As the Southwest Wharf undergoes a major re-development, it is interesting to view another time and place when a capital city on a river underwent dramatic change.
Some of the scenes in at the Sackler An American in London: Whistler and the Thames are of 19th century city riverbanks that could well have been Southwest Washington on the Potomac at that time.
In fact, the scenes of London on the Thames River were painted by an American painter James McNeill Whistler. Prior to his move to England, Whistler had a short career as a draftsman mapping the U.S. coast for military and maritime purposes. He was transferred to the etching division in Washington, DC after it was discovered he was drawing sea serpents and mermaids. He would use what he learned about etching in those two months in his later career.
As historic landmarks were torn down in England’s capital city and altered to make way for modern urbanization, Whistler recorded these dramatic changes in some of his most transforming works.
Highlights of this exhibit of his earliest works include his nocturnes, a term Whistler coined for subjects as they appear in twilight. “Blue and Gold: Old Battersea Bridge” is probably his best known of this ensemble. Layered with color and atmosphere, it evokes a poetic view of the city. In contrast, the daytime grittiness of industrial landscapes, schooners at rest in the Thames, and the river’s seedy dockyards, is depicted in his etchings and in the accompanying photographs by James Hedderly.
One might also question if Whistler in his brief stint with the U.S. Coast Survey etched some of what was our DC wharf in the 1850’s. One can wonder at the art that is Whistler in An American in London: Whistler and the Thames or perhaps muse as to whether where we live will seem quaint to future generations as own waterfront develops.
WANT TO GO?
WHERE: Freer-Sackler, Meyer Auditorium, National Mall,1050 Independence Ave. SW.
WHEN: 10 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. every day until August 17
By: Sheila Wickouski