Whistler show focuses on Thames' inspiration of U.S. artist

WASHINGTON Wed Apr 30, 2014 5:14pm EDT

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - James McNeill Whistler, one of the United States' greatest artists, was never modest about his talent now on display in the biggest U.S. show of his work in almost 20 years.

When an admirer told the 19th-century painter that a woman had remarked on her early morning walk about how closely nature came to some of his evocative canvases, Whistler was exultant.

"Ah!" he said. "So nature is catching up!"

Whistler's evolving artistry and the inspiration he took from nature is on full display at the exhibition, "An American in London: Whistler and the Thames," in Washington.

The show, opening on Saturday and running through Aug. 17 at the Smithsonian Institution's Sackler Gallery, is the first major exhibition devoted to his early years in London, with more than 80 Whistler works.

The paintings, etchings, lithographs and drawings show his shift from realistic depictions of the gritty Thames River in the mid-19th century to his "nocturnes," nearly abstract views of the river influenced by Japanese art.

The exhibition's focus is on "what I call Whistler's obsession with the Thames and the bridges and the people and the life of the Thames," co-curator Margaret MacDonald, a former art history professor at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, said during a preview.

Whistler, who was born in 1834 and died in 1903, went to London in 1859. He was drawn to the Thames and the constant activity of its boats, watermen, bridges, riverside bars and banks.

Whistler was especially fascinated by the Battersea Bridge, the only remaining timbered bridge. One of his first London works was "Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge," a realistic daytime depiction with a steamboat and small vessels at work.

He also painted his mistress, Joanna Hiffernan, in a group seated before a backdrop of sails and ships' rigging while at the Angel public house, which still exists.

But over the next decade or so Whistler took inspiration from newly popular Japanese woodblock prints.

The evolution culminated in the show's centerpiece, "Blue and Gold: Old Battersea Bridge," an evocative "nocturne" pastel from the early 1870s that shows the structure taller than it actually was.

The Sackler presentation is the final venue of a three-city tour. The exhibition includes almost 50 works from the Freer Gallery of Art, Sackler's sister museum and home to the biggest collection of Whistler art in the world.

(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Scott Malone and Richard Chang)

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