- James McNeill Whistler: Beyond the MythBy Ronald K. Anderson and Anne Koval
- Sickert: Paintings and DrawingsOur PickBy Wendy Baron
- The EY Exhibition: Impressionists in London; French Artists in Exile (1870-1904)By Alexis Clark
- Impressionists in England: The Critical ReceptionBy Kate Flint
- Glasgow Boys: Masterpieces of ArtBy Susie Hodge
- The Life of A PainterBy John Lavery
- Turner Whistler MonetOur PickBy Katherine Lochnan
- Philip Wilson SteerBy D.S. MacColl
- British ImpressionismOur PickBy Kenneth McConkey
- Impressionism in BritainBy Kenneth McConkey with Anna Gruetzner Robins
- Memory and Desire: Painting in Britain and Ireland at the Turn of the Twentieth CenturyBy Kenneth McConkey
- John Singer Sargent: His PortraitBy Stanley Olson
- Whistler: A Life for Art's SakeOur PickBy Daniel E. Sutherland
- WhistlerBy Frances Spalding
Important Art and Artists of British Impressionism
In this sparkling and sultry scene, Whistler depicts revelers in the Cremorne Gardens, a park by the banks of the River Thames in south London. Through a haze of black, gold, and green pigment, Whistler evokes the misty spectacle of a fireworks display. In the foreground, figures are picked out almost as specters or shadows, their thin silhouettes allowing the background wash - created with highly liquid paint - to show through. A fireworks display is recorded through expressionistic dashes of gold, set against a darker area to the left representing the engulfing murk of the night sky.
Many of Whistler's concerns in this painting reflect fundamental aspects of Impressionism, even as he sought to preserve his individuality as an artist, most obviously the decision to depict a single moment in time, emphasized by freezing the exploding rocket in mid-air. His painterly brushwork, leaving traces and flourishes on the canvas, not attempting to hide the artist's role in creating the artwork, also aligns with key feature of Impressionism. At the same time, the blurry, smoky effect of the painting was a realistic one, a response to the highly polluted state of London skies during the 1870s. In his famous "Ten O Clock Lecture" on art, delivered in February 1885, Whistler rhapsodized on that time of evening "when the evening mist clothes the riverside with poetry, as with a veil - and the poor buildings lose themselves in the dim sky - and the tall chimneys become campanile - and the warehouses are palaces in the night - and the whole city hangs in the heavens, and faireyland [sic.] is before us ."
It is worth emphasizing not only the significance of Whistler's artwork to the development of Impressionism as a whole - his biographer Daniel Sutherland states that "nothing in the first Impressionist exhibition [held in Paris in 1874] could touch it " - but in particular its impact on Whistler's British contemporaries and followers. Artists such as Walter Sickert would combine the bleak tonal brilliance and hazy ambience of the Nocturne series with individual features and emphases of their own, in Sickert's case a focus on social spectacle learned from Edgar Degas, to produce uniquely British or London-centric Impressionist genre pieces.
In this glamorous portrait of a belle époque beauty, Whistler shows how his Impressionist style translated into portraiture. The model's informal posture - as if she were responding to a voice off-frame - reflects that concern with capturing the evanescent moment that was typical of Impressionism. The artist's emphasis on the long, curvaceous sweep of back and dress, meanwhile, and the sense that we are invited to gaze almost secretively or furtively on the model because of her orientation away from us, brings to the painting something of the subtle sexual charge of Édouard Manet's likenesses of Berthe Morisot.
The subject for the painting was Whistler's sister-in-law Ethel Whibley, his secretary and confidante, of whom he produced many portraits, often with same stylish and seductive qualities as The Andalusian. However, the painter was also an afficionado of women's fashion, and critic Richard Dorment has argued that this work "is not a portrait of a person, but of a dress ." That dress, according to Dorman, has more to do with Parisian high fashion of the late nineteenth century - a period of relative peace and prosperity when culture flourished in France, known as the belle époque - than with the costume of Andalusia (the southern region of Spain.) That said, Whistler revered the 17th-century Spanish painter Diego Velázquez, and it is likely that the muted color palette and understated brushwork reflect the old master's influence, as well as a wider interest at this time in Hispanic folk culture and style.
In its unabashed focus on fashion and style, this work indicates the connection Whistler established between Impressionism and the Art for Art's Sake philosophy and beauty worship of the late nineteenth century, including in Britain, where the Decadent and Aesthetic movements were in full swing by the time this piece was completed. Artists and writers such as Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley would have appreciated the aims and ambience of Whistler's portrait, which eschews all moral, social, and didactic content in its pursuit of female elegance.
In the early 1880s Walter Sickert, still in his early twenties, became a devoted follower of Whistler, entranced by the older artist's sultry color palettes. The young painter became Whistler's etching assistant, and worked on a series of tonal studies heavily indebted to him. Then, in 1883, he was introduced to the French Impressionist Edgar Degas, whose snapshot-like scenes of city life, such as Place de la Concorde (1875), would profoundly affect Sickert's career. He was also enthused by Degas's depiction of the hedonistic, seamy social life of the French capital, and for the remainder of his life would bring a similarly roving eye to the dancehalls and brothels of London.
It is possible to see works such as Katie Lawrence at Gatti's as combining a Whistlerian tonal range with the documentarist's eye and infatuation with night life personified by Degas. Critic Kenneth McConkey notes that when Sickert returned to London from a trip to Paris in 1885, "it was to give glowing accounts of the 'ballet girls' of an artist referred to by [his friend] Mortimer Menpes as 'Digars'"." Sickert acquired a Degas painting, and became "attracted to the café-concert, the low-life theatre which was arousing the interest of literati ." In this mood, he began to visit the performances of singer Katie Lawrence at Gatti's Hungerford Palace of Varieties, a music hall opened by the Swiss impresario Carlo Gatti in 1857. According to Sickert critic Wendy Baron, the painter produced 166 studies of Lawrence onstage between 1885 and 1888, which became the basis for a large number of paintings. The above work is the only one which survives; though completed several years later, it reflects the spirit of the earlier period in which the series was devised.
Baron notes that Katie Lawrence at Gatti's, based on "hundreds of tiny studies of the stage architecture the performers and the audience", was a matter of "extracting an effective composition from the mass of information gathered ." In this sense, the apparent informality of the piece is an illusion. Sickert followed Degas's atypically Impressionist advice that the artist should work in the studio to create a likeness of a scene at a particular moment more real than that moment itself. The result is an exemplary work of British Impressionism, capturing the spirit of the age in the artist's home city just as the French Impressionists had for Paris at the end of the nineteenth century.