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Mr. Whistler's Galleries: Avant-garde in Victorian London
November 20, 2003 through April 4, 2004
During his lifetime, the artist James McNeill Whistler (18341903) was as renowned for his radically spare, avant-garde exhibition designs and flamboyant, self-promotional personality as for his artwork. The Freer Gallery of Art-repository of the most important collections of Whistler's work in the world-joins with the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, to commemorate the centenary of the artist's death with a major new exhibition at the Smithsonian featuring a broad selection of his prints and paintings. (right: James McNeill Whistler (18341903), Pink Note - Shelling Peas, 1883 or 1884, watercolor on paper, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1902.166)
The exhibit creates new versions of "Arrangement in White and Yellow," and "Arrangement in Flesh Colour and Grey," two of Whistler's most famous and influential installations and examines his role in the forefront of exhibition design.
Both installations were controversial and radically innovative because they challenged long-standing assumptions about the display of art. Featuring identically framed artworks that were hung widely apart on plain, lightly colored walls in moderately sized but elegantly appointed rooms at a time when exhibitions routinely displayed artwork from floor to ceiling with no space between frames, Whistler's installations paved the way for the spare exhibitions that have become the norm.
Whistler's "Arrangement in White and Yellow" opened in February 1883 at the Fine Art Society in London and featured 51 of his etchings, most of which had been completed in Venice in 1879-1880. Forty-nine of the original 51 are on view at the Freer. Whistler described his installation as "Sparkling and dainty - and all so sharp - White walls-of different whites, with painted mouldings - not gilded! - yellow velvet curtains - pale yellow matting - yellow sofas and little chairs - lovely little table yellow - own design - with yellow pot and Tiger Lily! Forty odd superb etchings... in their exquisite white frames- with their little butterflies - large white butterfly on yellow curtains and yellow butterfly on white wall... - and finally servant in yellow livery."
Whistler's major May 1884 exhibition, "Arrangement in Flesh Colour and Grey," opened at Dowdeswells' gallery in London and juxtaposed one life-size portrait of a female model with 66 smaller works of art. Subjects included scenes of Chelsea (Whistler's neighborhood in London) and the Cornish coast; nocturnes set in both London and Amsterdam; and a series of watercolor drawings showing female models in Whistler's studio. The Freer installation includes 34 oil paintings, watercolors and pastels that were in the original exhibition -most mounted in re-creations of the unusually wide, flat gilt frame the artist designed. Seven additional works resembling others originally on view will also be shown.
"We are delighted to be able to broaden our outreach and enrich our scholarship by cooperating with the VMFA in bringing together two curators who are acclaimed experts in the field of Whistler studies," says Julian Raby, director of the Freer and neighboring Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Two books - available from the gallery shop and from major bookstores - appear in conjunction with the exhibition. "James McNeill Whistler: Uneasy Pieces, Essays in Visual Syntheses" by David Curry includes an analysis of the 1883 exhibition. It is a wide-ranging discussion of Whistler's work as a painter, printmaker and designer in the context of performance, fashion and display issues. "Mr. Whistler's Gallery: Pictures at an 1884 Exhibition" by co-curator Kenneth John Myers focuses on the 1884 exhibition and explains how Whistler's installation challenged contemporary ideas about the value of art. It identifies and includes full-color reproductions of all of Whistler's works that are known to have been included in the original installation.
The exhibition is sponsored by SunTrust Bank and has received generous support from The Lunder Foundation, the Elisabeth Shelton Gottwald Fund and Fabergé Ball Endowment of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Foundation, and the Fabergé Society of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
Director's Statement by Michael Brand, Director, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts:
Mr. Whistler's Galleries: Avant-Garde in Victorian London
As VMFA embarks on the biggest expansion in its 67-year history, a timely look back over a century to the work of the groundbreaking artist James McNeill Whistler reveals that theories concerning the display of art in public galleries have a long and fascinating history. Our collaboration with the Freer Gallery of Art at the Smithsonian Institution marks a deliberate search for new ways to increase the impact of VMFA's programs through synergy with other leading cultural institutions. As a result, we will stage a major VMFA exhibition in Washington rather than Richmond. Our goal is to strengthen the visual and intellectual impact of the project on a national level as well as to provide an illuminating VMFA experience for Virginians who live near the nation's capital.
Etchings by Whistler were among the first works to enter the collection of the VMFA after it was founded in 1934. Acquired through a bequest of John Barton Payne, 23 impressions were featured in 1936 when we opened our doors with the special exhibition Main Currents in the Development of American Painting. Since then, the museum has continued to seek distinguished examples of Whistler's work, including other prints, drawings and an oil study of the portrait of Thomas Carlyle. Most recently, in 2002, we acquired Sotto Portico - San Giacomo, an elegant pastel Whistler created in Venice, 1879-80, at a significant turning point in his career. Returning to London armed with this and other beautiful prints and drawings deemed radical for their time, Whistler proceeded to mount a series of innovative exhibitions during the 1880s - exhibitions that revolutionized the public presentation of fine art.
Arrangement in White and Yellow, VMFA's contribution to this collaborative project, was conceived and expertly brought to fruition by Dr. David Park Curry, our curator of American arts and an acclaimed expert in the field of Whistler studies. In the early 1980s, he served as curator of American art at the Freer, where he was responsible for James McNeill Whistler at the Freer Gallery of Art, an exhibition and catalogue marking the 150th anniversary of the artist's birth. This current exhibition project will also serve to introduce some of the themes of his new book, James McNeill Whistler: Uneasy Pieces, Essays in Visual Synthesis. In this highly innovative monograph, seven richly illustrated essays link the artist's work to issues of performance, fashion and display. Dr. Curry's research and the publication of the book have been supported by the Luce Foundation for American Art, the J. Paul Getty Trust, and FLOWE, a private Denver foundation.
Marking the 100th anniversary of the artist's death, this collaborative exhibition project between VMFA and the Freer Gallery of Art revisits two of Whistler's controversial avant-garde installations from the end of the 19th century. It also points the way to other possible collaborations as art museums confront many new challenges and opportunities at the beginning of the 21st century.
Curator's Statement by David Park Curry, Curator of American Arts ,Virginia Museum of Fine Arts:
Mr. Whistler's Galleries: Avant-Garde in Victorian London
"Now my rooms," James McNeill Whistler proclaimed more than a century ago, "are pictures in themselves." Whistler is famous as an avant-garde artist who challenged accepted standards of academic finish, subject, scale and even public behavior, but his artistry as an exhibition designer has been largely overlooked since his death in 1903. Drawn from the worlds of domestic decoration, fashion and the theater, Whistler's presentation techniques were as advanced as the art they showcased.
Present-day museum visitors will have an opportunity to experience both Whistler's artworks and his groundbreaking gallery design in a special collaboration between the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution. Presented exclusively at the Freer in Washington, D.C., our project revisits two avant-garde exhibitions originally staged in London: Arrangement in White and Yellow (1883) and Arrangement in Flesh Colour and Grey (1884).
To showcase his recent etchings of Venice and London, Whistler covered gallery walls with white felt embellished with brilliant yellow moldings. The etchings were hung spaciously - their radically plain white frames provided minimum distraction from the etchings themselves. Decorations included draperies of yellow fabric, a yellow sofa in the center of the room, a group of "perilous little cane bottomed chairs," oriental pottery, and flowers in various shades of yellow. Straw matting covered the floor. Although critics complained that the "superabundant yellowness almost gives one the jaundice," there was a consensus that Whistler had created a background admirably suited to display his etchings. Whistler revealed his flair for showmanship, hiring an attendant "habited in the tints of a poached egg" to circulate through the exhibition selling a catalogue that included critical quotations taken out of context by the artist to hoist journalists with their own petards. Amidst a flurry of controversy, the White and Yellow exhibit then traveled to six American cities. Meanwhile, in London, Whistler mounted a Flesh Colour and Grey interior to enhance a group of pastels, watercolors and oils.
Although shocking to the sensibilities of 19th-century "gallery-trotters," Whistler's innovations changed approaches to gallery design irrevocably and foreshadowed contemporary installation and performance art of the 20th century.
Curator's Statement by Dr. Kenneth John Myers, Associate Curator of American Art, Freer Gallery of Art, September 5, 2003:
Mr. Whistler's Galleries
James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) is most often remembered as a painter and printmaker but he was also an influential designer of both private and public interiors, and his work as an exhibition designer played a crucial role in the development of modernist styles of displaying art. Unfortunately, the importance of Whistler's work as an exhibition designer has been obscured by the inherently ephemeral nature of all interior decorations.
When Whistler arrived in Paris to study art in 1855, most public and private art installations were hung "salon style." Paintings were hung close together, frame to frame, wall to wall, and floor to ceiling. Beginning in the 1870s, Whistler organized a series of innovative and provocative installations that both publicized his own work and played a crucial role in the transformation of exhibition practice, hastening the decline of the salon-style hang and paving the way for the emergence of the sparer styles of exhibition design found in most museums and galleries today.
In the early 1880s, Whistler began to title his installations, suggesting that he had come to think of them as independent works of art. The first two Whistler installations to be given titles were the Arrangement in White & Yellow he created for an exhibition of his etchings in 1883, and the Arrangement in Flesh Colour & Grey he designed for an exhibition of his oil paintings, watercolors, and pastels in 1884. Mr. Whistler's Galleries: Avant-Garde in Victorian London explores Whistler's influence on the history of exhibition design by creating new versions of these two path-breaking installations. The exhibition offers twenty-first-century museum visitors an opportunity to experience the excitement, surprise, and wonder that nineteenth-century viewers might have felt when they found themselves in Whistler's innovative and influential exhibitions.
The 1884 Frames
SHAPE AND SIZE
For the 1884 exhibition at the Dowdeswell and Dowdeswells Gallery in London, James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) widened and flattened the profile of a gilded oak frame that he had designed for a previous exhibition in 1881. By standardizing his frames, and using relatively large frames for all but the smallest works, Whistler established a consistent visual element connecting the paintings and drawings to the surrounding walls, supporting his view that his works be appreciated as flat combinations of color and line, not as windows onto the real world. Whistler used the same frames for both oil paintings and works on paper, promoting his belief that works of art should be valued-both aesthetically and financially-not by media or size, but solely for their beauty of form.
Perhaps the most notable departure from conventional frame design was Whistler's decision to vary the color of the gilding, thereby creating visual interest and complementing the color harmonies of particular paintings and drawings. This was described in contemporary press clippings as having a "particularly pleasing effect." The "exquisite arrangement of colour," said one reviewer, was "worthy to be adopted by the costumière of the period," while another remarked on his "frames of strange metallic hues."
Most of the Freer's paintings from the 1884 exhibition still had original frames, many with old Dowdeswell and Dowdeswells Gallery paper labels on their backs. In keeping with common practice, however, all had been re-gilded and were now a standard yellow gold. The effect on the paintings was uniform and conventional-something that Whistler had tried to avoid.
ANALYSIS AND TREATMENT
Inspired by descriptions of the frames in Whistler's correspondence and reviews of the original exhibition, curator Kenneth Myers and exhibition conservator Jane Norman began to investigate the physical evidence of the frames themselves. In collaboration with frame specialists William Lewin and Davida Kovner, of William A. Lewin, Conservator, in Baltimore, eight frames and the watercolors they contained were studied in depth. When these eight frames were disassembled, pencil notations were found on the inside liner edge. These notations gave dimensions that matched the opening size of the frame, and always gave a color: "red," "green" or "yellow." Luckily, the sections had not been taken apart when the frames were re-gilded in the mid 20th century, so investigators found remains of the original gilding layer in the narrow space between the frames' inner linings and outer sections. In every case, the color of the surviving original gilding matched the pencil color directives. Colors varied from reddish gold to a color that was pale and almost greenish in tone. Dr. John Winter, the Freer's senior conservation scientist, analyzed the remnants of the original gold gilding, and found that the reddish gilding contained a much higher copper content than average gilding, and that the greenish gilding contained higher amounts of silver. Modern gilding samples were analyzed and suitable products were selected for their metallic compositions and visual similarity. Lewin and Kovner stripped the eight re-gilded frames, protecting and preserving the original gilding left on the edges. The new gilding is a close match to the old, with variations in toner (the surface coating traditionally applied over gilding to lessen the brilliance and protect the gilding) added so that the surface of the restored frames closely matches their original appearance.
The end-result is a colored gilding that enhances the delicate tonal harmonies within the paintings, drawing them out beyond their borders. The Freer did not have original frames for fourteen of the small works to be included in its recreation of the 1884 Dowdeswell show. In addition to restoring eight of the original frames, Lewin and Kovner built, gilded, and toned fourteen frames to match the dimensions, profile, and gilding of the 1884 frames. Of the forty-one paintings and drawings in the Freer's new version of Whistler's 1884 exhibition, twenty-two are in frames that have the kind of gilding he intended. Nineteen remain in un-restored, old frames. The differences are visually striking.
THE 1883 FRAMES
None of the etching frames from the 1883 installation survive, but one exhibition reviewer described them as being "white, plain, square in section, with two light brown lines as their only relief." The design of the frames in our version of the 1883 exhibition is based on a vintage Whistler etching frame matching that description that Myers found in a private collection. According to an inscription on the back of the vintage frame, Whistler gave it, together with the etching it still contains, to the famous theatrical impresario Richard D'Oyley Carte, in the mid 1880s. The etching frames were manufactured by Eli Wilner and Company, of New York City.
Whistler's "Poached Egg"
What the critics said: Selected quotations:
The Poached Egg Man at the Freer:
Selected wall panel texts from the exhibition:
Arrangement in White and Yellow
Whistler's Arrangement in White and Yellow opened in London on February 17, 1883. The artist's gleeful description of the installation reveals a carefully calculated theatricality:
Whistler staged his exhibition at the Fine Art Society in New Bond Street. Previously, the society had sent Whistler to Venice on commission in 1879, and it had already hosted exhibitions designed by Whistler in 1880 and 1881. However, the White and Yellow exhibition wore out the artist's welcome. His next installation, Arrangement in Flesh Colour and Grey, opened a few doors away, at the Dowdeswells' gallery, in May 1884.
Following its London showing, other versions of Arrangement in White and Yellow traveled to commercial art galleries in American cities including New York, Boston, Baltimore, Chicago, and Detroit, where Whistler's future patron Charles Lang Freer resided. The exhibition also had one venue at an influential teaching institution: the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Whistler continued to apply his innovative display techniques throughout the century. What had begun as a somewhat mischievous effort at jump-starting his ailing career would have a lasting impact on the public presentation of art.
Quotation from Whistler to Waldo Story, February 5, 1883
Arrangement in Flesh Colour and Grey
Whistler's Arrangement in Flesh Colour and Grey opened at the Dowdeswell and Dowdeswells Gallery in London on Saturday, May 17, 1884. The exhibition featured sixty-seven oil paintings, watercolors, and pastels, most of which had been completed after Whistler's 1883 installation, Arrangement in White and Yellow, had closed. Exhibition reviews report that the gallery walls were covered with a textured cloth, the color of which was variously described as "pink," "salmon," and "a delicate rose-tint." The baseboards, crown moldings, doorframes, upper walls, and ceiling were painted various shades of gray. The room was decorated with "magnificent azaleas in vases" and "a large crater of flesh-coloured earthenware containing a large plant of marguerite daisies." Chairs were "arrangements in white and grey." The room contained a fireplace that was decorated with a pale gray drape "edged with flesh-coloured cord" and signed with Whistler's butterfly monogram appliquéd "in the new style of needlework." The attendant was dressed "in a grey coat with flesh-coloured collar and cuffs, grey trousers, grey stockings, and fashionably cut patent leather pumps."
The opening reception was held during the afternoon so that the gaslights would not throw off the subtleties of Whistler's color harmonies. As with the 1883 exhibition, guests included painters, actors, writers, critics, and the kind of wealthy Londoners that one reviewer described simply as "fashionable people." Whistler worked the floor. The reviewer for Topical Times described him as gliding "through the crowd like a miniature Mephistopheles," whispering "artistic diabolisms in the prettiest ears in London."
Quotations from contemporary exhibition reviews, gathered by Whistler's press cutting service and preserved in Special Collections, Glasgow University Library
In Defense of Small Works of Art
Whistler was one of the most influential advocates of what has come to be known as "art for art's sake." He believed that beauty was the only relevant criterion for evaluating an artwork's success. By the early 1880s, Whistler had rejected the commonplace assumption that in order to be important a work of art had to be big. As a practical matter, large paintings were easiest to see in the crowded confines of a salon-style hang, where they overshadowed smaller works. But small works could hold their own in the more intimate spaces of commercial art galleries.
The installation Whistler designed for his Flesh Colour and Grey exhibition implied his rejection of scale as an aesthetic criterion. He juxtaposed one large painting, a lifesized portrait of a young girl, with sixty-six small ones. As E. W. Godwin commented, the little paintings surrounded the big one like stars "of different magnitudes [about the] moon." Whistler framed most of the small works in a wide frame usually reserved for large oil paintings. One reviewer, noticing this decision, complained that the frames were "massive." Whistler's wide frames implied that small works were as important as large ones.
Quotations from E. W. Godwin, "To Art Students: Letter No. 9," British Architect, June I, 1884, and the Globe, May 20, 1884
Mr. Whistler and His Critics
The audience for fine art during the nineteenth century was dominated by the middle class, and visits to art exhibitions offered a popular form of entertainment. Artists who caught public attention through press coverage quickly became celebrities. Small printed catalogues distributed by galleries identified artists, and sometimes their addresses, for potential patrons. Before wall-mounted exhibition labels as we know them today came into use, these catalogues also listed the titles of works on view. Whistler deployed this format to great effect for the Arrangement in Yellow and White. The artist placed snippets of critical commentary, which he had taken out of context and sometimes heavily edited, under the etching titles. The margins of the pamphlet carry Whistler's own caustic witticisms. In a letter to a friend, the artist crowed:
Whistler borrowed this self-serving but highly amusing format from theater journals of the time. He further revealed his flair for showmanship by having an attendant, "habited in the tints of a poached egg," circulate through the exhibition selling the brown-covered catalogue. Whistler's use of the word "spin" reminds us that he was among the first artist's to manipulate the press in order to generate useful publicity. The critics were not always as negative as Whistler's artful citations make them appear.
Quotations from Whistler to Waldo Story, February 5, 1883, and the London Weekly Register, February 24, 1883
Color and Furnishings
Period reviews contain a great deal of information about Whistler's installation designs, but they do not tell us everything we would like to know about the 1883 and 1884 exhibitions. Each exhibition featured walls covered with fabric and trimmed with painted woodwork. Accounts of the Arrangement in White and Yellow agree that Whistler used a softly textured, non-reflective fabric usually described as "white." The trim color for Whistler's 1883 installation was "citron," an acidic yellow-green popular during the 1880s. But color names can be deceptive. Moreover, Whistler avoided commercial paints, preferring to mix his own evanescent shades for interiors long since destroyed.
His pinks and grays prove as elusive as his whites and yellows. Several reviewers described the walls of the 1884 installation as being covered with "flesh-coloured" serge, parroting Whistler's installation title. But others described the color as "pale pink," "biscuit," "delicate rose-tint," "salmon," and "crushed-strawberry." For each installation, Whistler completed his color harmony by selecting undocumented shades of the dominant colors for his draperies, upholstered sofas, chairs, and plant stands. In selecting fabrics and colors for our versions of Whistler's we were after guided by Whistler's own paintings which provided solid evidence as to the color combinations he preferred. We also consulted late-nineteenth-century color books.
Reviews do not discuss the style of the furnishings Whistler selected for either exhibition. The anglo-japanesque furniture in our galleries is based on examples by the British architect and designer E. W. Godwin (1833-1886). A good friend of Whistler's, Godwin exchanged ideas about interior decoration with the artist, designed a house for Whistler in the late 1870s, and published favorable reviews of both the 1883 and 1884 exhibitions.
Quotations from contemporary exhibition reviews, collected in Whistler's press cutting books
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