The Paintings of James McNeill Whistler

YMSM 065
Sea and Rain

Sea and Rain

Artist: James McNeill Whistler
Date: 1865
Collection: Museum of Art, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI
Accession Number: 1955/1.89
Medium: oil
Support: canvas
Size: 50.8 x 72.7 cm (20 x 28 5/8")
Signature: 'Whistler. 65.'
Inscription: see above

Date

Sea and Rain is dated '65' on the canvas, and was painted during Whistler's stay in Trouville, probably between October and November 1865. 1

Sea and Rain, Museum of Art, University of Michigan
Sea and Rain, Museum of Art, University of Michigan

On 20 October 1865 Whistler wrote to Lucas (Luke) Alexander Ionides (1837-1924) from Trouville, 'I am staying here to finish two or three sea pieces which I wish to bring back with me - I believe they will be fine - and worth quite anything of the kind I have ever done.' 2 On 26 October Whistler told Ionides that he planned to stay until about 10 November 1865, adding, 'My pictures I think you will like very much - The Sea is splendid at this moment but I am anxious to get back.' 3

Sea and Rain is very similar in composition and treatment to another Trouville seascape of 1865, Harmony in Blue and Silver: Trouville y064.

Sea and Rain was seen by William Michael Rossetti (1829-1919) on 31 March 1867, when he recommended Whistler to submit it to the Royal Academy. 4 Whistler apparently agreed, and it was exhibited at the 99th Exhibition of the Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1867 (cat. no. 670) as 'Sea and Rain'.

Images

Sea and Rain, Museum of Art, University of Michigan
Sea and Rain, Museum of Art, University of Michigan

Harmony in Blue and Silver: Trouville, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Harmony in Blue and Silver: Trouville, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Subject

Titles

Only one possible alternative has been suggested:

On 26 April 1895 Whistler wrote to David Croal Thomson (1855-1930), 'the marine picture is not "Courbet on the shore." ... The present little sea piece used to be called as well as I remember: "Sea and Rain".' 9

'Sea and Rain' is the original and preferred title.

Description

Sea and Rain, Museum of Art, University of Michigan
Sea and Rain, Museum of Art, University of Michigan

A beach scene in horizontal format. A man stands at left on the still damp sands. Waves break far out on the beach. The sea is a pale blue/grey, under an even paler blue and grey sky.

The description by George Moore (1852-1933) of the colour, written in 1895, is not entirely consistent with the painting's present appearance:

'A pale grey is the sky, with snatches of blue showing through, and the sea is a pale brown with waves far away faintly and sadly curling. A little blue figure stands between the sand and the sea ... of the most exquisite blue imaginable, lighting up the entire picture.' 10

Site

Trouville, a town, port, and popular tourist destination on the coast of France. Whistler wrote from the Hotel du Bras d'Or, Trouville, to Lucas Ionides, 'This is a charming place - although now the season is quite over and every one has left - but the effects of sea and sky are finer than during the milder weather.' 11

Sitter

Unknown. According to Whistler 'the marine picture is not "Courbet on the shore." ' 12

Sea and Rain, Museum of Art, University of Michigan
Sea and Rain, Museum of Art, University of Michigan

Harmony in Blue and Silver: Trouville, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Harmony in Blue and Silver: Trouville, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Jean-Désiré-Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) was with Whistler at Trouville and is the figure in Harmony in Blue and Silver: Trouville y064, but not, apparently, in Sea and Rain.

Technique

Composition

Sea and Rain, Museum of Art, University of Michigan
Sea and Rain, Museum of Art, University of Michigan

Harmony in Blue and Silver: Trouville, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Harmony in Blue and Silver: Trouville, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

The composition is almost identical to that in Harmony in Blue and Silver: Trouville y064.

Technique

Sea and Rain, Museum of Art, University of Michigan
Sea and Rain, Museum of Art, University of Michigan

It was painted on fine canvas. The size of the canvas, like that of Blue and Silver: Trouville y066, corresponds fairly closely with that of the French 'toile de vingt' (73 x 50 cm, marine) and it was probably acquired in France.

According to Nesta Spink the canvas has a white ground and the pigments were limited to cobalt blue, iron-oxide yellow, vermilion and bone black, mixed with white lead or calcium carbonate. 13 The paint surface is well worked, matt, with very little impasto. The effect of the pale blue and ochre beach, punctuated by the small grey figure, is luminous and atmospheric. The figure was originally 7 mm (¼") to the left.

The University of Michigan website comments:

'Although Whistler had embraced the tenets of Realism early in his career, by 1865 he had begun to evolve his own painting style that departed from the vigorous brushwork and heavy impasto of Courbet's example. This work, painted in the older artist's company, exhibits Whistler's characteristic thin veils of paint that evoke the atmosphere along the coastline rather than minutely describe it. The presence of the man implies no narrative story but is a precisely placed accent within the composition. Whistler's credo of "art for art's sake" has already shaped how he portrays a cloudy day at a summer retreat.' 14

Conservation History

Unknown.

Frame

Whistler suggested that his picture restorer, Stephen Richards (1844-1900), should look at it, and Frederick Henry Grau (1859-1892) reglaze it, for exhibition in 1892, but it is not known if anything was done at that time. 15

History

Provenance

According to Whistler he originally sold it to 'Aleco' (Alexander Ionides) for £20.0.0 or £30.0.0. 16

It was exhibited and for sale at Goupil's in London in 1895 (cat. no. 12). On 24 April 1895 Whistler wrote to David Croal Thomson (1855-1930) about a prospective purchaser, 'You had better tell the gentleman at once that the marine picture ... used to be called as well as I remember: "Sea and Rain".' 17 In July George Moore (1852-1933) wrote that it the picture, then in the Goupil Gallery, was 'a rare bargain' at £300.0.0. 18 Whistler noted that the price was actually 300 gns. 19 The New York dealer, Edward Guthrie Kennedy (1849-1932), wrote to Whistler in September, 'The "Sea and rain" is very fine.' 20

It was probably bought from the Goupil Gallery between 1895 and 1897 by Alexander Young (1828–1907) and sold by him in 1905. Mrs Parker, then Miss Watson, finally bought it at the suggestion of Charles Lang Freer (1856-1919), on 15 November 1906, for $9000. 21 On the death of her husband, it passed under the provisions of Mrs Parker's will to the University of Michigan.

Exhibitions

On 31 March 1867 William Michael Rossetti (1829-1919) saw the paintings that Whistler was considering sending to the RA, and noted, 'I rather recommended him to select the largest of these, which he regards with predilection, of a grey sea and a very grey sky.' 22 It was accepted by the RA, and hung on the lowest level, as Whistler told Lucas Ionides, 'My pictures are pretty well hung at the Academy only on a crowded day cannot be seen because of the crinolines.' 23

Frederick George Stephens (1828-1907) commended it 'to the wise', suggesting that others would not understand it. 24 Philip Gilbert Hamerton (1834-1894) described it as impossible to describe,

'Grey sky, gray sea, gray wet sand. Some touches of white to indicate breakers, some birds, a figure lightly indicated. Materially there is nothing in it, mentally there is an impression of infinite dreariness … if we grant to painting the wider function of awakening or reviving impressions of any kind, and by any means in its power, then such work as this is not only art, but art entirely fulfilling its duties to the world.' 25

However, several other newspapers appeared perfectly happy with it. 26 An approving description of the painting appeared in a press cutting kept by the artist in 1867:

'Earth, air, and sea repeated by three splashes on the canvas, a splash to an element ... The object ... is to show how the sea looks under a steady, unbroken shower. The streaming pour of rain slides down upon the water, smoothing out all form, washing all keenness from the wave – almost all substance away from everything. Thin grey veils of vapour, damp stream of mist, fill the air and blind the sight, and the result is a pervading liquid, dense, transparency – an aerial effect for which, in truth, we can appeal to no surer witness than Whistler's canvas.' 27

The Times art critic, in a generally dismissive review of Whistler's exhibits at the Grosvenor in 1878, described what appears to be this painting: ' "Harmony in blue and yellow," a broad expanse of sand with a suggestion of a man standing on it'. 28 Henry Blackburn (1830-1897) mentioned it as one of a group of 'landscapes of great subtlety and charm passed too lightly by the majority of visitors.' 29

Sea and Rain may have been the 'Harmonie en bleu et argent' exhibited in Paris in 1883 (cat. no. 4) and described by a journalist as 'Mer bleue où se mirent les nuages, azur du ciel, ainsi que l'argent des autres nuages dans les vagues qui viennent lécher la plage. Effet encore tendre.' 30 However, there is no mention of the figure, and the description also fits Blue and Silver: Trouville y066.

Whistler retained his regard for this painting. On 14 February 1892 he asked David Croal Thomson (1855-1930) to request the loan of Sea and Rain from Ionides for his retrospective exhibition at the Goupil Gallery; it was, Whistler said, 'most important.' 31 However, it was not exhibited at that time, though three years later it was included in the Goupil exhibition of the Ionides collection. George Moore implied that he was answering some criticism of Whistler's more recent work, when he commented in 1895 on Sea and Rain y065:

'The Seapiece by Whistler ... is apparently very slight ... [yet] the epithet "slight" is in my opinion, inapplicable to this picture; I should say that it was fundamental, profound. It was painted at a time when Mr. Whistler had not ceased to think and to feel deeply, and the expression he has given to that receding tide haunts me ... It is in my opinion an incomparable work of art.' 32

It was received enthusiastically in Glasgow in 1897: 'in the large gallery a Whistler Sea and Rain may be said to dominate the whole wall on that side, for the eye instinctively rests upon it', wrote the art critic of the Dundee Courier on 5 February.

Bibliography

Catalogues Raisonnés

Authored by Whistler

Catalogues 1855-1905

Newspapers 1855-1905

Journals 1855-1905

Monographs

Books on Whistler

Books, General

Catalogues 1906-Present

Journals 1906-Present

Websites

Unpublished

Other


Notes:

1: YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 65); see also Pennell 1908 [more], vol. 1, pp. 137, 144; vol. 2, p. 127.

2: GUW #11310.

3: GUW #11311.

4: Rossetti 1903 [more], pp. 222, 228.

5: 99th Exhibition of the Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1867 (cat. no. 670).

6: Exposition Internationale de Peinture, Galerie George Petit, Paris, 1883 (cat. no. 4).

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. 3) in ordinary and deluxe editions, respectively.

8: YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 65).

9: [24 April 1895], GUW #08304.

10: George Moore, 'The End of the Season', Speaker, 27 July 1895, p. 98.

11: 20 October 1865, GUW #11310.

12: Whistler to D. C. Thomson, [24 April 1895], GUW #08304

13: Spink (checklist, Spink, Nesta, Whistler: The Later Years, University of Michigan Art Gallery, Ann Arbor, 1978).

14: University of Michigan website at http://quod.lib.umich.edu.

15: Whistler to D. C. Thomson, 10 March [1892], GUW #08358.

16: Letter to E. G. Kennedy, 5 August [1895], GUW #09733; to D. C. Thomson, 15 August [1895], GUW #08306; and to H. E. Whistler, [19 August 1895], GUW #06733.

17: GUW #08304.

18: Moore, George, 'The End of the Season', Speaker, 27 July 1895, p. 98.

19: Whistler to D. C. Thomson, [9 August 1895], GUW #08363.

20: 30 August 1895, 30 August-15 September 1895, GUW #07259.

21: I. S. Gardner Museum records.

22: Rossetti 1903 [more], pp. 222, 228.

23: [May/June 1867], GUW #10827.

24: Stephens, F. G., 'Fine Arts. Royal Academy', The Athenaeum, 18 May 1867.

25: Hamerton 1867 [more], at p. 691.

26: For example, Illustrated Times, London, 8 June 1867, p. 11; The Atlas, 6 July 1867, pp. 5-6.

27: Listed as 'Daily Telegraph', 31 May 1867; press cutting in GUL Whistler PC1, p. 27.

28: 'The Grosvenor Gallery,' The Times, London, 2 May 1878, p. 7.

29: Blackburn 1878 [more], p. 20.

30: [1883], unidentified press cutting in GUL Whistler PC 7, p. 15.

31: GUW #08216; 10 March [1892], GUW #08358.

32: Moore 1895 (April, II)[more], at p. 98.