James McNeill Whistler (American, 1834-1903)
United States, 1871-72
Oil on canvas
H x W: 62.7 x 40.5 cm
Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1902.249a-b
After Whistler moved from Paris to London in 1859, he found the Thames to be a constant source of inspiration. He spent many hours on the river, gathering impressions that were later recorded on canvas his second-story studio in Chelsea, which itself afforded a view of the river and its distinctly modern, industrial environs.
In 1872, when Whistler painted Variations in Pink and Grey: Chelsea, his view included the construction of the Chelsea Embankment, a major public works project designed to reclaim land around the Thames and that included the construction of massive walls and landing stages along the river bank. Here, the artist has incorporated construction fences and even the new saplings that were part of the urban planning project. Even so, Whistler has overlaid the scene with deliberate artifice, using the flattened forms, bird’s-eye perspective, and asymmetrical compositional principles of Japanese prints to create a decorative, rather than a realistic, image. By placing his signature butterfly on the frame (which Whistler designed specifically for this painting) as well as on the canvas itself, he calls attention to the framed, artful nature of the image.