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

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Symphony in Grey and Green: The Ocean

Titles

Several possible titles have been suggested:

  • 'Symphony in grey and green – the Ocean' (1872, Dudley Gallery). 1
  • 'Symphony in grey & green' (1873, Whistler). 2
  • 'Harmony in Grey Valparaiso' (1878, Whistler). 3
  • 'Arrangement in Grey & Green - The Pacific' (ca 1881, Whistler). 4
  • 'Valparaiso' [deleted] 'The Pacific' (1887, Whistler). 5
  • Probably listed as one of several paintings: 'Valparaiso - Twilight - / Valparaiso - grey rain - / Sea & Rain' (1892, Whistler). 6
  • 'Gris et Vert – l'Océan' (1892, Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts). 7
  • 'Symphony in Grey and Green – The Ocean' (1892, Goupil). 8
  • 'The Ocean' (1892, Whistler). 9
  • 'Sea Piece - Valparaiso' (1892, Whistler) 10
  • 'Symphony in Grey and Green: The Ocean' (1980, YMSM). 11

In February 1873, when an American newspaper – possibly the Baltimore Gazette – mocked his titles, Whistler drafted a reply:

'I observe that many American Journals have [thought proper] to inform the "curious reader" on the authority of a correspondent who conceals his personality under the initials S T - that "the peculiarities of my pictures, "Symphony in grey & green" ["]Nocturne in blue and silver" etc, were suggested to me, by one of my "boon companions", when I had in my "off hand way" hastily given life to one of my "peculiar creations."

However gratifying ST may suppose it to be to me, to be represented as "hastily giving life to my peculiar creations" candour compels me to confess that … these creations are the result of much earnest study and deep thought. Each of these represents to me at least, a problem laboriously solved, and their peculiar titles suggest as much, (not to Art critics of course) but to all who are capable of understanding, or inferring their meaning. Their titles moreover if "poor things" are "mine own." ' 12

The title Symphony in Grey and Green: The Ocean has been taken as definitive, dating from Whistler's major retrospective exhibition of 1892 (with punctuation altered to conform with other titles).

Description


                    Symphony in Grey and Green: The Ocean, The Frick Collection
Symphony in Grey and Green: The Ocean, The Frick Collection

A seascape in rectangular format, with the horizon some two thirds of the way up the canvas. At the left edge, below centre, is the end of a wooden pier. Out to sea at left are several two-masted sailing ships. Pale grey clouds sweep across the sky. The sea is pale green and grey, with rollers breaking on the shore at left. In the foreground are several leafy branches. At lower right is a rectangular cartouche bearing Whistler's butterfly signature.

Site

The coast near the city of Valparaiso, Chile. 13 According to Whistler's diary for the trip to South America, he arrived in Valparaiso on 12 March, where he remained, except for occasional visits to Santiago and the surrounding countryside, until sailing for England early in September 1866. 14

In 1878 Whistler identified this painting as 'Harmony in Grey Valparaiso' and a few years later as 'Arrangement in Grey & Green - The Pacific.' 15 It is one of 'the three Valparaiso pictures that are known', as Whistler told the Pennells. 16 The other two are Crepuscule in Flesh Colour and Green: Valparaiso [YMSM 073] and Nocturne in Blue and Gold: Valparaiso Bay [YMSM 076].

Comments

The Frick website states:

'Whistler painted this work during a six-month stay in Valparaiso, Chile, then the site of a military conflict with Spain. The ships in the picture may allude to the blockade of the port city, but all specificity of time and place is suppressed in favor of a serene palette and minimalist composition.' 17

Notes:

1: 6th Winter Exhibition of Cabinet Pictures in Oil, Dudley Gallery, London, 1872 (cat. no. 37).

2: Whistler to an editor, [21/28] February 1873, GUW #09587.

3: Whistler to J. Anderson Rose, [November 1878], GUW #08784.

4: Signed photograph in the Lucas Collection, Baltimore Museum of Art.

5: Whistler to an unknown recipient, draft, [February 1887], GUW #08188.

6: List, Whistler to D. C. Thomson, [4/11 January 1892], GUW #06795.

7: Exposition Nationale des Beaux-Arts, Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, Champ-de-Mars, Paris, 1892 (cat. no. 1069).

8: Nocturnes, Marines & Chevalet Pieces, Goupil Gallery, London, 1892 (cat. no. 15).

9: Whistler to D. C. Thomson, [16 November 1892], GUW #11504.

10: Whistler to D. C. Thomson, [29 November 1892], GUW #05761.

11: YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 72).

12: [21/28] February 1873, GUW #09587; the unnamed correspondent, 'ST', has not been identified.

13: Sutherland 2014 [more] , pp. 95-98.

14: Diary, GUW #04335.

15: Whistler to J. Anderson Rose, [November 1878], GUW #08784; photograph in the Lucas Collection, Baltimore.

16: Pennell 1921C [more] , pp. 43, 279.

17: Portraits, Pastels, Prints: Whistler in The Frick Collection, website of exhibit 2009, website at https://www.frick.org.

Last updated: 13th January 2021 by Margaret