Three exhibitions Whistler staged in London and New York in the 1880s were crucial to positioning himself as a watercolorist. The two London exhibitions took place in 1884 and 1886 at the Dowdeswell Gallery on New Bond Street, and the New York exhibition was presented at Wunderlich Gallery in 1889. All three were called “Notes”—“Harmonies”—“Nocturnes” and each installation, which the artist designed and named individually, presented varying selections of his latest oils, pastels, and, above all, watercolors. This concerted effort was devised to attract new buyers and demonstrate the aesthetic value of his new work.
Second Series, May 1886
Whistler was intricately involved in the exhibition preparations. In advance of the May 1884 exhibition, he worked directly with the printer on the design of the catalogue and invitation cards, going so far as to hand color each card’s butterfly. The artworks were enclosed in relatively large gold-toned frames and without mats, like oil paintings, at the artist’s request. He designed the exhibition’s interior design as well. The walls were divided into three registers featuring a dark grey frieze, with pink toned-serge wall coverings upon which the paintings were hung, and light gray painted moldings set below. The room was further decorated with sisal matting, gray velvet draperies, gray and white painted furniture, and pink and coral pots of azaleas and marguerite daisies. A gallery attendant clad in gray and flesh-color livery complemented the aesthetic interior. A light-diffusing fabric shade called a velarium, embroidered with a butterfly, was festooned beneath the skylight and gave a rosy glow to the room. Whistler painted a butterfly on the wall, signing it as if it were a painting, and naming the installation Arrangement in Flesh Colour and Grey.
For the May 1886 presentation of “Notes”—“Harmonies”—“Nocturnes” at Dowdeswell, he called the installation Arrangement in Brown and Gold. Here, the artworks were double hung against brown grocer’s paper, similar to what Whistler favored for his pastels and catalogue covers. A dado and skirting board of Dutch metal defined the wall, while mushroom colored velvet hangings softened the area above the paintings. The fireplace and doorways were surrounded by gold and brown draperies, and a velvet pouf provided seating in the middle of the room. This time the velarium was pale yellow silk, again embroidered with a butterfly. The gallery attendant wore a café au lait dress suit, and maids in artist-designed yellow gowns, brown aprons, and butterfly headgear served refreshments.
The final iteration of “Notes”—“Harmonies”—“Nocturnes” took place in March 1889 at the Wunderlich Gallery in New York. After lengthy negotiations about the exhibition, Whistler agreed to send sixty-two artworks to the Gallery. A catalogue was printed, but when the shipment arrived, they found that Whistler only sent forty-four of the promised works, leaving the dealers to fill the empty spots with work from their inventory. Wunderlich repeated the Arrangement in Flesh Colour and Grey color scheme. They tinted the woodwork pink, hung portieres and a rose-colored velarium, and placed two Chinese vases glazed in tones of raspberry and blood red in the corners of the room. As a critic for the Evening World wrote, “the exhibition may be described as a symphony in crushed strawberry.”