The Plain Pier of Beautiful Harmonies

September 09, 2019 | Rebecca Alvarado

During my internship at the National Museum of Asian Art, I became aware of a series of complicated ventures made by a single artist, James McNeill Whistler. The Freer Gallery’s collection of art and writing by Whistler provides insight into the artist’s life, from prosperity to bankruptcy and from notoriety to semi-redemption and eventually international fame. My relationship with him was academically a love-hate sequence from enjoying his artistic ingenuity to questioning his business practices and his personal ego.

The Freer Gallery of Art houses the largest collection of Whistlers in the world. Among his watercolors I found Grey and Silver–Pier, Southend. I found myself revisiting this watercolor with piqued interest in his overt simplicity and arrangement of forms. This particular watercolor is a muted blend of shades with a minor division between mixes of green and blue, and occasionally with red mixed into the sparse land and blotchy sky. The horizon is interrupted by the calligraphic pier spanning the paper.[1]The balance of land and open pier create longevity and continuity that result in a smooth visual transition. Figures meticulously scattered across the pier lack individuality but maintain distinction from one to the other.

Grey and Silver–Pier, Southend was part of a group of watercolors that Whistler developed over time in the first few years of the 1880s. This project was a road of redemption that followed the Ruskin trial. Whistler looked for new markets and financial opportunities, and he began producing large quantities of work. Following his trip to Venice, which was funded by the Fine Arts Society in 1879, Whistler traveled throughout London and its environs, where he produced watercolors in addition to his many pastels, oils, and etchings. Among those was Grey and Silver–Pier, Southend. Unfortunately, Whistler gave this work away after he deemed it a mistake, but he later reacquired it and included it among a group of small watercolors as “little beauties in their frames.”[2]

As part of my internship experience, I visited the department of Conservation and Scientific Research, which gave me a different perspective on Whistler’s paintings. Meeting with paper conservator Emily Jacobson, we viewed the watercolor under a telescope, and I saw particles of paint scattered throughout the thin washes. Jacobson explained they were identifiable colors that Whistler constantly mixed on his palette as his way of harmonizing the image. He used colors as well as black and white that acted as harmonizers throughout the works.

An image that shows the close-up texture of a piece of weathered paper with watercolor on it
Screenshot of surface texture in raking light, area in sky indicated by square above. Image by Emily Jacobson, paper conservator.

Lee Glazer, the former curator of American art at the National Museum of Asian Art, and her team took amazing steps to study Whistler’s watercolors academically through scientific and historical methods. It is incredibly insightful to see how conservation could unravel minor details within an artwork. It is my hope that audiences will enjoy the beautiful harmonies set throughout each watercolor, as I came to appreciate in Grey and Silver–Pier, Southend.

[1]Richard Dorment and Margaret F. MacDonald, James McNeill Whistler (London: Tate Gallery Publications, 1994), 108.

[2]Whistler to Charles Dowdeswell, [May 1/14, 1884], GUW 8635.

A watercolor painting of a bridge going across a body of water. The bridge is located in the upper third of the painting with grayish water underneath.
Grey and Silver–Pier, Southend
James McNeill Whistler
Watercolor on paper
Gift of Charles Lang Freer, Freer Gallery of Art, F1902.169