After unsuccessful stints at the US Military Academy at West Point, New York, and at the US Coast and Geodetic Survey in Washington, DC, Whistler moved to Paris to become an artist. In 1858 he and fellow artist Ernest Delannoy started on a walking tour of the Alsace and Rhineland regions, planning to reach Amsterdam. They soon abandoned the trip when they ran out of money. Along the way Whistler made scores of pencil drawings and several watercolors. He also drew on prepared copperplates that he later etched and printed in Paris. With under- and overdrawing in pencil, the watercolors were intended as compositional studies structured by line rather than color, while the etchings were considered finished works of art.
Two pivotal events caused Whistler to turn his attention to watercolor: a falling-out over the Peacock Room with his primary patron, industrialist Frederick Leyland, in 1877, and an expensive libel suit against critic John Ruskin in 1878. The Ruskin trial transformed Whistler into a celebrity, but it also left him bankrupt. Hoping to recover financially, he accepted a three-month commission from the Fine Art Society of London to produce a set of twelve etchings of Venice. More than a year later, Whistler returned from Italy with fifty etchings, a hundred pastels, several oil paintings, and at least three watercolors.
Whistler fully embraced the medium of watercolor in the 1880s. “Mr. Whistler is about to surprise both his friends and his detractors by appearing in the new character of the water-colour artist,” a reporter wrote in 1881. While London Bridge was not his first watercolor, Whistler wanted it understood as his beginning point.