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Sailing in American Art

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Wapping, 1860-1864


James McNeill Whistler

John Hay Whitney Collection

Whistler inscribed "1861" at the lower right of this early canvas, but he reworked the picture extensively nearly four years later. He sketched the original composition in a letter to an associate and described the girl as "saying to her sailor: 'That's all very well my friend, but don't think you're the first.' You know, she winks and pokes fun at him." In this final revision, however, Whistler eliminated any risqué narrative and instead sought a mood of pensive isolation.

The background remains intact from the artist's first sessions at Wapping, a dockyard on the river Thames, east of London. Painting on site from an inn called The Angel, Whistler created the whole scene en plein air. Against the bright turquoise water and sky, the ships' masts and rigging are quickly sketched in orange and brown strokes.

For this work, Whistler hired Joanna Hiffernan, an artist's model known for her coppery red hair. She soon became his mistress and posed for The White Girl, also in the National Gallery. After finishing that composition in 1862, Whistler returned to Wapping. He repainted its foreground figure group into a harmony of russet browns and blue grays, which are darker shades of the pure oranges and blues in the setting. By its concentration on a consistent color scheme, this important canvas marks Whistler's major advancement toward "art for art's sake."

About the Artist

James McNeill Whistler - American, 1834-1903

James Abbott Whistler was born in in 1834 in Lowell, Massachusetts, the third son of West Point graduate and civil engineer Major George Washington Whistler, and his second wife Anna Matilda McNeill. After brief stays in Stonington, Connecticut, and Springfield, Massachusetts, the Whistlers moved to St. Petersburg, Russia, where the Major served as an engineer for the construction of a railroad line to Moscow. Whistler studied drawing there at the Imperial Academy of Science.

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