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Small Masterpieces: Whistler Paintings from the 1880s

April 2, 2005 - continues indefinitely


(above: James McNeill Whistler (1834­1903), Red and Pink--La Petite Mephisto, probably 1884, oil on wood panel, Gift of Charles Lang Freer. F1902.147)


Though best known for his large oil portraits and moody night landscapes, expatriate American artist James McNeill Whistler (1834­1903) painted few large oils on canvas after 1879, flouting the conventional equation of size with importance. Instead, he focused his efforts on the creation of small works in a wide variety of media. Few of these works have been exhibited by major museums. Beginning on April 2, 2005 the Freer Gallery of Art will exhibit 23 of Whistler's small paintings, which were described in 1886 by the American critic Charles de Kay as "pygmy pictures" with "big souls." The exhibition remains open indefinitely. (right: James McNeill Whistler (1834­1903), The Angry Sea, December 1883 or January 1884, oil on wood panel, Gift of Charles Lang Freer. F1904.76)

Whistler's work changed dramatically in the 1880s, as he stopped painting large landscapes and focused on the production of smaller works in a wide variety of media including oils, watercolors, pastels, etchings, and lithographs. Among the most beautiful are the small oil paintings -- many produced during a few hours of intensive labor in the artist's studio or from nature. Influenced by both Japanese prints and progressive French art, many of these works are strikingly sketchy and abstract. Although not very well-known today, Whistler's small oils were widely exhibited during his lifetime and spurred production of similarly sized and abstract paintings by many younger artists including Walter Sickert, Frank Duveneck, Childe Hassam, and John Twachtman. The Freer's comprehensive collection of Whistler's work includes the world's most important group of these paintings. Small Masterpieces: Whistler Paintings from the 1880s will showcase a sample of the most beautiful of them. Highlights will include several street scenes completed near Whistler's London home, a strikingly abstract nocturne of the Thames, a wonderful series of seascapes completed in the Cornish fishing village of St. Ives, and several studies of young female models.

Of the estimated 140 small oil paintings on wood panel that Whistler produced after 1879, most measure no more than nine inches in length or height. Described by one collector as "superficially, the size of your hand, but, artistically, as a large as a continent," several of the most beautiful are only three by five inches in size. Many of Whistler's contemporaries found them provokingly sketchy and abstract. One reviewer dismissed them as "mere daubs and unfinished sketches not fit for public display." Other critics recognized their beauty and realized that they exemplified Whistler's desire that viewers appreciate his paintings as harmoniously colored designs on a flat surface.

Among the works on view are sea and village scenes painted during Whistler's visits to the peaceful coastal villages of St. Ives in Cornwall and Lyme Regis in Dorset and to Yorkshire in northern England. Whistler also painted scenery in the Channel port of Dieppe and the coastal village of Pourville in Normandy, France, whose beautiful beaches were also the subject of paintings by Monet and formed the backdrop for the 1944 Normandy landings. (left: James McNeill Whistler (1834­1903), Chelsea Shops, ca. 1882-84, oil on wood panel, Gift of Charles Lang Freer. F1902.149)

During the winter of 1884 Whistler worked in his Chelsea studio, completing a series of sensuous figure drawings and paintings, including several small oils on panel of young female models, two of which are on view. Later nudes like "Purple and Gold: Phryne the Superb!-Builder of Temples," painted in 1898, and "Rose and Brown: La Cigale," painted in 1899, depict young women in more chaste poses that seemingly personify an idealized beauty.

Detailed studies of streets and shops in Whistler's Chelsea neighborhood on view include "Chelsea Shops," one of the earliest and greatest of Whistler's many representations of building facades and "Nocturne: Silver and Opal-Chelsea," the last, smallest and one of the greatest nocturnes in oil that Whistler ever painted.


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rev. 9/19/06

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