James Abbott McNeill Whistler studied art at the Saint Petersburg Academy of Arts and Sciences during a five-year sojourn in Russia and then at West Point. He learned to etch as part of the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey in Washington, D.C., and would continue to make prints throughout his career. While his early figural work was met with mixed reviews, his Japanese subjects were favorably received. Whistler, who befriended the Pre-Raphaelites, advocated a theory of “art for art’s sake.” He sued the critic John Ruskin for libel following his critical attack of a work shown in 1877 at the Grosvenor Gallery in London. Although Whistler won the suit, his legal expenses forced him into bankruptcy. He gained international acclaim during the 1880s and 1890s, exhibiting throughout Europe and the United States.
Three figures sketched with only a few confident strokes animate the foreground of The Beach at Selsey Bill, most likely executed during a visit to his friend and promoter Charles Augustus Howell at Selsey Bill, a fishing community on the southern coast of England. However, the brushwork of the sky and loosely painted figures are unusual for Whistler. It has been suggested that Whistler might have begun the painting but it could have been scandalously completed by Howell’s mistress, the deceitful Rosa Frances Corder (1853-1894), a painter and forger. With its broad expanse of beach meeting the cool blue-violet sky high up on the canvas, this evocative work captures the atmosphere of a blustery day at the shore.
Although Whistler was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, he spent most of his life abroad, living in large European cities, predominantly London and Paris. He moved in circles with artists and writers from varied movements and schools, especially in France, where he was a major figure in the realist avant-garde group of painters led by Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) and Edouard Manet (1832-1883). He was known for being quite free spirited; he is often considered the painter equivalent of friend and rival Oscar Wilde. While he is often categorized as a realist, towards the end of his career he pushed closer and closer to abstraction as other artists moved in a similar direction.
Despite its size, Blue and Silver, Dieppe showcases his tendency toward abstraction. The space is divided into bands of color representing sea, sky and clouds. Whistler reduced the entire scene to only a few colors applied to the surface with strong, expressive brushstrokes. The feeling of the landscape on a gray day is conveyed through the color and texture. Whistler was inspired by Japanese prints and other Asian art forms, and the flat bands of color certainly exemplify this influence.
What do you think of the allegations that Corder might have finished The Beach at Selsey Bill? What do you think about the difference in the two paintings? Do you have a favorite Whistler painting in the NBMAA collection or in another museum?