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

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Blue and Silver: Blue Wave, Biarritz

Composition


                    Sketch of 'Blue and Silver: Blue Wave, Biarritz', pen, Library of Congress
Sketch of 'Blue and Silver: Blue Wave, Biarritz', pen, Library of Congress

In a letter to Fantin-Latour, Whistler included a Sketch of 'Blue and Silver: Blue Wave, Biarritz' [M.0307], annotated:

'Voiçi une idée un peu vague de l'affaire - / Matelot espagnol en rouge / chaloupe en danger dans les brisants / rochers / pecheur / femmes / Ciel - soir / mer foncée presque noir / des brisants qui se suivent de-puis le fond jusqu'au premier plan [sketch]

… Le matelot en Chemise rouge fera bien je crois, il a les jambes nues - parmi les femmes il y aura Jo toute claire et rose, aupres d'elle une vielle toute en noir - Les vagues sont superbes (en nature!) des brisants qui ont l'air d'etre taillés dans de la pierre noire, tellement ils sont solides! - et puis sur le plan du milieu les grandes lames vienent se briser contre les deux rochers separés que tu vois dans la mer.' 1

Translation: 'Here's a rather vague idea of what it is:/ Spanish sailor in red / rowing boat in danger in the breakers / rocks / fisherman // Sky - evening / sea, dark almost black / succession of breakers from background to foreground // women / rocks / ... The sailor in the red shirt will come out well, I think, his legs are bare - among the women, there will be Jo all bright and rosy, next to her an old woman all in black. The waves are wonderful (in nature!), with breakers that seem to be hewn from black stone, they are so solid! and then in the middle ground the large waves are breaking against the two separate rocks you see in the sea.'

The figures described in this letter were subsequently painted over, although some – particularly the red-shirted sailor – are visible through the thickly impasted paint that covers them. 2

Technique


                    Blue and Silver: Blue Wave, Biarritz, Hill-Stead Museum
Blue and Silver: Blue Wave, Biarritz, Hill-Stead Museum

In Whistler's letter to Fantin-Latour in mid-October 1862 he described progress on his painting:

'[J]e ne travaile pas assez vite ! - il me semble apprendre si peu ! Du reste ces peintures en plein air d'apres nature ne peuvent être que de grandes esquisses. il n'y a pas! - un bout de draperie flottante - une vague - un nuage - c'est là un instant - et c'est parti a tout jamais! on pose le ton vrai et pure on l'attrape au vol comme on tue un oiseau en l'air - et le public vois demande du fini! et il montre - Hook et Cie!' 3

Translation: 'I am not working quickly enough! I seem to learn so little! Apart from that these paintings in the open air from nature can only be large sketches. there is nothing for it! a piece of floating drapery - a wave - a cloud - it's there for a moment - and then it's gone for ever! you put down the true and pure colour tone you catch it in flight as you kill a bird in the air - and the public demands finish! and shows - Hook & Co.!'

There is considerable impasto in the thick paint on the waves, and a lighter touch in the sky. The Hill-Stead website suggests that this shows the influence of Jean-Désiré-Gustave Courbet (1819-1877):

'The composition of breaking waves on a rocky shore in The Blue Wave indicates the influence of Gustave Courbet; however, Whistler was beginning to create a style that was breaking away from what he decried as “that damned realism.” This emerging style is evident in the rocks as flat patches of brown instead of mottled from light to dark to create three-dimensional forms and details. The way in which he used light, wispy brush strokes to render the clouds in a blue-grey sky was a technique that would become a prominent feature in his later work.' 4

Conservation History

It was cleaned and varnished by Stephen Richards (1844-1900), picture restorer, in 1892. The owner, J. C. Potter, had objected to this, but afterwards wrote, 'I must say, that on seeing the pictures, they appear to me immensely improved by the cleaning.' 5 Whistler wrote afterwards to J. C. Potter:

'I cannot help writing to you to congratulate you upon my beautiful pictures! - Are they not really lovely? - Now that I see them again I am filled with wonder to think that you I should have personally known in a sort of easy comfortable friendly way - any one absolutely possessing such exquisite works! - And in what a perfect condition! - Now - for some of them were in an abominable state when they came to me - but I took great pains with them and they were cleaned under my own supervision - and varnished, and returned to the pure state in which they originally left my hands - Of course it is a rare chance that they should be cared for in this way by myself.' 6

Frame

Frame size: 65.3 x 88.8 cm (25¾ x 35").

1862: On 18 October 1862 Whistler asked George Aloysius Lucas (1824-1909) to order two frames for him in Paris:

'Will you have the great kindness to order them for me from your frame-maker? - The first is for a sea piece of deep tone, and I should like it to be something like the one I had for the painting I brought from Brittany last year ... richly carved, and bold - deep and rather broad; massive but not cumbersome, and well finished.

Not dear though, mon cher, if possible.

The canvass [sic] is one of the regular French dimension, "toile de soixante" - The second is a "toile de vingt" for which I want a very pretty frame, highly finished, brilliant and rich - deep also, and rather broad. This is an order and will hang in a drawing room, so that the finish must not be neglected.' 7

A 'toile de vingt' was a canvas stretcher measuring either 50 or 60 x 73 cm (depending on whether it was a landscape or marine painting); a 'toile de soixante' for a marine painting would measure 81 x 130 cm. This frame would not have been suitable for Blue and Silver: Blue Wave, Biarritz, which is 61 x 87.6 cm. However, Lucas undoubtedly ordered frames at Dutocq's on 21 October and went with Whistler to see them on 2 December 1862. 8

1892: Thirty years later Whistler described the frame on Blue and Silver: Blue Wave, Biarritz as 'the mean old abomination of years ago'. 9 He had the painting cleaned and reframed for the 1892 Goupil exhibition. When he returned it, Whistler instructed the owner:

'I take this occasion to beseech you always to keep them under glass - The climate and smoke of England make it absolutely imperative - Look at the paintings in the National Gallery - with what precautions they are surrounded! I hope you are as pleased as I am with my new frames - at last the pictures have a dress worthy their own dignity and stateliness, Wherefore you may thank me for finally inventing them.' 10

But, since he had not given permission for a new frame, Potter rejected the upgrade. 11

1894: It is now framed in a Grau-style frame that the artist had commissioned for this piece and sent to Mr Pope in Cleveland. The framemaker was A. Hubert in the Rue Notre Dame des Champs, Paris:

'You will doubtless receive a letter from my frame maker, Monsieur Hubert, telling that he has undertaken the frame for the "Blue Wave" all right - as you wished … I said, by the way, that it is to be made ready for a glass - but that he is not to put a glass in, as of course if you like you can get one yourself in Cleveland.' 12

When the frame arrived, Pope and his wife hung it with care: 'The frame for the "Blue Wave" came all right and I have it hung in the place of honor in our home, and the place of honor means the best place for lighting.' 13

Notes:

1: [1/5 October 1862], GUW #07951. See

2: 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.

3: [14/21 October 1862], GUW #08028.

4: Hill-Stead website at http://www.hillstead.org.

5: J. C. Potter to Whistler, 4 April 1892, GUW #05006.

6: Whistler to J. C. Potter, [26/30 March 1892], GUW #01488.

7: Whistler to G. A. Lucas, 16/18 October [1862], GUW #09187.

8: Lucas diary, Randall 1979 [more] , vol. 2, pp. 143, 145.

9: Whistler to Potter, [21 February 1894], GUW #05010; see also GUW #13346.

10: Whistler to J. C. Potter, [26/30 March 1892], GUW #01488.

11: Whistler to Potter, [21 February 1894], GUW #05010; see also GUW #13346.

12: Whistler to Pope, [19 September 1894], GUW #09343. A letter from Hubert to Pope said he was undertaking the job of making a frame, and the letter heading gives his address: 'MAISON SPÉCIALE D'ENCADREMENTS / A. HUBERT / DORURE, SCULPTURE, MEUBLES ET BATIMENTS / 56, RUE N.-D.-DES-CHAMPS / PARIS.' Hubert to Pope, 20 September 1894, GUW #12475. See Parkerson 2007 [more] .

13: Pope to Whistler, 27 November 1894, GUW #05000.

Last updated: 31st December 2020 by Margaret