• The Ocean Wave
  • The Ocean Wave

The Ocean Wave

Clouds drifting close to the water; a beach indicated in the foreground; signed with the butterfly at lower right.
Maker nationality and date
Watercolor on paper
H x W: 12.7 x 17.6 cm (5 x 6 15/16 in)
Credit Line
Gift of Charles Lang Freer
Object Number
Production location
England, Cornwall, St. Ives
Gray-brown butterfly in lower right corner
Selected Curatorial Remarks

1. Glazer, Jacobson, McCarthy, Roeder, wall label, 2019:
Whistler traveled to St. Ives in southwest England in late 1883, intent on producing works to sell at a solo gallery show in London. He had recently purchased supplies to paint en plein air, including a travel stool and a pochade box, a small case for carrying art materials. The artist reported he was "tremendously busy with lots of pictures of all kinds." He moved easily between painting with watercolors or oils, as seen in The Sea and Sand. Even so, his touch is lighter and his palette appears brighter in the resulting watercolors. These three watercolors from St. Ives are linked by their paper. Each contains traces of kaolin, a fine clay found in the hills of Cornwall and used in porcelain production.

2. Lee Glazer, 2018:
Changed date from "1883 or 1884" to "1883-1884." St. Ives works were painted on a trip spanning the winter of 1883-1884.

Selected Published References
1. Curry: James McNeill Whistler at the Freer Gallery of Art, Pg. 188
The size, palette, and liquid handling of this abstract marine relates it to watercolors executed in and around St. Ives. The title recalls Whistler's realistic early oil, Blue and Silver: Blue Wave, Biarritz, painted in Courbet's company. Courbet was using photographs by Gustav Le Gray as tools, and Whistler could have known them. But twenty years later, he had no need of such aids. Whistler still organized a marine composition in a few horizontal bands of color. But by the 1880s, he suggested a wave breaking upon the shore using only an ellipse of whitened space at the center of the composition, and paper saturated with wet color represents the ocean he once tried to capture within the canons of photographic realism.
Catalogue Raisonne number
MacDonald Catalogue number
Previous owner(s)
Obach & Co. (C.L. Freer source)
Charles Lang Freer (1854-1919)
CC0 - Creative Commons (CC0 1.0)
This image is in the public domain (free of copyright restrictions). You can copy, modify, and distribute this work without contacting the Smithsonian. For more information, visit the Smithsonian's Terms of Use page.
Back to Top