In the last twenty years of his life, the expatriate American artist James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) produced more than one hundred prints, pastel drawings, and paintings of scantily clad or nude female models. Early collectors of Whistler’s work, including Charles Lang Freer (1854–1919), believed these images ranked among the artist’s greatest accomplishments, but they have received little critical attention. Whistler’s Nudes brings together twenty-five of the most important of the late nudes in order to explore some of the meanings they carried for Whistler and his contemporaries.
The vast majority of Whistler’s nudes were created either in the early 1870s, when the artist was attempting to remake himself as a painter of complex figurative compositions, or between 1884 and his death in 1903. Almost all of the nudes from the 1870s are preparatory studies in pastel or chalk for planned but never completed oil paintings of clothed female figures. Whistler’s Nudes includes several of these elegant drawings but focuses on late nudes, which Whistler thought of as finished works of art.
Most of the late nudes are pastels or lithographs, although Whistler completed several related oil paintings, including the eerily beautiful Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Little Blue Girl (1894)—one of the highlights of the exhibition. Some of the late nudes are realistic scenes of models at rest in the studio, while others are exceptionally airy drawings of lightly draped models in motion. As a group, the late nudes are strikingly sketchy and abstract, testing Whistler’s ability to represent his subject with an extreme economy of line, shape, and sometimes color. Many are freighted with symbolic overtones, hinting at the artist’s aesthetic faith that the creation of beauty should be the sole goal of art.