The Paintings of James McNeill Whistler

YMSM 070
Green and Grey: The Oyster Smacks, Evening

Green and Grey: The Oyster Smacks, Evening

Artist: James McNeill Whistler
Date: 1865
Collection: Art Institute of Chicago
Accession Number: 1922.448
Medium: oil
Support: canvas
Size: 51.5 x 77.2 cm (20 1/4 x 30 3/8")
Signature: 'Whistler'
Inscription: none
Frame: Grau-style, possibly American, 1891/1901

Date

This seascape dates from Whistler's time in Trouville, probably between October and November 1865. 1

Green and Grey: The Oyster Smacks, Evening, Art Institute of Chicago
Green and Grey: The Oyster Smacks, Evening, Art Institute of Chicago

The dates of Whistler's visit to Trouville are not precisely known. He was still in London in mid-August 1865, but he probably left England shortly afterwards. He was certainly in Trouville in October, and on 20 October wrote to Lucas (Luke) Alexander Ionides (1837-1924) from the Hôtel du Bras d'Or:

'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 - 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.' 2

On 26 October he wrote again to Ionides, 'I am finishing some important pictures which will keep me here until about the 10th of Nov … My picture I think you will like very much - The Sea is splendid at this moment but I am anxious to get back.' 3

Images

Green and Grey: The Oyster Smacks, Evening, Art Institute of Chicago
Green and Grey: The Oyster Smacks, Evening, Art Institute of Chicago

Green and Grey: The Oyster Smacks, Evening, Art Institute of Chicago
Green and Grey: The Oyster Smacks, Evening, Art Institute of Chicago

Subject

Titles

Several possible titles have been suggested:

There is some confusion regarding the appropriate title.

It is likely that this painting is the one exhibited by Whistler in 1892 as Green and Grey: The Oyster Smacks, Evening y099. The title adopted by the Art Institute of Chicago, 'Trouville (Grey and Green, the Silver Sea)', was a combination of alternative titles used by art dealers and curators. It is reasonable, in that the scene is Trouville, the colours are green and grey, while the more subjective word 'Silver' was often used by Whistler, and in this case was noted by Agnew's during Whistler's lifetime.

The title 'Trouville' was accepted by the 1980 catalogue raisonné, but it has been decided to alter this to the definitive Whistlerian title of 1892, 'Green and Grey: The Oyster Smacks, Evening'.

Description

Green and Grey: The Oyster Smacks, Evening, Art Institute of Chicago
Green and Grey: The Oyster Smacks, Evening, Art Institute of Chicago

A seascape, with a high horizon, in horizontal format. A placid grey/green sea under grey skies, with one small fishing boat under sail at left and three further out, at right.

Site

Trouville, a popular seaside resort on the coast of France.

Trouville fishing boats were usually single masted and sloop- or cutter-rigged. A sloop has one jib (triangular sail) before the mast, a cutter has two. They were all gaff-rigged, having a four-sided mainsail with a boom at the bottom, the mast forward, and a gaff (the spar at the top).

Whistler's boats were admittedly painted rather sketchily, and contemporary descriptions suggest that no-one (not even the artist) was sure if the boats were fishing boats, oyster smacks, or other small craft. However, it looks as if the nearest boat has two sails forward, one to the end of the bowsprit, and a second to the top of the stempost. It is probably a gaff-rigged (fishing) cutter. The others are probably the same: all four appear to be fishing boats. 14

Jean-Désiré-Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) was in Trouville at the same time as Whistler, and painted some 35 seascapes during the autumn, of which one, The Fishing Boat (1865, Metropolitan Museum of Art) shows a rather battered looking small fishing boat on the beach. It was more convenient to paint boats drawn up on the beach, although several artists, including Claude Oscar Monet (1840-1926), certainly painted boats offshore from the late 1860s on, including Fishing Boats at Sea (ca 1866, The Hill-Stead Museum).

Comments

The Art Institute of Chicago website comments:

'In the early 1860s, James McNeill Whistler began to develop an art-for-art’s-sake aesthetic, eschewing narrative or naturalistic details to focus more intently on formal concerns. In 1865 ... he ... experimented with a series of increasingly simplified seascapes. The spare composition of this work … reveals Whistler’s interest in Japanese woodblock prints and the new models they offered for the construction of painted space and depth. The sweeping, horizontal brush strokes and highly restrained palette … further contribute to the innovative, flattened perspective of this painting.' 15

Technique

Composition

This painting is comparable, to a certain extent, in technique, visual perspective, and composition, to a seascape by Edouard Manet (1832-1883), Sea View, Calm Weather (Art Institute of Chicago), and to a lesser extent to his Les Marsouins, marine (Philadelphia Museum of Art), both of which date from 1864 and were painted in Boulogne. 16

Stephanie L. Strother notes that in such compositions both Manet and Whistler were influenced by Japanese woodcuts, such as two woodcuts by Ando Hiroshige (1797-1858): Shichiri Ferry Crossing, Gate to the Atsuta Shrine, and Nezame Village and Ejiri from the Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido (Tokaido gojusan tsugi. 17

Technique

Green and Grey: The Oyster Smacks, Evening, Art Institute of Chicago
Green and Grey: The Oyster Smacks, Evening, Art Institute of Chicago

The rather stiff, pasty consistency of the paint, applied smoothly with large brushes over the flat area of the sea with its startling horizon line, and the sharp angles of the boats sculptured across the sea surface, make this a powerful if rather stiff composition.

The medium and technique have been analysed by Kimberley Muir at the Art Institute of Chicago. It was painted on a relatively coarse plain-weave canvas prepared with a thick lead-white based ground, possibly a commercial ground augmented by the artist. The palette includes lead white, red and yellow iron oxide or earth pigments, umber, cobalt blue, Prussian blue, vermilion, and bone black. Muir writes: 'the painting was built up in multiple superimposed wet-in-wet layers. Whistler probably thinned his paints with added medium ... He used brushes, including 1 cm–wide flat brushes ... as well as a knife in places.' 18 Muir gives a very interesting analysis of Whistler's painting technique:

'While the painting has a fairly smooth, flat surface overall, Whistler built up some low texture using brushstrokes of bodied paint ... In the sky, which appears to have been painted first and mainly in a single wet-in-wet session, he used long, horizontal or slightly undulating strokes in varying shades of gray. In places the paint was thinly applied, leaving the brush-marked texture and the warm, off-white tone of the ground visible on the surface. Some of the clouds, by contrast, were formed with thick strokes of cream to pale yellow. Purer colors ... provide streaks of slightly more intense hues where the sun breaks through the otherwise gray sky.'

The horizon was painted freehand, and remains visible through the sails. On the lower third of the canvas, toning layers in light brown and pale purple show through the grey waves. The grey washes include minute fragments of white, blue, and ochre; by contrast, strokes of thicker, lead white-rich paint outline breaking waves. The boats, adds Muir, were painted with 'a few quick wet-in-wet brushstrokes … The more-opaque greenish-gray paint of the distant water was applied last and slightly overlaps the edges of the boats and the sky along the horizon.' 19

Conservation History

The conservation and condition of the painting are also discussed by Kimberley Muir. Overall, the painting is in good condition. The canvas has been lined; the paint is slightly flattened and the canvas weave texture is exaggerated, probably as a result of the lining. There are minor paint losses and some abrasion at the edges, and a variety of cracks, some deep. Muir writes: 'The painting currently appears to have a synthetic varnish. There are residues of old, yellowed, natural-resin varnish in the recesses of the paint texture. The surface has an even, satiny sheen.' 20

Frame

Green and Grey: The Oyster Smacks, Evening, Art Institute of Chicago
Green and Grey: The Oyster Smacks, Evening, Art Institute of Chicago

It is not known when the current Grau-style frame was added, and although it is possible that it was when the picture was with the Goupil Gallery in 1891/1892, but it could date from later, possibly when it went to America.

History

Provenance

There were problems in establishing this provenance and exhibition history due to the conflicting financial records and varying descriptions and titles used. 21

On 26 October 1865 Whistler wrote from Trouville to his friend Lucas (Luke) Alexander Ionides (1837-1924), 'I am finishing some important pictures which will keep me here until about the 10th of Nov … My picture I think you will like very much.' 22 On his return he undoubtedly showed Trouville seascapes to the Ionides family. Years later Whistler claimed that Alexander Ionides (1840-1898) had bought 'a little Marine with fishing smacks' from him for about £20.0.0 or £30.0.0. 23 This fairly low price suggests a date in the late 1860s, 24 or perhaps in the late 1870s, when Whistler was in financial difficulties.

A painting of 'Fishing Boats' was listed by Whistler as potentially available for exhibition at the Royal Society of British Artists in 1886 or 1887; the owner's name was not included, but the oil was grouped with other paintings owned by Alexander Ionides. 25

In February 1892 Whistler was planning a retrospective exhibition at the Goupil Gallery (Boussod, Valadon & Cie.), and listed:

'Mr. Ionides ... Nocturne Valparaiso - Sea and Rain and yet another small painting of some oyster smacks or fishing boats going out in the evening'. 26

These were Nocturne in Blue and Gold: Valparaiso Bay y076, Sea and Rain y065, and the painting in question, Green and Grey: The Oyster Smacks, Evening. Ionides also owned Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge y033 at this point. He agreed to lend several of these paintings to Nocturnes, Marines & Chevalet Pieces, Goupil Gallery, London, 1892 (cat. nos. 28-31) including Green and Grey: The Oyster Smacks, Evening (cat. no. 29).

In July 1892 David Croal Thomson (1855-1930) of the Goupil Gallery told Whistler that 'the Yacht picture' owned by Ionides had been sold through Maurice Joyant (1864-1930) of Goupil's Paris branch: 'The price obtained for the Yacht picture was very small, only 5,000 fr, but Joyant does not mention the buyer.' 27 At that time 5,000 French francs would have been roughly equivalent to £200.0.0. sterling. In another letter Whistler mentioned that the 'Three Yachts' had been sold by Ionides to 'a man in Paris' for £200.0.0. 28 This is a little confusing, since it mentions only three sailing boats, and describes them as 'yachts'. However, later, Whistler described what appears to be the same painting to his sister-in-law as a 'little sea piece of mine - (some fishing smacks going out in the evening)' sold by Ionides 'to Monsieur Gallimard, for £200'. 29 Much later, in the draft of a letter to Ionides himself, Whistler referred to the 'little picture of the fishing boats that you sold for 200 down.' 30 Again, this is odd, in that Green and Grey: The Oyster Smacks, Evening, the painting under discussion here, is not particularly small. 31

The painting sold by Ionides through Goupil's to Gallimard in 1892 was almost certainly Green and Grey. The Oyster Smacks – Evening, which was lent by Gallimard to an exhibition in St Petersburg, Russia, in 1899, at which time it was reproduced in Mir Iskusstva. 32 Soon afterwards, Gallimard must have sold it to Duret, who in his turn sold it through Agnew's to Mrs Potter Palmer in July 1901, at which point Agnew's recorded it as 'The Silver Sea (Grey and Silver)'.

Exhibitions

It is likely that this painting was exhibited in 1892 as Green and Grey: The Oyster Smacks, Evening, when, in a review of Whistler's retrospective exhibition, it was praised by the Lady's Pictorial: 'The grey sails on a grey sea are pleasantly restful.' 33 This is an appropriate if rather minimal description. The quotation selected by Whistler for his catalogue entry in 1892 was from the Academy: 'Other people paint localities; Mr. Whistler makes artistic experiments.' After the Goupil show, Whistler immediately wanted to borrow it for exhibition in Munich but this was not arranged, probably because it had changed ownership. 34 It was also listed for possible inclusion in the Goupil Album published after the show, but although it may well have been photographed with the other paintings at this time, it was not published in the album. 35

In 1899 Sebastien-Paul Gallimard lent his marine to the important 1st World of Art Exhibition in Saint Petersburg. There were almost no reviews of Whistler's exhibits. The influential art critic Vladimir Vasilievich Stasov denigrated the works selected for the show by Sergei Diaghilev (1872-1929), including Whistlers two paintings, Blue and Coral: The Little Blue Bonnet y500 and Gallimard's marine:

'Of the English [sic], Whistler is represented by two small canvases – 'Blue Girl' and 'Marine', but they are both so colourless and insignificant that without captions no-none would ever guess that these were things by the self same Whistler who is so renowned for his colour! Was it really worth bringing such nonentities from afar?' 36

Incidentally Blue and Coral: The Little Blue Bonnet at 81.2 x 68.5 cm (32 x 27") is hardly 'small'.

Both Blue and Coral: The Little Blue Bonnet and the marine were reproduced in Мир искусства [Mir Iskusstva, 'World of Art'] in 1899. 37 Although the owners of the two paintings were not named in the article in Mir Iskusstva, the reproduction helps to confirm the identity of the marine as the one bought by Gallimard in 1892, after it had likely been exhibited as Green and Grey. The Oyster Smacks – Evening in the same year. The photographs in Mir Iskusstva were mostly sourced from Whistler. Several, such as Symphony in Grey and Green: The Ocean y072, had been photographed for Nocturnes, Marines & Chevalet Pieces, a portfolio of photographs published after the Goupil Exhibition in 1892, although not all those photographed at that time, including Green and Grey. The Oyster Smacks – Evening, were actually included in the album. 38

Bibliography

Catalogues Raisonnés

Authored by Whistler

Catalogues 1855-1905

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. 70).

2: GUW #11310.

3: GUW #11311.

4: List, [1886/1887], formerly dated [4/11 January 1892], GUW #06795.

5: Whistler to D. C. Thomson, 28 February [1892], GUW #08213.

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

7: Whistler to G. Coronio, draft, [1/15 August 1892], GUW #00694.

8: Nocturnes, Marines & Chevalet Pieces, Goupil Gallery, London, 1892 (cat. no. 29).

9: 1st World of Art Exhibition, Schtiglitz School, Saint Petersburg, 1899 (cat. no. 280)

10: July 1902, Messrs Agnew's records, London.

11: Oil Paintings, Water Colors, Pastels and Drawings: Memorial Exhibition of the Works of Mr. J. McNeill Whistler, Copley Society, Boston, 1904 (cat. no. 12).

12: YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 70).

13: Art Institute of Chicago website at http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/artwork/81572.

14: Many thanks to Iain P. MacInnes, naval architect and historian, for this information.

15: Art Institute of Chicago website at http://www.artic.edu/aic (acc. 2019)

16: See Richard Dorment, 'James McNeill Whistler,' in Juliet Wilson-Bareau and David Degener, Manet and the Sea, Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2004, pp. 187-93.

17: Stephanie L. Strother, 'Cat. 9 Trouville (Grey and Green, the Silver Sea), 1865: Curatorial Entry,' in Whistler Paintings and Drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago, The Art Institute of Chicago, 2020, URL. See also Whitford, Frank, Japanese Prints and Western Painters, New York, 1977; Watanabe 1991 [more]; Ono 2003 [more]; and Lambourne 2005 [more].

18: Muir, Kimberley, 'Cat. 9 Trouville (Grey and Green, the Silver Sea), 1865: Technical Summary,' in Whistler Paintings and Drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago, The Art Institute of Chicago, 2020, URL.

19: Ibid., URL.

20: Muir 2020, op. cit.

21: It was thought that this painting was one owned by C. W. Deschamps and exhibited at the Society of French Artists in 1873, and that the painting exhibited in 1892 had not been identified; see YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. nos. 70 and 99). Deschamps' oil has now been identified as Blue and Silver: Trouville y066.

22: GUW #11311.

23: Whistler to G. Coronio, [1/15 August 1892], GUW #00694; Whistler to H. E. Whistler, [March/April 1893], GUW #06719.

24: 30 guineas (£33.0.0) is said to have been the price paid for The Last of Old Westminster y039 in 1863, and for Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge y033, which was commissioned in 1859 and completed by 1865. See Petri 2011 [more], p. 58.

25: 'Old Battersea bridge, Battersea Reach - Valparaiso - Twilight - Valparaiso - grey rain - Sea & Rain - Fishing boats', list dated [1886/1887], formerly dated [4/11 January 1892], GUW #06795. The exhibition did not take place.

26: Whistler to D. C. Thomson, 28 February [1892], GUW #08213.

27: D. C. Thomson to Whistler, 12 July 1892, GUW #05753; 23 July 1892, GUW #05754.

28: 'Aleco has sold the "Three Yachts" for £200! - to a man in Paris! - What do you suppose I got for it? Twenty do you think? - Ask him - and tell him what I think of their "trading" and "bettering themselves" with my work', Whistler to H. E. Whistler, [7 August 1892], GUW #06718.

29: Whistler to H. E. Whistler, [March/April 1893], GUW #06719.

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

31: At 51.5 x 77.2 cm (20 1/4 x 30 3/8") it is similar in size to most of the Trouville paintings with the exception of Green and Grey. Channel y069, which is marginally bigger, at 52.7 x 95.9 cm (20 3/4 x 37 3/4"). Only one extant Trouville painting is smaller, Crepuscule in Opal: Trouville y067, which measures 34.0 x 45.7 cm (13 3/8 x 18"), but does not contain any boats at all.

32: Huysmans 1899 [more], repr. p. 66. Gallimard already owned Nocturne: Blue and Gold - St Mark's, Venice y213, which he bought through Goupil's in Paris in 1892 and lent to the Goupil show in London in the same year (cat. no. 38).

33: Lady's Pictorial, London, 26 March 1892; press cutting in GUL Whistler PC13, p. 28.

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

35: D. C. Thomson to Whistler, [25 May 1892], GUW #05746.

36: Stasov, V. V., 'Podvoriye prokagennykh', [The Leper House], [1899], in Isbranniye sochineniya [Selected Works], 3 vols., Moscow, 1952, vol. 3, p. 257. This translation is quoted from Kruglov, Vladimir, 'Whistler in Russian criticism', in Andreeva, Galina, and Margaret F. MacDonald, Whistler and Russia, State Tretyakow Gallery, Moscow, 2006, pp. 162-69, at p. 166.

37: Huysmans 1899 [more], repr. p. 66.

38: D. C. Thomson to Whistler, [25 May 1892], GUW #05746. The other work in the St Petersburg show, Blue and Coral: The Little Blue Bonnet, had been photographed for the Exhibition of International Art, International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers, Knightsbridge, London, 1898 (cat. no. 182) de luxe edition, p. 22, repr. frontispiece.