Saturday, March 17, 2007

James Abbott McNeill Whistler



The Thames from Battersea Reach

Oil on canvas, 16 X 241/2" (40.64 x 62.23 cm.)

Signed, lower left

Museum purchase, 958-0-152

Since the time
of its first owner, New Yorker Edward Holbrook, The Thames from Battersea Reach
has been attributed to James Abbott McNeill Whistler. The painting shows the
embankment at Battersea Reach overlooking the Thames from Whistler's
neighborhood in Chelsea, with the factory smokestacks and church steeple of
Cremorne visible on the opposite shore, and interprets these much as Whistler
did around 1863-64, with predominantly gray coloring and swift, thin brushwork.
In recent years, it has been suggested that the painting is a document of
Whistler's friendship with Walter Greaves, and partially or wholly Greaves's

When Andrew McLaren Young examined the painting around 1971, he felt that
the embankment and figure in the foreground, and the docked boats in the middle
distance did not ring true to Whistler, conjecturing that it might instead be
the work of Whistler's former pupil, Walter Greaves (1846-1930), an attribution
in which Young's co-author, Margaret MacDonald, concurred. A technical
examination of the painting revealed that the boats, embankment, and figure were
all made with the same paint, and that the inscription at the lower left,
"Whistler1863," which is not in Whistler's handwriting, was applied at the same
time as the surrounding passages of paint.

Walter Greaves was a native of Chelsea who met Whistler about 1863. He and
his brother Henry (1844-1904) operated rowboats for hire and regularly ferried
Whistler across the Thames so that he could make pastel sketches of the river,
particularly at night. When Whistler learned of the brothers' interest in art,
he invited them to his studio, where they gladly worked as his assistants and
errand boys. Whistler and his mother frequently visited the Greaves home, which
was very close to their own. Whistler described them as "the boat people, a sort
of Peggoty family. . . The two brothers were my first pupils."

The Greaves brothers became ardent admirers of Whistler, emulating his
manner of dress and comportment as well as his approach to art. Their only art
instruction seems to have consisted of carefully copying Whistler's sketches.
Walter Greaves worked alongside Whistler on some of his paintings and created
some of his own works by adding to canvases begun by Whistler. He also produced
etchings, pastels, and nocturnes reminiscent of Whistler's style.Whistler,
notoriously capricious in personal relationships, abruptly broke with the
Greaves brothers around 1872-73. Whistler's early biographers all agreed that
the loss of friendship was devastating to Walter Greaves, who took the rejection
personally. Although Whistler's associates still occasionally approached Greaves
for information about Whistler's painting technique and early years in Chelsea,
Greaves became increasingly withdrawn and isolated from the company of artists.
He continued to make paintings and drawings of Chelsea, many of which contained
memory images of Whistler, which he often inscribed with the date that
corresponded to the memory. As the years passed, Walter Greaves suffered
considerable impoverishment. He was reduced to selling scraps from Whistler's
studio and his own pastels and paintings for small sums to Chelsea visitors. The
manner of their sale led to their being later touted as previously unknown works
by Whistler.Both Andrew McLaren Young and Margaret MacDonald suggested that here
Greaves may have depicted Whistler standing at the embankment at Battersea
Reach, sketching the Thames as he would have done in 1863 when Greaves first
knew him. The inscription "Whistler-1863" would then be Greaves's identification
of the subject rather than the date of his contribution, which may have been in
the 1880s. The background is possibly Whistler's work, an unfinished view to
which Greaves may have added.