Credit: James McNeill Whistler via The Art Institute of Chicago

Review: Whistler: Art and Legacy @ Hunterian Art Gallery

By Ashmita Shanthakumar

James McNeill Whistler’s life and legacy are beautifully exhibited at the Hunterian.

James McNeill Whistler was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, but spent his working life in Europe. He studied topography at the United States Military, and had family who constructed railways, bridges, and ships which shaped Whistler’s interest in art and landscape. Though he never physically visited Glasgow, he had strong links to the city through its artists including a close association with the Glasgow Boys (a group of artists who represented the beginning of modernist painting in Scotland). Upon her death, Whistler’s sister-in-law and secretary Rosaline Birnie Philip donated his work to the University of Glasgow. Subsequently, the University’s Hunterian Art Gallery is home to the world’s second largest collection of Whistler’s works. While the Hunterian Art Gallery has showcased his paintings before, they are currently showing his etchings and materials used in his work for the first time. 

While viewing the exhibition, it was the sheer range of Whistler’s artwork that impressed me the most; he experimented with numerous styles and mediums throughout his life. His etchings made in London demonstrated the 19th century landscape with beautifully detailed backgrounds and buildings. I stood as close to the etchings as possible to see each of the individual lines involved in creating the pictures. This evoked a sense of the world at the time in which he drew it in. One of my favourites of this set was Limehouse, which portrays a wharf on the outside of the Thames. 

Though his paintings differ from the etchings, they are still fascinating; in these he used lighter, sparser lines, giving us only the outlines of people and settings instead of the detailed versions of the world, as with his etchings. These oil paintings involve more abstract subjects, created with the brushstrokes and swirls of colour. In addition to the paintings and etchings, Whistler also drew with chalk and pastel on a brown paper background. Interestingly, in contrast to the etchings, I felt that these were best viewed from a farther distance (at least 6ft away) to get the full scope of the painting and really absorb what it depicts. 

“It’s not only a collection of art but a little tour of someone’s life.”

Whistler also created beautiful watercolours. One of these is a series for which the titles start with the predominant colours used: gold and grey, violet and silver, blue and silver, and so on. One example in the exhibition is Grey and Green: A Shop in Brittany. There’s also a collection here from his coastal travels full of rivers and boats. These are incredibly beautiful and show the small boats clear against the milky seas and sky.

This exhibit is wonderful for anyone who appreciates art and a few hours passed by there like no time at all. There’s a huge variety of work that would appeal to fans of many different art styles. Personally, I went from knowing nothing about James Whistler to becoming a huge fan; it’s not only a collection of art but a little tour of someone’s life.

Whistler: Art and Legacy was exhibited at the Hunterian Art Gallery until 31 October; although the exhibition has passed, you can still check out the Hunterian’s extensive permanent collection of Whistler’s works. 


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