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Art Review

Addison Gallery’s spellbinding ‘An American in London’

“Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge” (1859-63) is Whistler’s first painted rendition of a favorite subject.

ADDISON GALLERY OF AMERICAN ART

“Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge” (1859-63) is Whistler’s first painted rendition of a favorite subject.

ANDOVER — In 1863, the year his friend Edouard Manet painted “Olympia” and “The Luncheon on the Grass,” prompting buckets of merde to pour down on his poor French head, James McNeill Whistler settled into a house at 7 Lindsey Row, on the Thames in London’s Chelsea.

From his perch across the Channel, he must have watched the uproar over Manet’s “Luncheon” — which was rejected from the official salon but made its mark at the newly established Salon des Refusés — with some wistfulness (why wasn’t he in Paris?) but also, perhaps, a little gratitude. That sort of thing wouldn’t happen in London, would it?

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Back in Paris the anger unleashed by Manet’s raw painting style and dismaying subject matter didn’t really let up. It was so relentless that, by 1868, Manet was fed up and suggesting to his friend Degas that they get out of Paris — where Manet’s name was once again being dragged through the mud — and go visit their buddy Whistler in London.

London, after all, was civilized. It was cosmopolitan, receptive. Manet and Degas were both Anglophiles. Manet was convinced he could find buyers for his work there. “And since I think,” he wrote Degas, “as you do, that there is not much to be done in our stupid country, in the midst of this population of government employees, I want to exhibit in London.”

Whistler himself was not, of course, English. He was born in Lowell, but he spent a peripatetic youth in the United States, Russia, and England. By his mid-20s, he knew Paris well, having studied there, exhibited at the Salon, and become friends with the likes of Courbet, Bracquemond, Fantin-Latour, and Manet.

But in 1859 he felt sufficiently enamored of London to make it his home. He lived at first with friends on Sloane Street and in digs of his own in Wapping, near London Docks. He loved the Thames. Nothing could have been more redolent of all that is vital about London than this tremendous gray, sucking and surging river, the bellows of the British Empire’s worldwide expansion, the carotid artery of its booming commerce, the hub of its immense naval power.

From the earliest, he got busy painting and etching clippers and cutters, with their bristling masts and complicated rigging, as well as the mongrel population of workers, sailors, and prostitutes in Wapping and nearby Rotherhithe, where, as Blanchard Jerrold wrote, “every living creature slouches or shambles; the women are brawny of arm and of brazen countenance; [and] the public houses are driving a wonderful trade.”

Whistler was savvy, as well as a great wit, and he put a lot of thought and effort into cultivating patrons for his work. Throughout the 1860s, he worked on a portfolio of etchings called the “Thames Set,” which established his reputation as a master printer and etcher.

These etchings, and almost 60 other paintings, prints, and drawings relating to Whistler’s lifelong association with the Thames, are on display in “An American in London: Whistler and the Thames,” at the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover. The show, which was organized by renowned Whistler experts Margaret MacDonald and Patricia de Montfort from the University of Glasgow, comes to Massachusetts in slightly stripped-down form from London, where it was on display at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. It will travel to the Freer Gallery of Art at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., over the summer. It’s a wonderful show. Don’t miss it.

The Thames was a feature of Whistler’s daily existence for more than 40 years, and it triggered a lot of his best work. Tracing the shifts in his treatment of the river is a brilliant way to grasp the great change that took place in his approach to art.

It’s well known that over the course of his career, Whistler gradually shifted from using the etcher’s needle and the loaded paintbrush to execute a fastidious realism, full of incident and anecdote, to using diluted paint and fluid strokes to capture the most evanescent of poetic gestures (and even, into the bargain, to express his own carefully cultivated persona as a pure aesthete). What’s less commonly registered is how this shift mirrored two very different ways of looking at the Thames.

On the one hand, there was the Thames of industry, of hustle, of endless activity and untold variety. This was the Thames captured by Whistler, in a style heavily influenced by the Dutch tradition, in his “Thames Set.” Seeing these etchings, Charles Baudelaire described “a marvelous tangle of rigging, yardarms and rope; a chaos of fog, furnaces, and gushing smoke; the profound and complicated poetry of a vast capital.”

On the other hand, there was the Thames of quietude, of silence, of distant views ironed flat and almost extinguished by what Whistler himself called “my own lovely London fogs!” If the earlier vision was Dutch-influenced, the later one was Japanese. It was a dream of delicacy in a new kind of space, ostensibly flat but spiritually enveloping, silent, contemplative, calm.

At both ends of this career spectrum are spellbinding works — for which Whistler is justifiably renowned. But just as interesting are the works in between — the ones that capture the awkwardness of a transition Whistler possibly did not fully comprehend at the time; the ones that show him struggling with technique — never his forte — and with various contending influences.

There are some real treasures, including the Tate’s famous portrait of Whistler’s girlfriend, Jo Hiffernan, “Symphony in White No. 2: The Little White Girl,” and several images of Whistler in his studio.

But the most captivating section of the show is dedicated to Whistler’s many treatments of Battersea Bridge. (One of these, a screen in the Japanese style, is owned by the University of Glasgow, which unfortunately is unable to lend it. There are also many works that were not allowed to leave the Freer Gallery of Art, owner of the largest collection of Whistlers in the world, because of restrictions imposed by the museum’s founder, Charles Lang Freer.) The bridge, which was made from old timber, crosses the Thames between Chelsea and Battersea. It was built in 1771-72, and demolished in 1890.

Whistler’s first painted rendition of it belongs to the Addison. It’s called “Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge.” Commissioned from Whistler by a Greek shipping merchant in 1859, it was painted over a self-portrait, and finished in 1863. It is a view from Lindsey Row in Chelsea across the Thames to the factories of Battersea, with the Crystal Palace dimly visible on the horizon.

It seems a slight thing, but it’s utterly transporting. “So true are the gradations,” wrote one critic, who saw it at the Royal Academy, “so correct the relative tone fixed on for each object, so unaffected the arrangement of the boats, the bridge and the shore, that one seems to be looking back right into last November, through a little square in the Academy walls.”

From then on, Whistler’s work was more and more about “true gradations” and “relative tones” and unaffected-looking “arrangements.” And yet there was backsliding, too, and works like “Wapping,” painted from the balcony of a pub over the Thames at Bermondsey between 1860 and 1864, is a brief — and brilliant — return to the Whistler of sails and rigging and water and chimneys and sailors and prostitutes and put-it-all-in.

Still, for the most part, Whistler was from now on chasing atmosphere, not anecdote, and his studies of the bridge, many of which he made from a boat or from the Chelsea shorelines, became more and more simplified, the vantage points more mysterious, the backgrounds increasingly depleted of detail.

From time to time, Whistler fretted over whether he had been stupid not to stay in Paris, where art was such a lively concern, and where his old friends, including Manet, seemed finally to be beginning to enjoy real success.

In England, you couldn’t help but feel, people wanted art, but only up to a point. Henry James put his finger on it a few years later when he wrote that in England, “the taste for art is at bottom a fashion, a need of luxury, a tribute . . . to propriety, not an outgush of productive power.”

Or so Whistler may have thought. But then he painted “Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket,” an image of a fireworks display over Cremorne Gardens on a foggy night. It recalled a vision of Battersea Bridge at night, also with fireworks, that he had painted a few years earlier called “Nocturne: Blue and Gold — Old Battersea Bridge.” A lovely thing (it’s on loan from the Tate), the earlier picture was inspired by woodcuts by the Japanese artist Hiroshige.

The critic John Ruskin — one of the Victorian era’s most brilliant and authoritative voices — didn’t care for the direction in which Whistler had been traveling. And so when he saw “The Falling Rocket” in a London gallery, he took against it in a review that has since become infamous.

“I have seen, and heard, much of Cockney impudence before now,” he wrote; “but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.”

Whistler sued him for libel. The transcript of the ensuing trial, which dwelled for a time on the earlier painting of the bridge, makes for acutely painful reading. The questions come like so many government clerks: “Which part of the picture is the bridge?” “Do you say that this is a correct representation of Battersea Bridge?” And so on.

In response, Whistler is eloquent, straightforward, honest — and ultimately helpless. He won the case, but was awarded damages of one farthing. The legal costs bankrupted him, the humiliation derailed him.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this review mistook a painting in the exhibition for the painting that triggered negative criticism by John Ruskin in 1877. That painting, “Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket,” is not in the show.

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