- The Washington Times - Friday, May 20, 2005

The Freer Gallery of Art’s dimly lit gallery showing “Small Masterpieces: Whistler Paintings from the 1880s” provides a perfect foil for James McNeill Whistler’s spare, evocative paintings from those years. The gallery’s long, rectilinear proportions beautifully echo the subtle geometry of these superb Whistler seascapes and figures.

The American expatriate artist painted pale, amorphous views that verge on designs — often with only hints of human presences — on flat, energetically brushed surfaces. He called these works — created around simple, geometric patternings — “art for art’s sake,” then still a startlingly novel idea.

These Whistlers are devoid of the vanishing point perspective and storytelling so common in the work of other 19th-century artists, like the classically inspired paintings of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and violently “romantic” works of Eugene Delacroix. Instead, Whistler (1834-1903) fused line and color for his emphatically individualized, calm, uncomplicated art.

The show’s seascapes best illustrate Whistler’s “art for art’s sake” philosophy. Made with a few broadly brushed, horizontal bands of color, punctuated by jutting verticals, they have a now-you-see-them, now-you-don’t playfulness. These diffuse, of-the-moment, views of ocean-side might well remind local visitors of misty Eastern Shore vacations.

It’s no accident that the painter’s “Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1 (The Artist’s Mother)” (1871) — his most famous work, but not in the Freer exhibit — is called an “arrangement.”

Ultimately, these “arrangements” led him close to abstraction, as seen in the exhibition’s “Nocturne — Silver and Opal — Chelsea.”

The painting, like others in his “Nocturne” series, dissolves light and blue-greens into evanescent voids. It also thrust him — along with French impressionists Camille Pissarro and Claude Monet, and the English painter J.M.W. Turner, straight into the then-revolutionary pre-abstractionist camp.

However, exhibit curator and former Freer associate curator of American art Kenneth Myers chose to focus on the small size of these almost abstract works, rather than their forward-looking qualities.

They surprise, in view of earlier, larger Whistlers hanging nearby — “Arrangement in Black: Portrait of F.R. Leyland, 1870-73,” a 6-foot-plus-tall portrait of his former patron, and the flamboyant “Peacock Room,” for example. During his first 20 years in London (late 1859 through 1880), Whistler had established an international reputation based on portraits like these and night-scapes. He had also amassed an important art collection that was worth a fortune. However, he bankrupted himself through his unsuccessful libel suit against the powerful art critic John Ruskin. (The critic had written, “I have seen, and heard, much of Cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.”)

After his legal setback, Whistler concentrated for the next 25 years on smaller works in oils, watercolors, pastels and prints. Among them were the 23 oil-on-wood “small masterpieces” of the Freer show. Sketchy and abstract, these works are the product of the years he worked in the seaside towns of St. Ives in Cornwall and Lyme Regis in Dorset, as well as the 1884 winter that he painted and drew sensuous nudes in his Chelsea studio.

Difficult to display, the small oils were not especially popular among collectors in Whistler’s time — fortunately for Charles Lang Freer, Detroit railroad magnate and Freer Gallery founder. He collected an estimated 140 of them, which are now housed in perpetuity at the Freer.

The collector stipulated in his will that none of the Whistlers were to be moved from the gallery, so there’s been ample material for specialized shows of the artist. This is one of the best.

WHAT: “Small Masterpieces: Whistler Paintings from the 1880s”

WHERE: The Freer Gallery of Art, Jefferson Drive at 12th St. SW

WHEN: On view indefinitely from 10 a.m. through 5:30 p.m. daily

TICKETS: Free

PHONE: 202/633-488

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