The Paintings of James McNeill Whistler

YMSM 036
The Thames in Ice

The Thames in Ice

Artist: James McNeill Whistler
Date: 1860
Collection: Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
Accession Number: F1901.107a-b
Medium: oil
Support: canvas
Size: 74.6 x 55.3 cm (29 3/8 x 21 3/4")
Signature: 'Whistler.'
Inscription: none
Frame: Grau-style, American, after 1902 [17.15 cm]


The Thames in Ice dates from about 25 December 1860. 1

The Thames in Ice, Freer Gallery of Art
The Thames in Ice, Freer Gallery of Art

1860: According to the Pennells, Whistler painted The Thames in Ice in three days at Christmas 1860, from an inn at Cherry Gardens. 2 The River Thames, according to a report on 19 January 1861, had been frozen for fourteen weeks. 3

1861: It may have been the 'picture of the Thames' described by his mother, Anna Matilda Whistler (1804-1881), as 'unfinished', which was submitted unsuccessfully to the Royal Academy of Arts, London, in 1861. 4

1862: However by May 1862 it was certainly completed, and Whistler's mother commented:

'But now Jemmie Dear of your paintings! how pleased I am to hear that you finished the two in time to present at the Royal Academy. Your mother is satisfied even if they are not hung this year. You must see in the retrospect it was all for the best. Your picture of the Thames was not accepted last Spring, not that they are unfinished as was that, but however trying is the disciplining it must be rightly ordered by our Heavenly Father to whose over-ruling I commend you day by day. During your torturing suspense of last month my Dear boy I am sure you thought of your mother's sympathy while we were in our lodgings together.' 5

It was accepted by the Royal Academy and exhibited under the title 'The Twenty-fifth of December, 1860, on the Thames' (cat. no. 114).


The Thames in Ice, Freer Gallery of Art
The Thames in Ice, Freer Gallery of Art

Wapping, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
Wapping, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

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



Several possible titles have been suggested:

'The Thames in Ice' is the generally accepted title.


The Thames in Ice, Freer Gallery of Art
The Thames in Ice, Freer Gallery of Art

A view across a half-frozen river, in vertical format. One man stands on the snowy shore in the centre foreground, and one is bending over at lower left. A barge behind them, at left, is surrounded by ice. Behind this, at left and in the middle distance, are two and three-masted ships, the nearest two-master having a conspicuous blue band painted around it. At right, a barge is approaching the two-master, and the two bargees appear to be fending off the ice as they approach. In the distance, the warehouses are dark grey under a grey sky.


The Thames in Ice, Freer Gallery of Art
The Thames in Ice, Freer Gallery of Art

Wapping, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
Wapping, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

According to the Pennells, Whistler painted The Thames in Ice from an inn at Cherry Gardens in Bermondsey, the same inn, The Angel, from which he painted Wapping y035. 13

Curry identifies the ship as 'a flat-bottomed collier brig, used to transport heavy cargoes up the tidal river to London'. The flat bottom enabled it to be beached and unloaded at low tide. It was too big to sail beyond London bridge. Windlasses on the broad masts facilitated the unloading of goods into small boats (lighters) alongside. Curry contrasts this with the 'spindly masts' of the sea-going sailing ship moored in mid-stream, and with the smoky factories on the far shore, 'hallmarks of the industrial revolution,' describing the whole as 'a frozen moment from modern life in London on a wintry day in 1860.' 14



The Thames in Ice, Freer Gallery of Art
The Thames in Ice, Freer Gallery of Art

The Thames in Ice may have been painted from the same inn as Wapping y035, and is comparable to that painting in technique to a certain extent. It is, however, much sketchier. Whistler called this 'the Thames Ice Sketch', implying it was not a highly finished painting. 15

The factories and warehouses on the far bank were painted before the foreground shipping, in muted greys, and were painted carefully, the outlines soft-edged and merging with the sky. The masts of the barges along the far shore were added lightly on top of these buildings. Shipping on the river was added much more boldly, with thicker paint. The rigging was painted with so dry a brush that the weave of the canvas (a fairly fine weave) is clearly seen as a regular pattern. There is some impasto on the white paint in the foreground, the ice in the water, and on the boom of the ship, which were painted with bold, slashing, strokes. The 1980 catalogue commented:

'The strength of the painting lies in its colour, the muted colour of a frosty, foggy London, and in the long straight brushstrokes with which Whistler built up the receding planes of floating ice and snow along the river.' 16

Conservation History

In 1921, a yellowed covering of hard gum was removed; it was relined and resurfaced in 1922, surfaced in 1933, and cleaned and surfaced in 1951. In 1965 Ben Johnson removed heavy discoloured varnish, and repaired an area of whitened retouching at lower right. It was cleaned, revarnished, restretched, inpainted and varnished. 17


Grau-style, American, after 1902 [17.15 cm]. The frame was regilded in 1960. 18



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!" ' 19

After the New York dealer Edward Guthrie Kennedy (1849-1932) had failed to negotiate a sale, 20 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.' 21

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"!' 22

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. 23

In 1901 the London art dealer David Croal Thomson (1855-1930) offered Cowan £1500 for it, which was refused. 24 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.' 25


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'. 26 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.' 27 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.' 28 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.' 29

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. 30 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.' 31

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.' 32

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. 33

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.' 34

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.


Catalogues Raisonnés

Authored by Whistler

Catalogues 1855-1905

Newspapers 1855-1905

Journals 1855-1905


Books on Whistler

Books, General

Catalogues 1906-Present



Journals 1906-Present





1: YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 36).

2: Pennell 1908 [more], vol. 1, p. 89.

3: Illustrated London News, 19 January 1861, p. 1063, cited in Curry 1984 [more], pp. 117, 306 note 20.2, pl. 20.

4: A. M. Whistler to J. Whistler, 12 May 1862, GUW #06519.

5: Ibid.

6: 94th Exhibition of the Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1862 (cat. no. 114).

7: Whistler to G. A. Lucas, 26 June [1862], GUW #11977.

8: 85th exhibition Salon de 1867, Palais des Champs Elysées, Paris, 1867 (cat. no. 1562).

9: Whistler to J. A. Rose, [November 1878], GUW #08784.

10: Exhibition of International Art, International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers, Knightsbridge, London, 1898 (cat. no. 175).

11: Œuvres de James McNeill Whistler, Palais de l'Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris, 1905 (cat. no. 57).

12: YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 36).

13: Pennell 1908 [more], vol. 1, p. 89.

14: Curry 1984 [more], p. 117.

15: Whistler to G. A. Lucas, 26 June [1862], GUW #11977.

16: YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 36).

17: Freer Gallery of Art files, 1980.

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

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

20: '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.

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

22: [20/30 April 1898], GUW #02832.

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

24: 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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

31: 21 February 1867, GUW #01084. This suggests that Whistler may also have shown it in Louis Martinet's galleries in the Boulevard des Italiens.

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

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

34: Arrangement of paintings at the ISSPG m1539 and Arrangement of paintings at the ISSPG m1540; Whistler to Ludovici, 26/30 April 1898] and [April/May 1898], GUW #08075, #10694.