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

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Battersea Reach

Technique


                    Battersea Reach, Corcoran Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
Battersea Reach, Corcoran Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

It is painted thinly, with impasto only on the boats in the foreground. These boats were painted over the background and the far side of the river is visible through the sails. However, some details, such as the rigging, were partly obscured when the artist touched up the sky and water. Both sky and water were painted boldly, with some long, sweeping strokes, and other short, jerky brushstrokes: the effect is very fresh and vivid. 1

Whistler provided an interesting insight into the production of the painting when his restorer, Stephen Richards (1844-1900), queried the ground. Whistler replied:

'But what is all this about red ground and the rest of it in my picture Battersea Reach!

You had the telegram from me this morning - The fact is you have had so much to do with all the tricks of the trade, in those "fakements" of Mr. Humphrey Ward's "Old Masters," that by this time you are always expecting to find them every where - Tell him with my compliments that he is vitiating your mind with his Wardour Street Masterpieces - and never think to discover in my canvases any mysteries of such pretension.

There is no red ground - The Battersea was very simply painted - long ago - one evening from my window - I dare say the paint itself is far from thick in its rapid laying on - and perhaps the canvas is in places but slightly covered. Also doubtless this places may by this time have become filled with London filth brown and not unlike what you might have supposed was a ground prepared -

Clean the picture very tenderly, because of these very places - and when varnished it will be all that I wish.' 2

Conservation History

In 1892 Whistler told E. G. Kennedy that 'Battersea - is also a charming Whistler - wants cleaning, varnishing, & glazing.' 3 On 12 June he wrote to Stephen Richards (1844-1900), picture restorer, at 16 Fitzroy Street, London:

'[Y]ou will have brought to you, almost directly, four more pictures by me; I have said that you are the only man fit to touch my work, therefore, you must prove again how right I am, in having this full confidence in you. You will clean and take off the varnish with the utmost care and tenderness - ... The little Thames picture and the seapiece are painted as well as I remember, in one go and consequently are not so much impasted, therefore will require your utmost care.' 4

At the same time he instructed Kennedy:

'Take the pictures to Mr. Richards - you know where his place is - He is the only man fit to clean my paintings - and you can tell him so from me ...

Let him then clean the four and varnish them - "The Balcony" ... was in my Exhibition at Goupil's and Richards attended to all those - But the other three he has never seen - and they must be covered with dirt … He works not only well but quickly.' 5

It is just possible that Whistler also touched it up in 1892, when he wrote to the restorer: 'Mr Kennedy wishes you to send over the "Battersea Reach", and the Balcony without their frames to me here before you re varnish them - for me to see if I should touch them.' 6 The artist continued to badger Richards: 'please get on with all the four pictures, completing the careful cleaning, and then varnish them beautifully', he wrote, 'the Battersea Reach ought to be a beauty of warm colour.' 7

It was lined and cleaned in 1923 by H. E. Thompson at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, who, 'vastly improved the Whistler and brought out ... beauties ... which its previous owner and a dealer had largely blotted out.' 8

Frame

  • 1860s: style unknown, whereabouts unknown.
  • ca 1892: Grau-style, American.
  • 1940s: Whistlerian slope, American.

The style of the first frame was possibly French, but there is no record of it.

It was probably reframed in 1892, when Whistler instructed E. G. Kennedy:

'You ought to have my new frames made at once for The Westminster Bridge and the The Thames picture - both of which must be in hideous old things - and they should have glass upon them - but that you could get here ...

My frame maker is Mr Grau 570. Fulham Road - He must not have the pictures at his place - but must go to Richards and take the measures immediately - and be pushed without giving him any peace - as he is as procrastinating as he is capable -

He is the only one who has the true pattern of my frame - Tell him that the gold must be the pale yellow soft gold like the gilding of my Mother's frame.' 9

Kennedy did not follow Whistler’s instructions, but, as he explained in a letter to Beatrice Philip (Mrs E. W. Godwin, Mrs J. McN. Whistler) (1857-1896), 'we make our own frames, and thus save duty on the frames, besides making a better article, or rather one which won't split or crack in our climate.' 10


                    Battersea Reach, Corcoran Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
Battersea Reach, Corcoran Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

However, the current reeded slope frame probably dates from the 1940s when it entered the Corcoran Gallery, and thus could be the third to surround the work. The frame was restored in memory of Anne Wallick and Marianna Grove, members of the Women's Committee of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. It measures 70.49 × 95.89 × 7.62 cm (27 3/4 × 37 3/4 × 3"). 11

Notes:

1: See MacDonald, Margaret F., 'Joanna Hiffernan and James Whistler: an Artistic Partnership' in Margaret F. MacDonald (ed.), The Woman in White: Joanna Hiffernan and James McNeill Whistler, New Haven and Washington, 2020, pp. 15-31.

2: [29 June 1892], GUW #10716. Thomas Humphrey Ward (1845-1926), Times journalist and author.

3: 10-11 June 1892, GUW #09680.

4: 12 June 1892, GUW #08114; the two others were The Last of Old Westminster [YMSM 039], and Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony [YMSM 056]. The sea piece is Harmony in Blue and Silver: Trouville [YMSM 064].

5: 13 [June] 1892, GUW #09685.

6: Whistler to S. Richards, [27 June 1892], GUW #05189.

7: [28 June 1892], GUW #10715.

8: Letter from Thompson in Corcoran Museum records; Parmelee to Minnegerode, Director of Corcoran Gallery, 16 August 1924.

9: 13 [June] 1892, GUW #09685.

10: 31 August 1892, GUW #07201.

11: Dr Sarah L. Parkerson Day, Report on frames, 2017; see also Parkerson 2007 [more] .

Last updated: 1st December 2020 by Margaret