Whistler and Nature

This is a historic exhibition. It is no longer available to visit and this page is only retained as a record of the previous event. For current and future exhibitions, visit our What's On page.

Works by one of the greatest artists of the nineteenth century

James McNeill Whistler, Nocturne, 1875 ­ 1877 © The Hunterian, University of Glasgow


Until 15 June 2019 (historic exhibition)


Whistler declared: ‘Nature contains the elements, in colour and form, of all pictures, as the keyboard contains the notes of all music’.


Born in America but spending most of his life in the UK, James Abbott McNeill Whistler became one of the best-known artists of the late-19th century. This exhibition of around 90 of Whistler’s oil paintings, watercolours, lithographs and etchings examines his singular attitude to the natural world, and reveals how it was underpinned by his enduring kinship with the makers of railroads, bridges and ships, the legacy of his early training as a military cadet and the topographical drawing skill he learnt then. These influences are evident in Whistler’s fine group of etchings of the Thames, known as Thames Set, which are characterised by detail, accuracy and focus on line. In these views, Whistler depicts nature on the margins, where the river meets city, trade and industry. Whistler also made sketching trips to the woods and fields along the Thames, drawing on the spot for a series of etchings.

The Thames in the city had a continuing attraction for Whistler, and his paintings of the river are represented in the exhibition with Nocturne and Battersea Reach from Lindsey Houses. In these pictures, nature is constrained by man-made structures: the shadowy outline of the warehouses and chimneys on the far shore, and boats on the river. The seeming simplicity of the compositions reveals Whistler’s admiration for Japanese prints as well as his fascination with the atmospheric effects of mist and twilight. Whistler based his pictures on rigorous scrutiny, but composed their elements in a manner akin to music. He described his art as ‘an arrangement of line, form and colour … I make use of any means, any incident or object in nature’.  A similar approach also shaped Whistler’s etched views of Venice, which often depict buildings at twilight or masked by mist in pared-down compositions. In his studies of the human form, Whistler aimed at graceful simplicity, while carefully observing his subjects, and his figure studies had much in common with Albert Moore’s elegant paintings of women in diaphanous classical drapery.

Other highlights in the exhibition include watercolours and small oils that Whistler made on trips to the seaside in southern England, northern France and the Netherlands. Often painting on the beach, Whistler captured the immensity of the ocean and freshness of weather. Yet Whistler never lost his interest in the Thames, and the exhibition concludes with etchings of the Thames and London from the last years of his life.

This exhibition has been developed by Compton Verney in partnership with The Hunterian, University of Glasgow, which holds the world-leading collection of Whistler's work. It is accompanied by an illustrated publication written by Dr Patricia de Montfort of the University of Glasgow.

Image: James McNeill Whistler, Nocturne, 1875 – 1877 © The Hunterian, University of Glasgow (detail)


Compton Verney Compton Verney
Hunterian Hunterian
University of Glasgow University of Glasgow