The Paintings of James McNeill Whistler

YMSM 054
Grey and Silver: Chelsea Wharf

Grey and Silver: Chelsea Wharf

Artist: James McNeill Whistler
Date: 1864/1868
Collection: National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
Accession Number: 1942.9.99
Medium: oil
Support: canvas
Size: 61.0 x 46 cm (24 x 18 1/8")
Signature: none
Inscription: none
Frame: Grau-style, possibly by F. H. Grau, ca 1892

Date

Grey and Silver: Chelsea Wharf probably dates from between 1864 and 1868. 1

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

It is difficult to date, because it is a freely painted sketch, possibly painted over another painting. However, it does share some stylistic qualities with Chelsea in Ice y053 and Battersea Reach from Lindsey Houses y055.

It was first exhibited with the Society of French Artists, 1875 (cat. no. 80) as 'Chelsea Reach – Harmony in Grey'.

Images

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: 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

Chelsea in Ice, Colby College Museum
Chelsea in Ice, Colby College Museum

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, all featuring the site, 'Chelsea', have been suggested:

'Grey and Silver: Chelsea Wharf', based on the 1892 catalogue, is the generally accepted title.

Description

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

A river view, in vertical format. Several figures walk on a road, or lean on a wall by the water, in the foreground. Barges with red sails are moored by jetties at right. On the far side of the river are warehouses or factories with tall chimneys, and possibly a spoil heap, towards the left.

Site

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

Chelsea in Ice, Colby College Museum
Chelsea in Ice, Colby College Museum

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, as seen in many of Whistler's paintings of the 1860s and 1870s (Grey and Silver: Old Battersea Reach y046, Chelsea in Ice y053, Grey and Silver: Chelsea Wharf , 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, and Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Battersea Reach y119, and Nocturne: Battersea y120.

Technique

Composition

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

The rather untidy technique, with layers of dryish paint criss-crossed haphazardly, suggests that it is concealing earlier compositions, although this is not, as yet, confirmed by X-ray analysis. There have certainly been later alterations to the masts, rigging and sails, which were finally painted with very thin paint over the uneven background when it had dried.

Technique

The canvas is a fairly fine weave. The size of the canvas corresponds with that of the French 'toile de 12' (46 x 61 cm) and it may have been acquired in France.

The painting is a subtle harmony of colours, cool greys enlivened by the rusty reddish-browns of the barges moored along Chelsea Wharf. The greys of sky and water were painted quite thickly, with distinct impasto near the edge of the water. In places, the grey shows through the more thinly painted additions of the figures, boats and sails.

As in Chelsea in Ice y053 the wall of the Chelsea shore cuts across the foreground.

Conservation History

At the time of the retrospective at Goupil's in 1892 it was 'cleaned under my own supervision - and varnished.' 9

Frame

1865/1875: the style and whereabouts of the original frame are unknown. The first frame was removed during the Goupil Gallery exhibition preparations in 1892.

1892: Whistler wrote to the owner, J. G. Potter in March, saying,

‘I hope you are as pleased as I am with my new frames - at last the pictures have a dress worthy their own dignity and stateliness, Wherefore you may thank me for finally inventing them - You see it takes years to know these things - ...

I do trust you will keep the works in the frames I have put upon[ them - and so pay the little man Grau - You see I have only honours at present - and cannot afford to go round and remake the toilette of my pictures - but for the one who owns them, the sum must be of the smallest, and the advantage derived enormous - I say this because, - you would scarcely believe it - but I have met with something very like opposition, instead of gratitude, for the care I bestow upon my pictures even after they cease to be in my possession! - This however I know would not be the case with you - and indeed with the others they all ended by perceiving that the value of the works was greatly enhanced by this attention that I bestow upon them - Still there was a foolish rumour to the effect that you were opposed to all that I was doing for you!' 10

This appeal simply did not work, and Potter refused to pay for the work done by Grau. 11 Several years later, in 1894, Whistler wrote to E. G. Kennedy of Wunderlich's of this refusal : ‘Potter made a great fuss about paying for the cleaning and refused to take the one or two new frames I had put his paintings in … Mr Potter left the frames on my hands.' 12

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

However, it is possible that Potter actually left the Grau frames with D. C. Thomson at the Goupil Gallery, and he may have placed the same Grau frame back on the painting when he brokered its sale to the Peter A. B. Widener in 1895. Therefore this frame is one of three possibilities: it was made by Grau, or commissioned by Goupil following Grau’s pattern, or is an American-made frame similar to those made for E. G. Kennedy in New York. 13

History

Provenance

According to Whistler it was bought by John Gerald Potter from Whistler for £30, or no more than £40 (which suggests a fairly early purchase, possibly in the mid-late 1870s), and Potter was asking £400 for it in Paris in 1894. 14 In 1892 it was listed by Whistler as 'Chelsea Barges', in Potter's collection. 15 By 1893, Whistler was apparently under the impression that Potter was thinking of selling, and wrote to D. C. Thomson, 'You had better tell me all about the Potter business - I do hope the things will be bought here - I want nothing to remain in England - Scotland is another thing.' 16 Thomson took some of Potter's pictures to Glasgow, but this was not, apparently, a very successful expedition. Whistler complained:

'I hear that things are "very bad" in Glasgow! How did you get on? And why do you always drag about these pictures of Potters?? Why? Why? Why!!!

It annoys me very much to think that works of that distinction should be hawked in this persistent way from one end of the land to the other!' 17

When Potter asked £400 for the painting in 1894, Whistler erupted in fury:

'Now what right have you to one penny of this money? … As a typical British Art Patron - one who ... refused to pay for the frames I had made for the works themselves, it is your right … So that I make the fortune of or add to the wealth of a people who have done their best to impoverish me.' 18

It is not always clear which picture is under discussion. However, Thomson mentioned the possibility of sending 'the upright 'Battersea Reach' to New York in July 1894. 19 According to Whistler, Potter wanted to sell 'a small grey Chelsea' or 'Grey Note' for £400, and had sold it by August 1895 for between £200 and £300. 20 Grey and Silver: Chelsea Wharf was acquired at some time between 1895 and 1900 by Peter A. B. Widener (1834-1915) of Ashbourne, near Philadelphia. 21 It passed to his estate and was given by Joseph E. Widener (1872-1943) to the National Gallery of Art in 1942.

Exhibitions

It is not at all certain that this was the painting exhibited at Deschamps' Gallery in 1875. Press coverage was sparse and descriptions vague: the Globe asserted that the painting was 'indefinite in form', and the London Daily News saw in it 'only a sketch … a mere ghost of a picture … filled with mist.' 22 The Examiner was a little more helpful: 'Mr. Whistler has sent "Chelsea Reach – Harmony in Grey," painted with a drier brush than we have yet known him use, but admirably suited to produce his effect.' 23 The Glasgow Herald was almost alone in seeing it as a 'finished picture'. 24 These reviews present difficulties in identifying the picture on exhibition, for their descriptions are inconsistent: it could certainly be described as a 'sketch' painted with a 'drier brush', but it is not 'filled with mist', nor is it, by the usual standards of 1875, 'finished'. The 'drier brush' paintings containing 'mist' include Chelsea in Ice y053 and Battersea Reach from Lindsey Houses y055 but one feels that the conspicuous ice in the one, and figures in the other, would have been noticed by the art critics.

It was listed by Whistler as 'Chelsea Barges' for inclusion in his retrospective at Goupil's in 1892. 25 It was shown at Goupil's, and Whistler immediately suggested it should be borrowed for the 6th Internationale Kunst-Austellung, Munich; in fact Potter agreed to lend it to exhibitions in both Paris (for the 2nd Exhibition of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts) and Munich.. 26 However, arrangements were not finalised in time and the painting was returned to Potter. 27

Bibliography

Catalogues Raisonnés

Authored by Whistler

Catalogues 1855-1905

EXHIBITION:

COLLECTION:

Newspapers 1855-1905

Journals 1855-1905

Monographs

Books on Whistler

Books, General

Catalogues 1906-Present

COLLECTION:

EXHIBITIONS:

Journals 1906-Present

Websites

Unpublished

Other


Notes:

1: YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 54).

2: Eleventh Exhibition of the Society of French Artists, Deschamps Gallery, London, 1875 (cat. no. 80).

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

4: Nocturnes, Marines & Chevalet Pieces, Goupil Gallery, London, 1892 (cat. no. 35).

5: Whistler to J. C. Potter, [January/February 1894], GUW #13346.

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

7: 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. 69) in ordinary and deluxe edition respectively.

8: YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 54).

9: Whistler to J. G. Potter, [26/30 March 1892], #01488; see also [21 February 1894], GUW #05010.

10: Draft of letter, [26/30 March 1892], GUW #01488.

11: Goupil Gallery to Whistler, 20 May 1892, GUW #05740.

12: 4 February 1894, GUW #09715.

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

14: Whistler to Potter, [January/February 1894], GUW #13346.

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

16: [20 July 1893], GUW #08254.

17: [10 December 1893], GUW #08287.

18: Whistler to Potter, [January/February 1894], GUW #13346.

19: 26 July 1894, GUW #05810.

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

21: Catalogue of Paintings Forming the Collection of P. A. B. Widener, Ashbourne, near Philadelphia, 2 vols. Paris, 1885-1900: vol. 1, 1885, p. 115.

22: 'The Society of French Artists', Globe, London, 16 November 1875, p. 6, added that there was also another painting, ex catalogue. 'Society of French Artists', London Daily News, London, 19 November 1875, p. 3.

23: 'Art. The Society of French Artists', The Examiner, London, 20 November 1875.

24: 'Our London Correspondence. … French Artists', Glasgow Herald, Glasgow, 16 November 1875, p. 5.

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

26: Whistler to D. C. Thomson, [1/8 April 1892], GUW #08210. J. C. Potter to Whistler, 21 April 1892, GUW #05007.

27: W. Marchant to Whistler, 29 April 1892, GUW #05733.