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Whistler's Nudes at the Freer Gallery of Art


James McNeill Whistler (1834 - 1903) is best-known for his large oil paintings and for the flamboyant blue-and-green "Peacock Room" -- on view at the Smithsonian's Freer Gallery of Art -- but he also created many images of female nudes. Thirty-five of the most beautiful and important of these works will be included in a new temporary exhibition titled "Whistler's Nudes" on view at the Freer from April 21, 2002 through January 25, 2003.

Part of a continuing series of thematic exhibitions focusing on Whistler's works, "Whistler's Nudes" will be installed in the ground-floor gallery, next to the Freer shop.

Included are etchings, lithographs, pastels, watercolors, and oil paintings. The focal point of the exhibition is "Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Little Blue Girl." Commissioned by Charles Lang Freer (1854 - 1919), founder of the Freer Gallery, "The Little Blue Girl" is the largest and most important of Whistler' s nudes. The Freer Gallery of Art has the most complete collection of Whistler's nudes in the world. (left: James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), American, La Cigale, oil on wood panel, Courtesy of the Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. F1902.110)

Until the mid-19th century, artists who showed nude figures generally evoked mythology or history or exotic locales to evade cultural strictures against public nudity. Whistler almost never did this -- he did not "justify" nudity by evoking Greek goddesses or placing his nudes in fantastic harems. Instead, almost all his nudes show female models in undefined spaces or in the artist's studio. The realism of Whistler's nudes was a new phenomenon, expressing the emergence of new attitudes toward public nudity, art, the female form and gender.

Whistler's first significant nudes date to the early 1870s and, like those of his contemporaries, were inspired by lightly draped Greek statuary. Whistler habitually sketched the body first, later veiling it with a separately applied cloth overlay. Most of these early nudes, such as "Morning Glories" (ca. 1871 - 1873) were drawings in chalk and thinly applied pastel on brown paper. Executed as preparatory sketches for never completed oil paintings, they were not exhibited until late in the expatriate American artist's career.

Whistler returned to the subject of the nude in 1884, creating watercolors, pastels, etchings, lithographs and oils of professional models posed in his studio or undefined spaces. Whistler continued to focus on the nude until his death in 1903. Although many, like "The Little Nude Model, Reading" (ca. 1889 - 1890) and "Woman Holding a Child" (ca. 1891- 93) were realistic scenes of women at rest, others, like "La Danseuse: A Study of the Nude" (ca. 1891) are erotically charged.

Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Freer Gallery of Art in Resource Library Magazine.

Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.

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