The Paintings of James McNeill Whistler

YMSM 282
The Angry Sea

The Angry Sea

Artist: James McNeill Whistler
Date: 1884
Collection: Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
Accession Number: F1904.76a-c
Medium: oil
Support: wood
Size: 12.4 x 21.7 cm (4 7/8 x 8 1/2")
Signature: butterfly
Inscription: none
Frame: replica Dowdeswell, American, W. Lewin, 2004


The Angry Sea dates from between January and March 1884, when Whistler worked in St Ives, Cornwall. 1 On 4 January Whistler told Ernest George Brown (1851-1915) that he was ' tremendously busy with lots of pictures of all kinds.' 2 He described his work to a collector, Alfred Chapman (1839-1917) as 'oil paintings - little beauties.' 3

The Angry Sea, Freer Gallery of Art
The Angry Sea, Freer Gallery of Art

This painting was exhibited on his return, in his one-man show of 'Notes' - 'Harmonies' - 'Nocturnes', Messrs Dowdeswell, London, 1884 (cat. no. 2).


The Angry Sea, Freer Gallery of Art
The Angry Sea, Freer Gallery of Art

The Angry Sea, Freer Gallery of Art
The Angry Sea, Freer Gallery of Art



Several possible titles have been suggested:

'The Angry Sea' is the original and accepted title.


The Angry Sea, Freer Gallery of Art
The Angry Sea, Freer Gallery of Art

A view across a broad beach to the sea, in horizontal format. A thin line of dark blue sea in the distance is bounded by white breakers rolling into the shore. A steamship is on the horizon at right.


Probably Porthmeor Beach, the longest and widest of the beaches to west of the harbour of St Ives, Cornwall.



The Angry Sea, Freer Gallery of Art
The Angry Sea, Freer Gallery of Art

The panel is painted thinly, with fine brushwork, on a panel prepared with a grey ground. Both beach and sky were smoothed into an even tone, contrasting with the thicker, creamy brushstrokes on the breakers.

The unusually elongated form of the butterfly is not in the form used in the 1880s, and may have been added later, possibly about 1901.

Years after they had worked together in St Ives, Walter Richard Sickert (1860-1942) commented enthusiastically on Whistler's technique in such small panels as this:

'I imagine that, with time, it will be seen that Whistler expressed the essence of his talent in his little panels, pochades, it is true, in measurement, but masterpieces of classic painting in importance. While his maturer etching inclined to a superficial hinting, to a witty suggestion, of form, what our national critic has called “pirouetting on paper,” the paintings have always weight. The relation and keeping of the tone is marvellous in its severe restriction. It is this that is strong painting. No sign of effort, with immense result. He will give you in a space nine inches by four an angry sea, piled up, and running in, as no painter ever did before. The extraordinary beauty and truth of the relative colours, and the exquisite precision of the spaces, have compelled infinity and movement into an architectural formula of eternal beauty. Never was instrument better understood and more fully exploited than Whistler has understood and exploited oil paint in these panels. He has solved in them a problem that had hitherto seemed insoluble: to give a result of deliberateness to a work doe in a few hours from nature. It was the admirable preliminary order in his mind, the perfect peace at which his art was with itself, that enabled him to aim at and bring down quarry which, to anyone else, would have seemed intangible and altogether elusive.' 6

Conservation History

Freer Gallery files record that the varnish was removed in 1921, at which time there were some signs of repainting; and that it was resurfaced in 1938 and 1942, and cleaned and resurfaced in 1922 and 1951.


1884: the original frame, described as 'green-gold', and specially made for the Dowdeswell exhibition, has not been not located

A flattering review in the Court Circular in 1884 commented on the original picture frame:

'This wonderful artist uses frames of greenish gold wherever the picture requires such a setting, noticeably for his marine studies. A strip of angry grey-green sea, framed in green gold, against a dull pink background, is an exquisite arrangement of colour, worthy to be adopted by the costumiere [sic] pf the period.' 7

The Angry Sea, Freer Gallery of Art
The Angry Sea, Freer Gallery of Art

It is in a replica Dowdeswell frame, American, made by W. Lewin, 2004. 8



Whistler told Thomas Waldo Story (1855-1915) that he was saving up his work for an exhibition:

I want about fifty pounds - Do you think you can manage to get me this or any part of it [?] ...

I have done delightful things - and have a wonderful game to play soon - but meantime of course I have simply been living as we like to live while working you know how - and so by dint of always writing cheques have nearly written up everything in the Bank! -

Now when my exhibition comes off I have plenty of amazing little beauties - new game! - that will bring golden ducats - like the pastels - but meantime I dont want to sell any of them nor do I want to ask the Fine Art Society to advance anything if I can help it - so now write at once and say and send if you can ...

Dear me I wish you could have been here with us ... such a lovely sea side business - and warm for England too - I carry away some things you would be delighted with I fancy.' 9

It is not clear when the painting left Whistler's possession, but it was presumably in or some time after 1884. In 1901, Whistler apparently had no idea that it was with the Goupil Gallery, London art dealers, who sold it to J. J. Cowan. Cowan sent Whistler a sketch and described it as 'Sky, steamer, sea & sandy shore (got from Goupil)' from which Whistler identified it as ' "Angry Sea" - St. Ives.' 10 Cowan sold it through W. Marchant, London art dealers, to C. L. Freer in June 1904; Freer paid £150 plus commission.


Reviews were variable. The Kensington News failed to understand it: 'Now look at ‘The Angry Sea’ (2). Where is the sense of the title or the raison d’être of the picture?' 11 The Court Circular admired the frame, somewhat ironically: 'A strip of angry, grey-green sea, framed in green gold, against the dull pink background, is an exquisite arrangement of colour, worthy to be adopted by the costumiere of the period.' 12 Frederick Wedmore (1844-1921) asked, enigmatically, "What would Mr Clark Russell say to the anger of 'The Angry Sea'? " 13 William Clark Russell (1844-1911) wrote books on the sea and ships, three of which were published in 1884 (On the Fo'k'sle Head, English Channel Ports and The Sea Queen).

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


Catalogues Raisonnés

Authored by Whistler

Catalogues 1855-1905

Newspapers 1855-1905

Journals 1855-1905


Books on Whistler

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Catalogues 1906-Present



Journals 1906-Present





1: YMSM 1980 [more], cat. no. 282

2: 4 January [1884], GUW #03603.

3: 15 January [1884], GUW #09038.

4: 'Notes' - 'Harmonies' - 'Nocturnes', Messrs Dowdeswell, London, 1884 (cat. no. 2).

5: Note by the artist on Cowan to Whistler, 25-6 February 190l, GUW #00743.

6: Sickert 1908 B [more]; W. Sickert 2000 [more], p. 186; Robins 2007 [more], pp. 16, repr. p. 15.

7: 'Causerie', Court Circular, London, 24 May 1884.

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

9: [January 1884], GUW #09420.

10: Cowan to Whistler, 25-26 February and 27 February 1901, GUW #00743 and #00744; photographs sent by Cowan, 19 November 1902, GUW #00759.

11: 'M.C.S.' [Malcolm Charles Salaman], Kensington News, London, 29 May 1884. Press cutting in GUL Whistler PC 6, p. 13.

12: Anon., ‘Causerie’, Court Circular, London, 24 May 1884; press cutting in GUL Whistler PC 6.

13: Wedmore 1884 [more]. Press cutting in GUL Whistler PC 6, p. 53.