Small Masterpieces: Whistler Paintings from the 1880s

Though best known for his large oil portraits and moody night landscapes, expatriate American artist James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) painted few large oils on canvas after 1879, flouting the conventional equation of size with importance. Instead, he focused his efforts on the creation of small works in a wide variety of media. Few of these works have been exhibited by major museums. The Freer Gallery of Art showcases 23 of Whistler’s small paintings, which were described in 1886 by the American critic Charles de Kay as “pygmy pictures” with “big souls.”

Of the estimated 140 small oil paintings on wood panel that Whistler produced after 1879, most measure no more than nine inches in length or height. Described by one collector as “superficially, the size of your hand, but, artistically, as a large as a continent,” several of the most beautiful are only three by five inches in size. Many of Whistler’s contemporaries found them provokingly sketchy and abstract. One reviewer dismissed them as “mere daubs and unfinished sketches not fit for public display.” Other critics recognized their beauty and realized that they exemplified Whistler’s desire that viewers appreciate his paintings as harmoniously colored designs on a flat surface.

Among the works on view are sea and village scenes painted during Whistler’s visits to the peaceful coastal villages of St. Ives in Cornwall and Lyme Regis in Dorset and to Yorkshire in northern England. Whistler also painted scenery in the Channel port of Dieppe and the coastal village of Pourville in Normandy, France, whose beautiful beaches were also the subject of paintings by Monet and formed the backdrop for the 1944 Normandy landings.

During the winter of 1884 Whistler worked in his Chelsea studio, completing a series of sensuous figure drawings and paintings, including several small oils on panel of young female models, two of which are on view. Later nudes like “Purple and Gold: Phryne the Superb!—Builder of Temples,” painted in 1898, and “Rose and Brown: La Cigale,” painted in 1899, depict young women in more chaste poses that seemingly personify an idealized beauty.

Detailed studies of streets and shops in Whistler’s Chelsea neighborhood on view include “Chelsea Shops,” one of the earliest and greatest of Whistler’s many representations of building facades, and “Nocturne: Silver and Opal-Chelsea,” the last, smallest and one of the greatest nocturnes in oil that Whistler ever painted.