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(Book & Paper) Whistler’s Little Game: Watercolor Materials and Techniques by Emily Klayman Jacobson and Blythe McCarthy

By Brook Prestowitz posted 05-27-2019 22:12


Jacobson and McCarthy presented exciting new discoveries about James McNeill Whistler’s use of watercolors from their team's research into his use of watercolors and examination of 133 of his watercolors, 52 of which are in the Freer|Sackler collection (Abstract). They have identified patterns in Whistler’s use of pigments, papers, and techniques by comparing his mature style with his earlier works. Jacobson and McCarthy confirmed their observations with their research from primary sources such as correspondence of the artist and his contemporaries, colormen sales records held at the Hamilton Kerr Institute, Whittlesford, England, and collections of Whistler’s artist materials in the Hunterian Art Gallery in Glasgow, Scotland, and the Library of Congress (LOC).Their work is part of the multidisciplinary research supporting the exhibit Whistler in Watercolor (open until October 6th) at the Freer|Sackler. More about the exhibit, including a recording of a series of lectures presented at the opening, can be found at the Freer|Sackler website.

Whistler did not seriously work in watercolors until after his bankruptcy related to his lawsuit against John Ruskin in 1878. This sudden attention to watercolors seems to have been partly driven by his need to reinvent himself as an artist. He referred to his watercolors as “little games” (hence the title of this talk) and used the medium to create small, finished works that he planned to sell to wealthy Americans interested in buying art who were traveling Europe. Aside from this practical approach to creating watercolors, Whistler also used the works to express his ideas of distinguishing the results of an experienced master of fine art and use of color and composition to push the boundaries of the norm and create art for art’s sake.  

In the Charles Roberson & Co. archives held at the Hamilton Kerr Institute, Jacobson and McCarthy discovered that Whistler wasbuying materials from British colorman Charles Roberson & Co. in 1881, the beginning of his serious explore watercolors, through to 1883. It is suspected that he began buying from Roberson after his bankruptcy to avoid other colormen with whom he had unpaid bills. He bought brushes, watercolors, accessories for working en plein air as well as seven blocks of HOT pressed and seven NOT (cold pressed) watercolor papers. Interestingly, his purchases correlate with trips he made in his career to create watercolors.


Many of the watercolors at the Freer|Sackler have adhesive and fiber remnants along the edges of the supports. This indicates that they were once part of a block of watercolor papers and correlates with Whistler's purchases recorded in the Roberson archives. Jacobson and McCarthy observed that Whistler deliberately used NOT papers for his seascapes and HOT papers for street scenes and studio scenes. He clearly utilized the surface texture of these papers to capture atmospheric effects of the type of scene he was to paint. Computed x-radiography on the Freer|Sackler watercolors found five different watermarks including: two Whatman watermarks; “LL” in a wreath, identified by Peter Bower as a French stationer's watermark; Blauw, a Dutch paper company or a French forgery of this paper; and a Frères blind stamp from one of several possible French papermakers. In his earlier uses of watercolors, Whistler experimented with different types of papers including ones that were not designed for watercolors. However, his later works show a consistent use of watercolor papers with a few exceptions. Some examples of non-conventional supports that Whistler experimented in his later watercolors are prepared boards with cloth and a prepared ground manufactured by E. Mary & Fils, boards with Japanese papers, and brown papers. Whistler used Japanese papers for his etchings and brown papers for pastels. His use of these supports with watercolors is an interesting crossover of their uses in his other art forms.

There are two collections with some of Whistler’s artist’s materials. The Hunterian Art Gallery has materials donated by his sister-in-law after his death and consists of a palette, paint box, and watercolors and gouache in tubes and bottles. The other set of Whistler’s materials was donated to the LOC by Joseph and Elizabeth Pennell, who were artists and Whistler’s biographers. While the materials at the Hunterian may be a combination of Whistler and his wife’s materials and the LOC materials have items that were not available until after his death and likely belonged to the Pennells, these collections provide valuable insights into materials Whistler used later in life. Both materials in the Hunterian and the LOC make it evident that Whistler used watercolors and gouache in bottles, and tubes with labels from the following colormen: Dr Schoenfeld & Co. (German, established in 1862), Winsor & Newton (British, established in 1832), and James Newman (British, established in 1784). This is supported by the Roberson archives entries showing that the pigments whistler bought were in tubes. Also, the palette in the Hunterian collection is very similar to the one sold by Roberson.

Jacobson and McCarthy were able to determine some of Whistler’s pigment choices with technical analysis of 52 watercolors in the Freer|Sackler collection: XRF, FORS, in-situ FTIR (for blues and yellows), HPLC-MS (organic dyes), SEM-EDS (chrome green and yellow). They also cross-referenced the analysis with the artist's materials at the Hunterian and the LOC. His earlier works use conventional watercolor pigments with cobalt blue as an exception. He also used lead white and practiced the technique of using the white of the paper for the whites of the composition. In his later works, Whistler also began to use some of the new pigments that came onto the market during the 19th Century despite their known permanence issues and his lofty statements about trying to use what the old masters used. He used cerulean blue instead of cobalt blue after his bankruptcy, most likely because it was a cheaper pigment. Zinc oxide (replacing lead white), artificial mars colors, cadmium yellow, emerald green, and lemon yellow were other new additions to Whistler’s pallet. Unfortunately, some of these pigments have suffered from light damage changing the original impact of the composition. This was particularly true for A Note in Green 1883-4 where strontium chromate yellow (lemon yellow) has faded and changed to a flat green.The edges of the watercolor protected from light by the frame remain a vibrant yellow green while the areas exposed to light through the opening of the frame have changed to a flat grey-green.

Working Methods

Very little information from accounts of Whistler’s followers is given about watercolors aside from one notable account in which is described Whistler's practice of mixing “Chinese white with every tone to give body to the pigments, just as in his oil colors he used ivory black.” Examination of Whistler’s watercolors under ultraviolet radiation supports this account. The characteristic yellow fluorescence of zinc oxide is visible in many of his paintings. In some he has used it sparingly for highlights while in others the whole painting is fluorescing yellow because he has mixed it with every color. Jacobson and McCarthy also pointed out that this method of using zinc oxide gouache with transparent watercolors blurs the line between opaque and transparent watercolors because despite mixing the opaque zinc white with transparent colors, Whistler still retains transparency with these mixtures. Whistler also arranged his watercolor pigments in his palette in the same way he arranged his oil colors. Jacobson and McCarthy noted that Whistler stopped using underdrawings in his later watercolors to outline the composition. The last watercolor that he used an underdrawing for was London Bridge done in 1881. Despite the spontaneous appearance of Whistler’s watercolors, technical analysis and visual examination reveal reworked areas of compositions as well as blotting and rubbing techniques to achieve the finished piece. Even with these signs of physical manipulation of the medium, Whistler is considerably reserved in these techniques compared to his contemporaries who also worked in watercolors.

Whistler was very involved in determining how his watercolors were to be displayed, just as he was involved in curating his own works through exhibitions that he organized himself. He wanted his works mounted overall to secondary supports and selected specific frames. Crop lines are visible in some watercolors and were used to ensure that the compositions were framed properly. He liked having the watercolors framed with glass glazing without use of mats or passepartouts. He then had them installed in small but ornate frames, elevating the status of his watercolors as finished works. Whistler was known to sign the frames as well as the paintings, indicating their importance to the piece. His watercolors were small, making them more portable but also drawing the viewer into the composition of his pieces creating a more intimate experience.

Jacobson, McCarthy, and their associates have collected valuable information that allows us to see Whistler’s watercolors through a new lens. There is a clear transformation between Whislter's early style and his late style of watercolors with a more mature approach to using watercolors as a platform for his progressive views on art. This is apparent in the way he used color, composition, technique, and display to define a finished work by a master artist. The information shared in this talk not only allows us to appreciate Whistler’s use of watercolors, but also provides valuable information that will guide the preservation of these works. We may also begin to understand how the watercolors may have changed over time as a result of his choices in pigments, materials, and display methods.. All the result of this multidisciplinary team’s work is available through their publication Whistler in Watercolor: Lovely Little Games. The information gathered from the technical analysis will also be released in December 2019 on their website and will include UV, IR, X-ray images, photomicrographs, and pigment analysis.

Brook Prestowitz
Assistant Conservator of Paper
Williamstown Art Conservation Center