James Abbot McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge oil on canvas 1862 Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, Mass.
Whistler, an American who trained in Paris and spent most of his life in London, was one of the great recorders of the Thames, especially of the life of its urban banks, both in the Docks and upstream at Westminster and Chelsea. His sharply observant accounts, not only in oil on canvas but also in a medium he excelled in, etching, have a frankness that is unique to his artistic temperament, true to his lively appreciation of how people live and behave, and true at the same time to his famous feeling for the abstract beauty of form and colour – the aesthetics of “art for art’s sake”. This picture, one of a series of views looking south across the Thames, unites these two opposing elements of his output. Its very title encapsulates the opposition: we are invited to look at an atmospherically painted topographical view, and to enjoy the quasi-musical “harmonies” – a word he often used – of subtly blended and modulated colour.
Compositionally, we are in the world of the informal “snapshot” that Degas was to master shortly afterwards, though not the simplified, Japan-inspired style of Whistler’s more famous view of Battersea Bridge, the Nocturne in Blue and Gold of the early 1870s (Tate). The “brown and silver” of this subject are closely related to the true colours of a dull London day. Whistler sees poetry in them, nonetheless. He combines that poetry with an unvarnished depiction of the bargemen in the boats and on the shore, with the lumbering traffic on the bridge, and, at the intense core of the theme of “silver”: the sunlight flashing on the glazed tunnel-vault of Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace, several miles off on the ridge of Sydenham Hill.
That remarkable detail, slipped into the far right distance of the view, is something that Londoners must have been used to seeing, but which has been lost to us since the Palace was destroyed in the fire of 1936. (If it had survived, it would no doubt now be hidden at this distance by tall buildings.) The fact that Whistler goes to the trouble of giving it as part of the seemingly mundane panorama, taken from a window in Lindsey House, Chelsea, where he was to live with his mother later in the 1860s, is testimony to his energetic appreciation of the reality of the place he is depicting, and of its unexpected visual enchantments.
He was to give an unexpectedly counterintuitive gloss on this in his “Ten O’Clock Lecture” of 1885. He is proposing a typically “aesthetic” refutation of a “common-sense” view of the world:
“That Nature is always right, is an assertion, artistically, as untrue as it is one whose truth is universally taken for granted. Nature is very rarely right, to such an extent even, that it might almost be said that Nature is usually wrong: that is to say, the condition of things that shall bring about the perfection of harmony in a picture is rare, and not common at all … seldom does Nature succeed in producing a picture.
“The sun blares, the wind blows from the east, the sky is bereft of cloud, and without, all is of iron. The windows of the Crystal Palace are seen from all points of London. The holiday-maker rejoices in the glorious day, and the painter turns aside to shut his eyes.
“How little this is understood, and how dutifully the casual in nature is accepted as sublime, may be gathered from the unlimited admiration daily produced by a very foolish sunset.”
In our picture Whistler seems to be saying, Look at the grey banality of the London townscape. See it for what it is, but in my terms as a symphony in muted colour; and there, glinting on the horizon, is not a “foolish” sunset but the very modern, artificial splendour of the Crystal Palace! It is important not to take Whistler at his word. His delight in the oxymoron, the blatantly counterfactual, surely influenced the burgeoning wit of his friend the young Oscar Wilde.
Lindsey House was built (possibly rebuilt) by the Earl of Lindsey in the 1670s, and divided into a terrace of separate dwellings in the 1770s. Although much altered, even today it retains its character as one of the few surviving great buildings of London from the late Stuart period. Opposite it, on the corner of Battersea Bridge, a new statue of Whistler by Nicholas Dimbleby has recently been erected, by the good offices of the Chelsea Arts Club, which he founded in 1891, and which survives as a lively social centre for artists and kindred spirits.