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Sackler Gallery’s Whistler Exhibit Shows an Artist in Transition

One of the season’s biggest art shows features more than 80 works of a French-trained American working in London, arrayed in a gallery normally devoted to Asian art.

It all makes sense when you consider the artist is James McNeill Whistler and the venue is the Smithsonian’s Freer-Sackler complex, whose patron, Detroit industrialist Charles Lang Freer, built a formidable collection of paintings and other objects with Whistler’s personal advice and encouragement.

An American in London: Whistler and the Thames,” on display through Aug. 17, marks the biggest U.S. display of Whistler’s works in a generation and an opportunity to reassess an artist who defies easy characterization.

Alternately associated with realist, impressionist and pre-Raphaelite schools, Whistler was a highly influential figure who trained in Washington, D.C., as a military draftsman and developed daring new modes of expression while cultivating an image of eccentricity. His famous 1871 portrait of his mother (not part of the exhibit) is one of the most recognizable paintings in the world and is among just a handful of fine art works that have become pop culture icons. Expect to see its image a few times in the lead-up to Mother’s Day.

The Freer-Sackler exhibit focuses on Whistler’s immersion in the Victorian London of the 1860s and 1870s, then undergoing a dramatic transformation into an industrial metropolis. His early focus on the area around the old Battersea Bridge, on the River Thames, provides an almost photographic essay of gritty wharves, pubs and waterborne craft that documents a cycle of destruction and rebuilding. But Whistler’s work soon morphs into spare, less-descriptive renderings with identifiable landmarks shrouded in abstract surroundings.

The transformation was partly inspired by Whistler’s discovery of Japanese prints, whose formal composition and flattened forms provided the artist with a connection to a world filled with beauty far from the bustle and unpleasantness of London.

“He was worried because his subject matter was unlovely and wondered whether it was a proper solution to art,” said Lee Glazer, curator of American art at the Freer and Sackler galleries. “He found a solution in the formal language of Japanese prints, which offered a new way of depicting the world and a classical style that was also new and fresh.”

Whistler went on to produce a series of moody, poetic renderings of the Thames and its environs filled with mists, shadows and myriad shades of blue and gray. Eager to get audiences thinking in new ways about art, he also began giving his paintings musical titles such as “symphony,” “arrangement” and “nocturne,” hoping to respond to the Victorian tendency to view pictures the way they would read books.

Glazer noted that Whistler’s mother played a significant role in this aesthetic development, by moving in with him in the Chelsea neighborhood while he was going through his identity crisis. The artist was inspired to render his first moonlit painting of the river after the pair went on a boat ride at her urging.

“His mother keeps him on a tight leash and enforced the kind of hard work and concentrated attention to his craft that allowed him to realize his ambition,” Glazer said, noting that the mother’s arrival, among other things, caused Whistler’s girlfriend to move out of the apartment.

The exhibit features some of the 1,300 paintings, prints and drawings in the Freer’s permanent collection alongside borrowed works from institutions such as the Tate in London, the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Mass., and the Art Institute of Chicago. It marks the first time since the Freer opened in 1923 that works in its collection aren’t the sole focus of an exhibit, as Freer had desired.

“We respect Freer’s intent and aesthetic vision,” Glazer said, noting that the founder’s long friendship with Whistler perhaps justifies putting the holdings in a larger context.

“We think Freer would have been pleased to see these paintings next to [loaned] works,” Glazer said. “You tell new stories looking at old favorites in a new way.”