Wapping on Thames, James McNeill Whistler
In the national Gallery of Art, DC.
The name refers to a rough and tumble dock area of the Thames River in London, where Whistler lived and worked for a time, though I think the location is actually a nearby inn rather than the artist’s studio.
In a marked contrast to the serene simplicity of his later nocturnes, Whistler has taken on a very complex subject, one that he reworked and struggled with, dramatically changing the figures in particular.
Whistler expected the painting to be hailed as a triumph, and was embittered when it was rejected by the London art world of the time, even after a reworking. The experience helped set the course for his iconoclastic and confrontational relationship with the art establishment for most of his career.
The woman was Whistler’s companion and frequent model at the time, Jo Hiffernan, originally cast in a narrative as a prostitute being solicited by an older man. The figures were reworked, the narrative element largely removed, Jo made more presentable and the older man recast as the artist Alphonse Legros.
Perhaps it was the reworking that makes the figures, for me, the least interesting part of the painting. My eye goes immediately into the background, where it delightedly wanders amid the profusion of sails, masts and lines, the beautifully painterly wood hulls of the boats and the impressionistic swipes of muted color that make up the river’s surface.