Whistler in Watercolor Project
Combining the methods of art history and conservation science, this study focuses on the more than 50 watercolors by James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) in the Freer Gallery of Art. These works—the world’s largest collection of Whistler watercolors—are part of the Freer’s larger collection of Whistler’s art, including oils, prints, drawings, and copper etching plates. Technical studies have analyzed Whistler’s oil paintings, prints, and pastels, but no such studies exist on his watercolor practice.
Collaboration with Lee Glazer, associate curator of American art, and Blythe McCarthy, senior scientist in the Department of Conservation and Scientific Research, will allow us to synthesize a technical examination and analysis of Whistler’s paper, pigments, and techniques with a comprehensive survey of the watercolors’ exhibition and reception in Britain and the United States. It will illuminate how Whistler worked with the medium and establish a baseline of information to which other collections of his watercolors can be compared.
Approximately half of the Whistler watercolors already have been examined visually and microscopically; the remainder will be similarly examined during this project. This investigation will determine the types of paper used, identify paper composition and color, locate watermarks, and note inscriptions and notations. We will add information to an existing database on papers used by Whistler in his etchings, lithographs, and drawings, compiled by Martha Smith, former Freer paper conservator (see below).
Visible working practices such as sanding, blotting, or scraping the paper and paint to achieve a desired appearance will be photographed and described to help scholars, curators, and conservators recognize them in related works. A methodology using recently acquired computed radiography will be developed to reveal watermarks that cannot otherwise be seen. The watercolors also will be photographed using ultraviolet and infrared reflectography, which can be used to refine pigment identification and reveal working drawings beneath layers of paint. Detailed results from this project can be found in the Whistler in Watercolor online catalogue.