The Paintings of James McNeill Whistler

YMSM 098
Symphony in Grey: Early Morning, Thames

Symphony in Grey: Early Morning, Thames

Artist: James McNeill Whistler
Date: 1871
Collection: Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
Accession Number: F1904.50a-b
Medium: oil
Support: canvas
Size: 45.7 x 67.5 cm (18 x 26 1/2")
Signature: butterfly
Inscription: '71'
Frame: Grau-style, American, after 1904

Date

Symphony in Grey: Early Morning, Thames is signed and inscribed '71' and dates from 1871. 1

Symphony in Grey: Early Morning, Thames, Freer Gallery of Art
Symphony in Grey: Early Morning, Thames, Freer Gallery of Art

It was probably first exhibited in the following year, in the Fifth Exhibition of the Society of French Artists [Winter Exhibition], Deschamps Gallery, London, 1872 (cat. no. 122).

Images

Symphony in Grey: Early Morning, Thames, Freer Gallery of Art
Symphony in Grey: Early Morning, Thames, Freer Gallery of Art

Symphony in Grey: Early Morning, Thames, Freer Gallery of Art
Symphony in Grey: Early Morning, Thames, Freer Gallery of Art

Symphony in Grey: Early Morning, Thames, frame detail
Symphony in Grey: Early Morning, Thames, frame detail

Battersea Reach, Corcoran/National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
Battersea Reach, Corcoran/National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Subject

Titles

Several possible titles have been suggested:

'Symphony in Grey: Early Morning, Thames' is the preferred title.

Description

Symphony in Grey: Early Morning, Thames, Freer Gallery of Art
Symphony in Grey: Early Morning, Thames, Freer Gallery of Art

An almost monochrome painting of the view across a broad river, in horizontal format. The foreshore runs at a slight angle upwards from lower left to right, the line of the water's edge broken only by the rectangular cartouche bearing Whistler's signature. On the far side are warehouses and factories, with two factory chimneys towards the right, reflected in the water. Towards the far side of the water, at left, there is a long, low barge or steamer with a single tall funnel, and behind it, to right, another long barge, possibly moored.

Site

Symphony in Grey: Early Morning, Thames, Freer Gallery of Art
Symphony in Grey: Early Morning, Thames, Freer Gallery of Art

Battersea Reach, Corcoran/National Gallery of Art
Battersea Reach, Corcoran/National Gallery of Art

The same view of Battersea Reach is seen in Battersea Reach y045. The view is from in or near Whistler's house in Chelsea, looking south across the river Thames, in London.

Comments

Curry considered the restrained colour scheme and almost abstract, geometrical composition, with the butterfly on its rectangular field balancing the puff of smoke from the chimneys, as 'orientalizing elements.' He quotes Ernest Fenellosa, who wrote that Whistler's greys 'pulsate with imprisoned colours,' and who considered Whistler the only European artist to use grey as the basis of colour harmonies, as in the 'old Chinese school.' 6

Technique

Technique

Symphony in Grey: Early Morning, Thames, Freer Gallery of Art
Symphony in Grey: Early Morning, Thames, Freer Gallery of Art

It is thinly painted in shades of grey over a red ground on fine canvas, the grain of the canvas showing through the paint. The brushstrokes sweep straight across the canvas from left to right, conveying light and space, ripples and reflections. Although subdued in tone, and partly lost in the grey atmosphere, the details of buildings, chimneys and smoke on the south side of the river were painted very carefully with small brushes.

Conservation History

According to Freer Gallery files, the varnish was removed and the canvas relined in 1921; it was surfaced in 1933, and cleaned and surfaced in 1951.

Frame

Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Chelsea, Tate
Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Chelsea, Tate

Symphony in Grey: Early Morning, Thames was first exhibited in 1872 and may therefore have had a reeded cassetta painted frame similar to that on Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Chelsea y103, reproduced above, and Variations in Pink and Grey: Chelsea y105.

Symphony in Grey: Early Morning, Thames, Freer Gallery of Art
Symphony in Grey: Early Morning, Thames, Freer Gallery of Art

Symphony in Grey: Early Morning, Thames, frame detail
Symphony in Grey: Early Morning, Thames, frame detail

The current Grau-style frame probably dates from after 1904, when the painting was bought by C. L. Freer.

History

Provenance

It was lent by Mrs Armitage to the Fourth Exhibition, International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers, Regent Street, London, 1904 (cat. no. 152a), listed only in the 4th edition of the catalogue. Shortly afterwards 'Symphony in Grey - Early Morning, Thames' was sold by Marchant to C. L. Freer in April 1904, for 1100 guineas, including commission.

Exhibitions

According to Whistler's mother, he submitted 'a lovely grey dawn Study of the River', which may have been this picture, to the Royal Academy in 1872, with her own portrait, Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter's Mother y101, but it would seem it was rejected by the Academy. 7

In a review of the Society of French Artists exhibition of 1872, the Athenaeum described Whistler's 'Harmony in Grey' as 'an exquisite picture, remarkable for the unhesitating exaltation of one quality in Art: a study of twilight effect, the subject being the Thames and shore opposite Chelsea', a description that, though vague, fits this painting. 8

John Ruskin (1819-1900) condemned a painting by Whistler in one of his lectures:

'I never saw anything so impudent on the walls of any exhibition, in any country, as last year [1872] in London. It was a daub professing to be a ‘harmony in pink and white’ (or some such nonsense); absolute rubbish, and which had taken about a quarter of an hour to scrawl or daub – it had no pretence to be called painting. The price asked for it was two hundred and fifty guineas.' 9

'Harmony in Grey' was the only painting by Whistler on view in 1872 with the word ‘Harmony’, which had so offended Ruskin, in its exhibition title. 10 However, it was neither pink nor white so Ruskin may have had some other work in his mind: his views, as crudely expressed here, prefigured his libellous attack on Whistler in 1877, which resulted in the Whistler v. Ruskin trial of 1878.

By the terms of C. L. Freer's bequest to the Freer Gallery of Art, the painting cannot be lent to another venue.

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:

EXHIBITION:

Journals 1906-Present

Websites

Unpublished

Other


Notes:

1: YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 98).

2: Fifth Exhibition of the Society of French Artists [Winter Exhibition], Deschamps Gallery, London, 1872 (cat. no. 122).

3: Fourth Exhibition, International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers, Regent Street, London, 1904, 4th edition (cat. no. 152a).

4: The Inaugural Loan Collection of Paintings, Buffalo Fine Arts Academy, Buffalo, 1905 (cat. no. 166).

5: YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 98).

6: Curry 1984 [more], pl. 23. Fenellosa 1907 [more], p. 62.

7: A. M. Whistler to J. H. Gamble, 10-20 April 1872, GUW #06549.

8: Anon., 'Winter Exhibition of the Society of French Artists', The Athenaeum, 16 November 1872, pp. 639-40.

9: Ruskin, Val d'Arno [more], at p. 49.

10: Petri 2011 [more], p. 297.