When it was exhibited in Glasgow in 1879 a journalist, 'Megilp', wrote 'This "nocturne in snow and silver" has been bought by a well-known picture collector in Glasgow.' 1
The said collector appears to have been Alexander Bannatyne Stewart (1836-1880), who died shortly afterwards, after which it was sold at auction at Christie's, 9 May 1881 (lot 140) and bought by J. G. Orchar, Provost of Broughty Ferry, Dundee, for £32.11.0. It is not known when Orchar sold it. It was bought from G. N. Stevens through Marchant by C. L. Freer in August 1902 for £800 plus £50 commission.
1879: Whistler sent his recently painted nocturne to Thomas White, a Glasgow art dealer, on 19 January 1879. On 22 January 1879 'Megilp' wrote in a Glasgow newspaper, the Bailie, that the painting then on view in 'Mr White's North British Galleries' was 'fresh from the easel of this artist ... a nocturne – the Thames by moonlight, with ice coming down the river, an effect seen by Mr. Whistler only the other night', and described it further as:
'a winter scene on the Thames ... the river ice-covered with snow lying on the banks. Through the darkness, barges loom in the distance, apparently frozen in, and beyond there are buildings and ... the lamps on a railway bridge. This "nocturne in snow and silver" has been bought by a well-known picture collector in Glasgow.' 2
The private view of the 18th exhibition of the Glasgow Institute of the Fine Arts was on 3 February, and by then, as 'Megilp' had stated, Whistler's 'Nocturne in Snow and Silver' had already been bought by Alexander Bannatyne Stewart (1836-1880). 'We imagine that Mr. Stewart became its purchaser out of sheer good nature' wrote the North British Daily Mail. 3
George Roland Halkett (1855-1918) described it picturesquely as:
'Stretch of the Thames with barges and boats looming grimly against the frozen snow. In the distance are the lamps of the houses on the river-bank, glimmering through the night air like fire flies. The shadowy outlines of the composition are reproduced with great suggestiveness and knowledge of effect, while the colour is wonderfully deep and harmonious in tone.' 4
Later in the month, and after a vivid description of 'A Mad Bull Chase in Bridgeton', the North British Daily Mail on 24 February 1879 noted that at the Institute, Whistler's nocturne was much discussed, and opinions were divided. The Glasgow Herald, not then known for its admiration of Whistler's work, spread itself on the subject:
'Perhaps the cleverest thing that has been said about Mr Whistler's "Nocturne in Snow and Silver" was the remark of a lady, who admired the success with which a look into an aquarium bad been realised and the natural appearance the brutes in the corner. The uniformity with which the tone and mistiness fills the whole canvas must assists [sic] the aquarium delusion, and a passing glance at once hints the dimness of water rather than of air. What with flat painting and blurring, the illusion of atmosphere is rather overdone, and it could hardly be otherwise with the whole canvas sacrificed to a single purpose. The manner of painting and the result obtained suggest a combination of art and mechanical contrivance which may or may not be quite successful, but it may be questioned if such a combination comes within the domain of art. Mr Whistler's undivided aim has been to delude the eye as to distance, but he has fallen short of the effect produced on the eye by various patterns of carpet claiming in their design no particular merit. No one has thought of framing a square yard of the carpeting referred to and calling it a nocturne, but alongside of Mr Whistler's picture the carpet might prove the greater puzzle.' 5
Curiously, on 8 February 1879 the North British Daily Mail had reported that a Whistler nocturne (which unfortunately they do not describe) was on view with a few oil paintings during an exhibition of water-colours at the galleries of Thomas Lawrie and Sons, 85 St Vincent Street, Glasgow. 6 This has not been identified, and no further details are known, so it has not been catalogued separately. It can not, however, have been Nocturne: Grey and Silver - Chelsea Embankment, Winter, the painting under discussion.
1892: It was shown at Whistler's 1892 retrospective as 'Nocturne. Grey and Silver – Chelsea Embankment – Winter'. The Artist called it 'delightful … full of suggestive loveliness.' 7 It perfectly refuted the criticism levelled at Whistler's work by Frederick Wedmore (1844-1921) in 1883, which Whistler selected as a comment on this painting in his 1892 catalogue:
'In some of the Nocturnes the absence not only of definition, but of gradation, would point to the conclusion that they are but engaging sketches. In them we look in vain for all the delicate differences of light and hue which the scenes depicted present.' 8
Whistler immediately asked D. C. Thomson to borrow it for the forthcoming 6th Internationale Kunst-Austellung in Munich and apparently Orchar agreed, although there were problems in retrieving the painting from Munich afterwards. 9
Whistler also checked the photograph taken for inclusion in the album to be published by the Goupil Gallery in 1892, and commented: 'Mr Orchars Nocturne, has a blemish - white spot, by the boats - this ought to be got rid of in the negative.' 10
Charles Lang Freer (1856-1919) described at considerable length his disappointment in the hanging of paintings from his collection originally selected by Will Hicok Low (1853-1932) for the Twenty-fifth Annual Exhibition, Society of American Artists, New York, 1903. This resulted in Freer's withdrawal of Whistler's paintings from the exhibition. 11
By the terms of C. L. Freer's bequest to the Freer Gallery of Art, the painting cannot be lent to another venue.
3: Anon., 'Institute of Fine Arts', North British Daily Mail, Glasgow and Edinburgh, 3 February 1879, p. 5.
4: Halkett, George R. (ed.), Notes to the Seventeenth Exhibition of the Glasgow Institute of the Fine Arts, Glasgow, 1878, p. 55 (cat. no. 419) as 'A Nocturne in Snow and Silver’. In an interesting aside, later in the catalogue, Halkett notes on p. 67 (cat. no. 667) that 'As I lay a-thinking', by Matthew White Ridley (1837-1888), was 'a graceful figure subject, the frame for which was designed by Mr Whistler'.
5: Anon., 'The Fine Art Institute. Fourth Notice', Glasgow Herald, Glasgow, 17 March 1879, p. 4.
6: Anon., 'Lawrie's Exhibition of Watercolour Drawings', North British Daily Mail, Glasgow and Edinburgh, 8 February 1879, p. 4.
7: 'Art, Literature', The Artist, vol. 13, 1 April 1892, p. 122.
Last updated: 21st April 2021 by Margaret