Detail from The Canal, Amsterdam, 1889, James McNeill Whistler, The Hunterian, University of Glasgow

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Wapping may have been started in 1860; it was signed in 1861, and continued until 1865.

1860: According to the Pennells, it was started in 1860. 1 In October 1860 a friend from student days, George du Maurier (1834-1896), wrote that Whistler was working on a painting, probably Wapping:

'we are immense chums, though I see less of him now for he is working hard and in secret down in Rotherhithe, among a beastly set of cads and every possible annoyance and misery, doing one of the greatest chefs d'oeuvres – no difficulty discourages him.' 2

A young woman by the name of Miriam Levy wrote to Whistler many years later: 'I accompanied you and a young woman ([c]alled Annie du Maurier) - and a Greek - named Ionides to Rotherithe [sic] to see a Picture - a nautical one I think you were then about finishing.' 3

Wapping, pencil, Hunterian
Wapping, pencil, Hunterian

The undated drawing reproduced above shows an early version of the composition.

1861: The painting is signed and dated '1861.' In March Whistler and his model, Joanna Hiffernan (b. ca 1843-d.1886) were recorded in the census as living in Greenwich, within easy reach of Bermondsey and Rotherhithe. The painting was described and drawn by Whistler in a letter to Ignace-Henri-Jean-Théodore Fantin-Latour (1836-1904), some time before July 1861 when Fantin visited Whistler in London. The relevant text, and accompanying sketch, are as follows:

'je voudrais t'avoir ici devant un tableau sur lequel je compte bigrement et qui doit devenir un chef d'oeuvre - voici à peu pres ce que c'est.'

Wapping, 1861, pen
Wapping, 1861, pen

'Là ... je tacherai de te l'expliquer - D'abord on est dans un balcon au premier etage, donant en plein sur la Tamise. Il y a trois personnes - un vieux en chemise blanche celui du milieu qui regarde par la fenetre - puis à droite dans le coin, un matelot en casquette et en chemise bleu à grand col rabattu d'un bleu plus clair, qui cause avec une fille bigrement difficile a peindre! Et voici pourquoi je voudrais surtout t'avoir pour que nous puissions discuter l'affaire - Tu sais je l'ai peint trois fois et je ne veux pas me fatiguer - du reste si je la tripotte trop souvent je n'aurai guere le temps de faire le reste - Enfin crois tu! je suis arrivé à y mettre une expression! ... un air de dire à son matelot "Tout ça est bon mon vieux! J'en ai vu d'autres!" tu sais elle cligne de l'oeil et elle se moque de lui! - Maintenant tout ça contre le jour et par conséquent dans une demie teinte attrocement difficile - mais je ne crois pas que je la repeindrai. - La gorge est exposée - la chemise se voit presque en entier qui est bien peinte mon cher - et puis une jacquette ... en etoffe fond blanc à grand arabesques et fleurs de toutes couleurs! Chut! n'en parles pas à Courbet! Maintenant par la fenetre on voit toute la Tamise! Le fond qui est comme une eau forte - et qui etait difficile à ne pas y croire! Le ciel par exemple est tres vrai et cranement peint - il y en a un coin qui se voit à travers les vitraux qui est chic! - Plus pret il y a un rang de grands vaisseaux dout un décharge du charbon, et tout contre la fênetre le mat et la voile jaune d'un alège et juste contre la tête de la fille (qui j'oublliai de te dire a l'air superieurement putin) il y a le beaupré d'un autre grand vaisseau, dont les cordes et les pullies traversent tout le tableau - Pour les details demandes à mon ami Ridley ... mais j'ai repeint la tête depuis son depart. Il y a encore beaucoup de petits bateaux et batiments que je ne puis pas mettre dans l'esquisse - Mais mon cher Fantin je t'assure que jamais ai-je entammé une chose aussi difficile - On est sur tu sais de dire que ce n'est pas fini - parce que comme les bateaux s'en vont je n'ai que juste le temps de mettre leurs valeurs en tons - tu me comprends - et bien pour ceux qui ont l'habitude de fabriquer des marines chez eux et de faire poser des cocottes et des joujoux pour vaisseaux de guerre, mes vrais vaisseaux ne seront pas finis.' 4

Translation: 'I would like you to be here in front of a picture which I am jolly certain must become a masterpiece - here is more or less what it is like. [drawing of Wapping] ... I will try to explain it - Firstly it is on a balcony right above the Thames. There are three people - an old man in a white shirt the one in the middle who is looking out of the window - then on the right in the corner, a sailor in a cap and a blue shirt with a big collar turned back in a lighter blue, who is chatting to a girl who is damned difficult to paint! And that is why I wish above all to have you here so that we could discuss it - Well I have painted her three times and I do not want to get tired - besides if I fiddle about with her too much I will have hardly any time to do the rest - Well you can imagine! I have managed to give her an expression! … an air of saying to her sailor "That is all very well, my friend! I have seen others!" you know she is winking and laughing at him! - Now all that against the light and in consequence in atrociously difficult muted colours - but I do not think I shall paint her again. - Her neck is exposed - her blouse can be seen almost entirely and how well it is painted my dear chap - and then a jacket ... in a white material with big arabesques and flowers of all colours! Hush! Not a word to Courbet! Now through the window you can see the whole Thames! The background is like an etching - and was unbelievably difficult! The sky for example is very truly and splendidly painted - there is a corner which can be seen through the window panes which is excellent! - Nearer that is a row of large boats one of which is unloading coal and right by the window the mast and yellow sail of a lighter and just by the head of the girl (who I forgot to tell you looks supremely whorelike) there is the bowsprit of another large boat, the ropes and pulleys of which go across the whole picture - For the details ask my friend Ridley ... but I have repainted the head since he left. There are also many small boats and buildings which I cannot put into the sketch. But my dear Fantin I assure you that I have never attempted such a difficult subject - it will certainly be said that it is not finished - because as the boats leave I have only just time to put in their shades of colour - you understand me - and for those who are in the habit of making their seascapes at home and to paint models and toys for warships my real boats will not be finished.'

Whistler's mother, Anna Matilda Whistler (1804-1881), writing several years later, implied that it was being painted in 1861. 5

However, in early June 1861 Whistler fell 'dreadfully ill with Rheumatic fever.' 6 He was nursed by his half-sister, Deborah Delano Haden (1825-1908), and family, in Sloane Street, London. By 25 July Whistler felt better and told his mother, Anna Matilda Whistler (1804-1881), that he planned to recuperate by the sea. 7 It is not clear if he left immediately, but in mid-October du Maurier mentioned that 'Jimmy' was on the Côtes-du-Nord. 8 According to Whistler's mother he convalesced on the coast of Brittany, 'sea bathing recovering his health' for nearly three months. 9 It is not known exactly when he returned, as he may have travelled via London, or directly to Paris. He was certainly back in Paris by mid-November 1861, and remained there nearly all the winter, through March 1862. 10

1862: In November 1862, Whistler told Fantin-Latour that he wanted to return to London to finish 'la grande Tamise' for the Salon of 1863. 11

1863: In March Whistler moved into 7 Lindsey Row, Chelsea, where, in April, Joanna Hiffernan took Whistler's half-brother, George William Whistler (1822-1869), and Benjamin Moran (1820-1886), Secretary to the American Legation, to see Wapping. Moran admired the model and Whistler's 'remarkable pictures', and described one, 'a river scene at Blackwall ... A drunken sailor, with his Molly, is drinking and smoking on the balcony of a Thames grog shop and the river is one jam of vessels – ships, steamers, brigs, colliers and tugs.' 12

Towards the end of August or early September 1863, Whistler invited John O'Leary (1830-1907), Irish nationalist and journalist, to see 'my large picture of the Thames that I have nearly finished.' 13 On 9 December Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) described it as 'the noblest of all the pictures he has done hitherto' and said it was available for purchase. 14 Alphonse Legros (1837-1911), who had lived in London since the summer of 1863, posed for Whistler. He replaced the figure of an old man in a white shirt. On 15 December Rossetti described the figure on the right as an English sailor 'hardly yet commenced', and the other male figure as 'done from Alphonse Legros, though painted in from him just as he was in the first instance, is to be quite differently continued, to represent a sort of Spanish sailor.' 15

1864: Whistler again stated his intention of sending the painting to the Salon:

'Je produis tres peu, parce que j'efface tant - Pour le salon de Paris j'ai l'intention d'envoyer mon tableau de la Tamise que tu as vu un jour avec Edwards - C'est tout changé comme premier plan, et je crois que cela fera bien à Paris - tu l'aimeras j'en suis sur - il y a un portrait de Legros et une tete de Jo qui sont de mes meilleurs.' 16

Translation: 'I produce very little, because I rub out so much - for the Paris Salon I am thinking of sending my picture of the Thames which you saw one day with Edwards - The foreground has quite changed, and I think it will do well in Paris - you will like it I'm sure - there is a portrait of Legros and a head of Jo which are among my best.'

On 10 February 1864 it was described by Whistler's mother Anna Matilda Whistler (1804-1881) as nearly finished:

'I think the finest painting he has yet done is one hanging now in this room, which three years ago took him so much away from me. It is called Wapping. The Thames & so much of its life, shipping, buildings, steamers, coal heavers, passengers going ashore, all so true to the peculiar tone of London & its river scenes, it is so improved by his perseverance to perfect it, a group on the Inn balcony has yet to have the finishing touches, he intends exhibiting it at Paris in May.' 17

On 25 February 1864 William Bell Scott (1811-1890) thought it to be 'a very fine thing' and having 'extraordinary power and distinctness at a distance', but considered the figures in the foreground to be 'just rubbed in, one of them merely in a tentative way, ... it is difficult to say how far he [Whistler] means them for finished.' 18

Wapping, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.
Wapping, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

It was presumably completed when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1864 as 'Wapping'. 19


1: Pennell 1908 [more], vol. 1, pp. 88-89, 91.

2: Du Maurier 1951 [more], pp. 16, 106.

3: Levy to Whistler, 5 April 1896, GUW #02517; the companions could have been Emma Du Maurier (1841-1915), née Wightwick, and Alexander Ionides (1840-1898). However, it is also possible that 'Annie' was Joanna Hiffernan.

4: [January/June 1861], GUW #08042. This letter is now in the Library of Congress.

5: A. M. Whistler to J. H. Gamble, 10-11 February 1864, GUW #06522.

6: Letter from George du Maurier to his sister Isabel, dated from a reference to the recent Crystal Palace Rose Show of 6 July 1861. Du Maurier 1951 [more], p. 56.

7: 19 August 1861, GUW #06517.

8: Letter to his mother, Mrs du Maurier, dating from shortly after 12 October 1861, Du Maurier 1951 [more], p.84.

9: Letter to J. W. Gamble, 19 February 1862, GUW #06518.

10: D. Louncke to Whistler, 14 November 1861, GUW #02638.

11: Whistler to Fantin-Latour, [12/19 November 1862], GUW #07952.

12: Wallace, Sarah Agnes, and Frances Elma Gillespie (eds.), The Journals of Benjamin Moran 1857–1865, vol. 2, Chicago, 1949, p. 1149.

13: [18 or 25 August, or 1 or 8 September 1863], GUW #09333.

14: Rossetti to J. Leathart, 9 December 1863, GUW #12441.

15: Rossetti to J. Leathart, 15 December 1863, University of British Columbia.

16: Whistler to Fantin-Latour, 3 February 1864, GUW #08036.

17: A. M. Whistler to J. H. Gamble, GUW #06522.

18: Scott to J. Leathart, 25 February [1864], University of British Columbia.

19: 96th Exhibition of the Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1864 (cat. no. 585).

Last updated: 18th October 2021 by Margaret