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

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The Thames in Ice


According to the Pennells, Whistler sold it to F. S. Haden for £10, which Haden thought was 'ample pay ...three pounds for each of the three days Whistler spent in painting it, and a pound over', and the artist accepted it because, he said, ' "my sister was in the house ... and I did what she wanted, to please her!" ' 1

After the New York dealer Edward Guthrie Kennedy (1849-1932) had failed to negotiate a sale, 2 Haden sold it to Alexander Reid, who immediately sold it to the Scottish collector J. J. Cowan in March 1897, for £1200. Cowan commented on his new acquisition:

'I hope you will be pleased to hear that I have just acquired two pictures of your's from Reid of Glasgow.

Only today have I got them hung, and I am delighted with them.' 3

Cowan asked Reid the exact price, and then reported to Whistler:

'I believe Reid spoke of £1200 & £800 for the "Piano" & the "Thames in Ice" pictures. He assured me that no separate price for each picture was named to him when he bought them. He gave the sum asked for the two, knowing I think that Kennedy had previously tried to effect a reduction in price. The vendor must have known he was doing wrong for he said "Don't say anything about the pictures before my wife"!' 4

Whistler reacted to the rise in price for his paintings with both pride and indignation: ' "The Piano Picture", for which 30 gs. was paid, & "The Thames in Ice", for which I was given £10 - For these two pictures Mr. Cowan of Edinburgh, the other day, gave £1600', he told his lawyer. 5

In 1901 the London art dealer David Croal Thomson (1855-1930) offered Cowan £1500 for it, which was refused. 6 On 25 October 1901 Whistler's sister-in-law wrote, on his behalf, advising C. L. Freer to buy some paintings for £2000 from Cowan: 'I think you will never forgive yourself if you miss them', and Freer agreed, writing, when they arrived, 'how delightfully I am impressed by them.' 7


  • 1862: 94th Exhibition of the Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1862 (cat. no. 114) as 'The Twenty-fifth of December, 1860, on the Thames'.
  • 1867: 85th exhibition Salon de 1867, Palais des Champs Elysées, Paris, 1867 (cat. no. 1562) as 'Sur la Tamise; l'Hiver'.
  • 1898: Exhibition of International Art, International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers, Knightsbridge, London, 1898 (cat. no. 175) as 'Thames in Ice'.
  • 1899: The Exhibition of the Royal Scottish Academy of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture, MDCCCXCIX. The Seventy-third, Edinburgh, 1899 (cat. no. 209) as 'Thames in Ice'.
  • 1901: International Exhibition, Glasgow Art Galleries, Glasgow, 1901 (cat. no. 500) as 'The Thames in Ice'.
  • 1904: Oil Paintings, Water Colors, Pastels and Drawings: Memorial Exhibition of the Works of Mr. J. McNeill Whistler, Copley Society, Boston, 1904 (cat. no. 31) as 'The Thames in Ice'.
  • 1905: Œuvres de James McNeill Whistler, Palais de l'Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris, 1905 (cat. no. 57) as 'La Tamise gelée. – (The Thames in Ice.)'.

The painting may have been submitted unsuccessfully to the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 1861, but it was certainly accepted in the following year, although, according to Whistler, 'they have stuck [it] in as bad a place as possible'. 8 This poor position was noticed by The London Review, which commented: 'It is a study of broken ice and dingy white sky, broad and characteristic: of detail it has doubtless very little, and any which may exist could not be well traced in the position which the picture occupies.' 9 The Athenaeum art critic could apparently see enough to criticize it: 'Broad and vigorous as [it] is ... it carries vigour over the bounds of coarseness to become mere dash.' 10 Furthermore, The Spectator described it as 'painted with a truth of tone and power of handling that [gives] evidence of having been studied from nature.' 11

Following advice from Fantin-Latour, Whistler submitted it successfully to the Salon in Paris in 1867. 'Garde pour le salon ton piano et tes navires dans la glace', Fantin had written on 12 February. 12 Then he elaborated:

' … c'est grave ce que tu me demande - donner un avis ce n'est guère mon fort. ... mon avis autrefois etait que tu devrais exposer d'ancienne chose c'est bon de faire voir les choses par lesquelles on a commencer cela explique bien ce que l'on fait aujourd'hui ... ne vaudrait il pas mieux avec ton piano montrer ou une marine ou quelques choses d'une autre genre, tes navires dans la glace ont eu beaucoup de succès chez Martinet! - mais enfin c'est difficille de te donner un conseil c'est très important pour toi, que ces deux expositions.' 13

Translation: '… what you ask is serious - giving advice is not my strong point. ... my opinion previously was that you should exhibit old things it is good to show the things you began with it explains what you are doing now ... would it not be better to show either a seascape or something different with your piano, your ships in the ice were very successful at Martinet's! - but it is difficult to advise you they are very important for you, these two exhibition pieces.'

Whistler assured friends and family that his work had been well received at the Salon, writing, for example, to his mother, 'you will be glad to hear that the French people have treated me at their Royal Academy splendidly, and there I have a complete success.' 14

There was a very long gap in its exhibition history during the years that it was owned by Whistler's brother-in-law. Then, in 1898, it was bought by John James Cowan (1846-1936) and became available for loans. Whistler immediately suggested to John Lavery (1856-1941) that he should borrow it for the first exhibition of the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers, then under Whistler's presidency. 15

Arrangement of paintings at the ISSPG, Library of Congress
Arrangement of paintings at the ISSPG, Library of Congress
Arrangement of paintings at the ISSPG, Library of Congress
Arrangement of paintings at the ISSPG, Library of Congress

Whistler even sent instructions to Lavery and to Albert Ludovici, Jr (1852-1932) regarding the hanging of his group of paintings:

'Hang all my pictures on the line - excepting the Holloway (Philosopher) just a tiny bit up to make the line pretty - and perhaps the Petite Souris - also slightly - a matter for your eye - And be sure to see to the proper tilting over - so that can be well seen.' 16

Its arrival at the ISSPG was welcome, said the Graphic on 21 May 1898, calling it 'masterly'. Cowan then lent it to the Royal Scottish Academy in the following year, and to the International Exhibition in Glasgow in 1901. Finally it was lent by C. L. Freer to two Whistler Memorial exhibitions, Boston in 1904 and Paris in 1905.

By the terms of Freer's bequest to the Freer Gallery of Art, the painting cannot be lent to another venue.


1: Whistler on 15 July 1900, quoted in Pennell 1908 [more], vol. 1, p. 79.

2: 'You and Thomson both missed it - for Haden sold the Piano and the ice picture to Reid of Glasgow!', Whistler to Kennedy, [10 April 1897], GUW #09762.

3: Cowan to Whistler, 23 March 1897, GUW #00722.

4: [20/30 April 1898], GUW #02832.

5: Whistler and R. Birnie Philip to W. Webb, [22 May 1898], GUW #06247.

6: Cowan to Whistler, 12 and 25-26 February 1901, GUW #00740 and #00743; The Baillie, Glasgow, 10 July 1901, reported that Cowan refused an offer of £2000.

7: R. Birnie Philip to Freer, 25 October 1901, Freer to Whistler, 8 November [1901], 6 February 1902, GUW #11590, #13797, #01526.

8: Whistler to G. A. Lucas, 26 June [1862], GUW #11977. See also A. M. Whistler to J. Whistler, 12 May 1862, GUW #06519.

9: 'The Royal Academy Exhibition (first notice),' The London Review, 10 May 1862, p. 439.

10: 'Fine Arts: R.A.', The Athenaeum, 24 May 1862, p. 699.

11: 'Fine Arts: Royal Academy, Second Notice', The Spectator, 17 May 1862, p. 549.

12: Fantin-Latour to Whistler, 12 February 1867, GUW #01083.

13: 21 February 1867, GUW #01084. This suggests that Whistler may also have shown it in Louis Martinet's galleries in the Boulevard des Italiens.

14: Whistler to A. M. Whistler, [27 April/May 1867], GUW #06529; see also Whistler to L. Ionides, [22 April 1867], GUW #11312.

15: Whistler to Lavery, [22 April 1898], GUW #09941. Dartmouth 1898 [more], repr. p. 249.

16: Arrangement of paintings at the ISSPG [M.1539] and Arrangement of paintings at the ISSPG [M.1540]; Whistler to Ludovici, 26/30 April 1898] and [April/May 1898], GUW #08075, #10694.

Last updated: 6th February 2021 by Margaret