- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 28, 2001

Painter James McNeill Whistler met the esoteric American collector Charles Lang Freer in March 1890. The fateful encounter in London had extraordinary results.
Freer went on to acquire the largest number of Whistler paintings in this country, though the expatriate artist already had sold off most of his major masterpieces.
Whistler (1834-1903) interested the collector in Asian art with his Japanese woodblock prints and blue-and-white Chinese porcelains. Freer began his Far Eastern art collection under the painters influence, studied with major Asian art scholars and formed one of the worlds great collections of this art.
Freers gift of both his Asian and American art collections was accepted by the Smithsonian Institution in 1906. Its high time now to honor Whistler, the man behind it all, with the just-opened exhibit "James McNeill Whistler" at the gallery.
No other American museum could mount a Whistler exhibit of such beauty and breadth. Surprisingly, the gallery has never before organized an exhibit surveying Whistlers development or shown these stellar paintings as a group. This show brings together 10 of the most important of Whistlers works to show major phases of his career.
Everyone has his favorite Whistler period. Kenneth Myers, assistant curator of American art, chose only first-rate examples from the Freers 66 oils. The painter, who was born in Massachusetts and studied art in Paris, based his early style on 17th-century Dutch and Spanish art and the realism of the Frenchman Gustave Courbet. Then he worked through a transitional period influenced by Japanese prints and classic Greek sculpture. Freer liked the late-era thinly washed "nocturnes" and moody portraits best.
Whistler moved to London in 1859 and there painted the exhibits "The Thames in Ice" a year later. The artist had studied with Courbet in Paris, and Courbets heavy-handed realism was perfect for the subject. The winter of 1860-61 was extremely brutal. Ice filled the Thames and impeded traffic. Whistler painted the scene heavily and darkly in the Courbet manner. Yet it shows the interest in organization and geometry that would characterize his later work. The ship in the painting repeats the strong diagonal of land in the foreground; the rigging thrusts upward; and the riverbank forms a calm horizontal in back.
Whistler was swept up in the craze for "japonaiserie" that influenced Edgar Degas, Edouard Manet, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Vincent van Gogh, Pierre Bonnard and others in the late 1800s. The Japanese treatment of perspective interested him greatly in his search for a formal order in his work. He took to calling his paintings "harmonies" so viewers would look for the geometries in his work. "Harmony in Green and Rose: The Music Room" (1860-61) flattens the three female figures through a radically angled perspective.
Whistler tackled a complex composition and succeeded brilliantly. His "Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony" (1864-70) is simpler and even closer to Japanese pictorial approaches. The floor of the balcony falls sharply toward the viewer and away from the women. He clusters the women to the right and crops one radically at the paintings margin.
Whistler rapidly moved to his "nocturnes" afterward with a short detour inspired by Greek sculpture. He prepared a set of five sketches in 1868 for an architectural project, possibly a dining room. He painted friezelike images of Greek figures as color studies. "Symphony in Green and Violet" is one example.
Mr. Myers included three "nocturnes" a subject most identified with Whistler in the exhibit. The smallest and simplest, "Symphony in Grey: Early Morning, Thames" (1871), is the most endearing. Whistler pulled thin washes of paint across the canvas to give it almost the quality of watercolor. He structured his brush strokes horizontally to echo the composition. Critics today would praise it for its "minimalistic" qualities, but Whistler had different things in mind.
"A nocturne is an arrangement of line, form and color first. The picture is throughout a problem that I attempt to solve," he said during his famous libel suit against the critic John Ruskin.
The artists late portraits round out the show. The 1870-73 portrait of Liverpool shipping financier Frederick R. Leyland, "Arrangement in Black: Portrait of F.R. Leyland," is impressive but hypocritical. Leyland was Whistlers chief patron from 1867 to 1876, until they quarreled over the painting of "The Peacock Room," now in an adjacent gallery at the Freer. The painter flatters his patron here by simulating a royal portrait by the Spanish court painter Diego Rodriquez de Silva y Velazquez.
Freer met Whistler when the artist had achieved both professional and financial success. Freer was 20 years younger than Whistler, and at first the collector was apprehensive about the artists prices. Many of Whistlers paintings started coming back on the market in the 1890s, and Freer acquired more funds in 1900. Greedy collectors saw an opportunity to make money with the rise in Whistlers prices which infuriated the artist.
Whistlers most famous painting, "Arrangement in Grey and Black, No.1 (The Artists Mother)," is in the Louvre in Paris. His memorable "The White Girl (Symphony in White, No. 1)" belongs to the National Gallery of Art.
Yet Freers close friendship with Whistler and his astuteness as a buyer enabled him to put together this unique collection. Let us hope well see more of it.

WHAT: "James McNeill Whistler"
WHERE: Freer Gallery of Art, 1050 Independence Ave. SW
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily, through December 2003
PHONE: 202/367-2700

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