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James McNeill Whistler's etchings and lithotints of the River Thames on view at the Fine Art Society
Nocturne, 1878. Lithotint, 6 3/4 x 10 1/8 inches.

LONDON.- The Fine Art Society presents an exhibition of James McNeill Whistler’s (1834-1903) etchings and lithotints of the River Thames - the source of his first fame and the subject of many of his finest and best-known works.

At the core of the exhibition is a set of very fine proofs of seven etchings made by the expatriate American artist after he had moved from Paris to London in the summer of 1859. Charged with Realist zeal inhaled in the bohemian quarters of the French capital, Whistler took lodgings in the rough, impoverished district of Wapping, immersing himself in the riverside community of boatmen, longshore men and dockers.

By placing these working class men centre stage of his etchings, Whistler was producing images which were quite revolutionary. Fusing his admiration for artists such as William Hogarth and Gustave Courbet with ideas suggested by photographs and Japanese prints, and displaying masterly drawing, arresting compositions and a keen eye for the picturesque, these works have long been viewed as amongst Whistler’s greatest artistic achievements.

In 1867 Whistler decided to settle in Chelsea at 2 Lindsey Row (now 96 Cheyne Walk) overlooking the Thames. The stretch of the river between Battersea Bridge and Westminster Bridge provided him with a subject for many of his finest paintings.

Avoiding the daytime when the Thames was seething with traffic, Whistler would go out in a boat at night when the river became an enchanted, silent world. Unable to paint on the water, he committed what he saw to memory, so that he could paint it immediately when he returned to the studio.

The resulting Nocturnes were quite unlike Whistler’s earlier works, reflecting a move from realism to aestheticism. Executed rapidly using paint thinned with turpentine and linseed oil, they reduced the features of the Thames to dark shapes punctuated with glimmers of light. Although celebrated today, these paintings confused the public and critics at the time, and were famously dismissed in a damning review by John Ruskin. Fearing that the review had made his work unsalable, in 1878 Whistler sued Ruskin for libel in a widely-publicised saga which ultimately led to his financial ruin; although Whistler won his case, he had to pay his own legal costs, and was only awarded one farthing in damages.

In the same year, Whistler made two lithotints which were the equivalents in prints of his painted Nocturnes. As a printmaker whose etchings of the Thames had first established his reputation in London, it was natural for him to express himself with ink as well as paint. Given the recent adverse publicity he had received, he hoped these lithotints would provide a means of stimulating interest in, and understanding of, his new work amongst the general public.

It was at this time that Whistler was first introduced to The Fine Art Society, founded in 1876. In 1879 the gallery published a set of his Thames etchings, prompting a long-standing relationship between The Fine Art Society and the artist that the gallery is proud to continue to this day with this important new exhibition.

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