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

Thu May 1, 2014 2:36am EDT
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By Ian Simpson

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.   Continued...