One Fine Show: James McNeill Whistler at the National Museum of Asian Art

"Whistler: Streetscapes, Urban Change” captures the social and economic changes happening in 19th-century European cities.

Welcome to One Fine Show, where Observer highlights a recently opened exhibition at a museum outside of New York City—a place we know and love that already receives plenty of attention.

An etching showing a boat docking with people on the prow
‘Billingsgate,’ James McNeill Whistler, Etching and drypoint; ink on paper, H x W: 15.3 x 22.5 cm (6 x 8 7/8 in), Freer Collection, Gift of Charles Lang Freer. Credit: James McNeill Whistler / National Museum of Asian Art

Some of the most defensible parts of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time involve his epistemological descriptions of encounters with new technologies such as the airplane and the automobile, or even popular entertainment. As a child, he begs his parents to see the famous actress La Berma, but then is confused when she comes onstage during his first trip to the theater. Why is she pretending that she can’t see everyone in the audience? That fin de siècle represented some of the greatest changes ever to occur in society, which is probably why we have seen so many exhibitions from this period in our rather stuck era.

Among the latest of these is “Whistler: Streetscapes, Urban Change” at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art, which features over 100 works from the Freer Gallery of Art’s collection of over 1,000 works by James McNeill Whistler, the expatriate American painter best known for his famous portrait of his mother. That work belies his personality and larger body of work, however—both of which are far from frumpy. He sued the critic John Ruskin for his take on Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (1875). Like Édouard Manet, Edgar Degas invited Whistler to join the first show by the Impressionists in 1874, though, also like Manet, he declined.

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This new show collects mostly small-scale etchings, pastels and watercolors of shopfronts and high streets. Some of these works look like they might have functioned as studies, but definitely also work as journalism, capturing social and economic changes in 19th-century European cities. Consider Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony, (1864–73), which captures bored-looking women in radiant kimonos with flowers. The other half of the picture, off their balcony, is a bland industrial hellscape. It’s like watching The Kardashians.

There’s something special about the lines in Billingsgate (1859), an etching that depicts the new London Bridge behind a forest of ship masts, the sketchiness of the sea business and its denizens in rough contrast to the new and proper brick buildings on the waterfront that still conjure the city today. It’s a similar dynamic to The Lime-Burner (1859). Limeburners did what their name implies to make mortar and plaster, and Whistler’s leans against a wall almost surrounded by a series of roofs, ladders and rafters that threaten to tangle him in a maze of construction.

An Orange Note: Sweet Shop (1883 or 1884) was a contemporary hit in oil, with the artist Walter Sickert praising its detail “which gives us the contents even of the bottles, this little gem can hold its own with canvases a hundred times its size.” It’s remarkable what he’s able to achieve with just a pile of oranges in a single pane of window, appearing real in their shading and color varieties. Something is going on between the three figures in the painting, too, but who has time for that? This is a show about places and eras, not the people who happen to live in them.

Whistler: Streetscapes, Urban Change,” is on view at the National Museum of Asian Art through May 4.

One Fine Show: James McNeill Whistler at the National Museum of Asian Art