March 1887, GUW #06001

18: 14 March 1887, GUW #06001.

19: Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, Leeds, 2 April 1887, p. 6; 'Sensation in Suffolk Street', The Era, London, 9 April 1887, p. 7.

20: 21 February [1892], GUW #08212.

21: Anon., 'The Grosvenor Gallery', Knowledge: An Illustrated Magazine of Science …', no. 32, 9 June 1882, pp. 17-18. See also Getscher 1986 [more], p. 191, J. 101.

22: Whistler to D. C. Thomson, [1/8 April 1892], GUW #08210.

23: [26 October 1895], GUW #06628; see Pocock 1970 [more], pp. 129-30.

24: J. McN. Whistler to B. Whistler, [27/30 October 1895], GUW #06629.