Whistler at the Fine Art Society shows an artist who was rightly considered thoroughly radical

Olivia McEwan
Whistler's En Plein Soleil, 1858

James McNeill Whistler is best known for his painterly concern for harmony of tones and mood, rather than overtly symbolic or moral content. This is famously evident in his Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1 of 1871, commonly known as Whistler’s Mother.

What is less known is that he was also an extraordinary pioneer both in the medium of etching, and the developing field of curating and promoting oneself as a successful artist. Indeed, in one of the very first solo shows at the Fine Art Society on New Bond St – itself a relatively new concept in the 19th century art world – he specified that his works should be displayed in a single horizontal line across a white wall, discarding the usual higgledy-piggledy display method, reflecting the industry standard we take for granted today.

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To mark its 140th anniversary, the Fine Art Society has returned to his solo show with an astonishing collection of rare prints – the most comprehensive of its kind in forty years – that reinforces his authority in the medium.

American born but working for the most of his career between Paris and London, highlights are his beautifully observed vistas of wharfs of the Thames, populated by furtively recorded figures in brief but commanding sketches. Also included are samples from the Venice set, a staggeringly accomplished sequence that financially buoyed his career following their sale by the Fine Arts Society in 1880. Director of the Fine Art Society and expert on Whistler Gordon Cooke explains that his prints excel over his contemporaries because “From the very first works to the last … he pushed the boundaries of what was achievable with the medium. His drawing was extraordinarily modern”.

This is certainly visible in the range of depth and mood achieved here; The Dance House: Nocturne of 1889 obliterates the blank paper with shading, with finely varying hatching giving the impression of buildings and their dim window light emerging thickly from the depth. It is a remarkable feat for a drawing medium that uses such a minute single line. At the other end of the spectrum, Nocturne of 1879-80, which conversely bears little drawing at all but “the bones” of distant ships, is smeared with ink, creating a murky effect that appeared thoroughly radical to his contemporaries.