Whistler and the Thames, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London – review

“I begin rather to wish myself back in my own lovely London fogs! They are lovely, those fogs – and I am their painter!”

James McNeill Whistler wrote this in 1880 from Venice, to which he had fled, bankrupt, after a libel trial defending his fogs against Ruskin’s criticism that he could not paint. “Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge” was paraded in court as evidence. An atmospheric study of the dark mass of the bridge looming up from the blue-grey water, with Chelsea’s Old Church in the background, its hazy, rough-grained surface is illuminated by spray from a falling rocket and staccato flecks of lamps, their reflections quivering. To laughter from the spectators’ gallery, Ruskin’s counsel said this spare, delicate, refined depiction resembled a fire escape.

How could Ruskin have got it so wrong? Among more than two dozen paintings in Tate Britain’s flamboyant, recently rehung Victorian gallery, another Whistler nocturne, “Blue and Silver – Chelsea”, is the only work which could stand unembarrassed in international company. In contrast to the meticulous, anecdotal observations of his pre-Raphaelite and neo-classical peers, Whistler saw the world through a mist – but his vision of art’s future was crystal-clear. A nocturne, he told the judge, “is an arrangement of line, form and colour first. As to what it represents, that depends on who looks at it. To some persons it may represent all that I intended; to others it may represent nothing”.

“Nocturne: Blue and Gold”, displayed alongside Japanese prints that influenced its flattened composition, is a highlight of Dulwich Picture Gallery’s Whistler and the Thames, an ambitious new show tracing how the American-born, Russian-educated, Paris-trained artist made the river his chief weapon in an assault on London’s art establishment, and ended up a precursor of abstraction.

Whistler arrived in London in 1859 a realist. Thrilled with the Thames as industrial waterway, he made for the docks and produced prints – “Black Lion Wharf”, “Limehouse” – that show him already a master etcher. Deeply incised foreground lines conveying a jumble of barges, warehouses, distilleries and sailors contrast with more lightly etched, distant tall ships to create spatial depth and murky atmosphere. Baudelaire commended the“marvellous tangle of rigging, yardarms and rope; a chaos of fog, furnaces and gushing smoke; the profound and complicated poetry of a vast capital”.

In grand oils, Whistler became a French-inflected painter of modern London life. His girlfriend Jo Hiffernan – hair “a red not gold but copper, as Venetian as a dream!” – stars in “Wapping” (begun 1860) as a dockside tart, perched with smoking sailors on a balcony above passing ships painted impressionistically in fresh, bright hues. The scene is fleeting, immediate. “As the boats leave I have only time to put in their shades and colour – and for those who are in the habit of making their seascapes at home and to paint models and toys for warships, my real boats will not be finished”, Whistler sniped.

In “The Last of Old Westminster” (1862), an impressionist flurry recording the reconstruction of the old bridge, each labourer is a dab of cream, each wooden pile a single luscious downward grey stroke. By the fluid, sombrely tonal “Grey and Silver: Old Battersea Reach” (1863) and “Grey and Silver: Chelsea Wharf” (1864-8), cool criss-crossed thin silver marks enlivened by the rusty brown of a few moored barges, narrative is banished and the Whistler of subdued, abstracted colour harmonies is triumphant.

This group of wonderful paintings, all lent from the US, looks very un-English. Two further “Nocturnes” (1874-7), taking the painting of darkness to dramatic extremes, plus a rare folding screen decorated in distemper and gold on silk with another twilit river fragment – “a lovely and beloved” object treasured in Whistler’s home until his death – come from Glasgow. These may have been influenced by theatrical night paintings Whistler saw as a child in St Petersburg, but the austere near-monochrome sensibility is puritanical American, and anticipates by almost a century New York abstraction.

With exhibitions at Gagosian (The Show is Over) and Hauser & Wirth (Onnasch Collection), and solo Frieze Masters presentations including Willem de Kooning and Robert Motherwell, that epoch is currently setting the historical agenda in London; Dulwich offers a captivating, erudite, unexpected prequel.

Until January 12, then Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, Massachusetts, and Freer Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington

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