Combining methods of art history and conservation science, this online scholarly catalogue examines the watercolors of James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) in the Freer Gallery of Art. Together with the 2019 Freer exhibition and related publication Whistler in Watercolor (Freer Gallery of Art, 2019), this site presents the most comprehensive exploration of the subject yet undertaken.
The Whistler watercolors play an important role in the Freer’s extensive collection of the artist’s work, which includes oil paintings, prints, drawings, and copper etching plates. The significance of watercolor in the oeuvres of Whistler’s American contemporaries—Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, and John Marin—has been the subject of important exhibitions and publications in recent years. However, Whistler’s contributions to the medium have never been systematically surveyed from either an art historical or technical perspective.
This project brought together art historians, a paper conservator, and a materials scientist. Their collaboration synthesized each object’s exhibition history and critical reception with technical analysis of Whistler’s paper, pigments, and working techniques. The results of this study illuminate the artist’s working methods in the medium and establish a baseline of information to which other collections of Whistler’s watercolors can be compared.
This online catalogue presents the results of this research in detail. The related volume, Whistler in Watercolor expands on this research by clarifying the role watercolor played in Whistler’s artistic re-invention in the 1880s. It illuminates Whistler’s watercolor practice in relation to his peers in both Britain and the United States, and explains the connection between his watercolor work and his experiments in other media.
This initiative fills a major gap in Whistler studies, while contributing to a growing body of new scholarship on American watercolors, and further defining the significance of watercolor in America and Britain in the late nineteenth century. It is the culmination of a long-term research project that began in 2014 and has been supported by grants from the Henry Luce Foundation and the Smithsonian Scholarly Studies Program.
This online scholarly catalogue was developed in collaboration with the Freer and Sackler digital media, publications, and collections research departments. The content team responsible for the catalogue’s creation are former curator of American art Lee Glazer, currently the director of the Lunder Institute for American Art; paper and photographs conservator Emily Jacobson; Andrew W. Mellon Senior Scientist Blythe McCarthy; curatorial project coordinator Ari Post; and Luce Foundation curatorial fellow Kerry Roeder.