Blogger’s Note: This post has been adapted from the research I did for my MA qualifying project, and I hope it will help to familiarize you with not only my work but my style. A major reason I’ve been drawn to Whistler’s work is the pervasive interest in waterscapes and watercraft shown throughout his corpus. As I’ll begin to unpack here, too, his work and biography are deserving of more critical attention. Historical figures are rarely as simple—or as innocent—as they are often made out to be.
James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903), an American expat and major figure of nineteenth-century European and American art, was and remains best known for his disavowal of the more communicative functions of art in favor of what he espoused as “art for art’s sake,” an idea he preached publicly and vociferously. Whistler has also been noted for his big, entertaining, if also irascible, personality, a reputation he carefully cultivated. His biography is littered with coming-to-blows episodes with patrons and colleagues. Whistler actually published the correspondence from these episodes in a memoir of sorts, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies. Often described as “cosmopolitan,” Whistler’s transnationalism certainly did inform his artwork, not least through his sometimes-radical adaptations of East Asian aesthetics. One aspect of his career that has been overshadowed by his flamboyant personality and artistic innovations is that Whistler was an artist in an age of empire. The effects and influence of imperialism were not only formative but informed some key works of his mature career. These key works include the etchings in his Naval Review set from 1887.
The impetus for the Naval Review etchings was an invitation to several events of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee (her fiftieth anniversary as sovereign), including the Naval Review at Spithead on the Isle of Wight on July 23, 1887. Whistler had earned this honor as president of the Society of British Artists. The jubilee events were intended not only to laud Victoria’s reign as Queen of the United Kingdom, but also her ten years as “Empress of India.” The Naval Review was an overt celebration of empire—and Whistler had a prime view of the festivities from a well-positioned boat, a vantage point he replicated when drawing directly on copper plates as the events ensued. His scenes and their contexts reveal both the performance of empire on that day and the artist’s own imperialist practices and ambitions. For Whistler, imperialism both formed the spaces in which he worked and were an intrinsic part of his education and artistic practice. Influenced by globe-spanning sources, the Naval Review etchings embody Whistler’s engagement with and practice of empire, their study offering a fresh perspective on the otherwise much-studied work of a formative artist of the late nineteenth century.
The Naval Review set consists of twelve rather sparse etchings mostly depicting the events of July 23, 1887 in the waters off the southern coast of England. Their details are portrayed through richly saturated if sketchily drawn lines with large areas, on ten of the sheets, reserved exclusively for tone or blank paper. Whistler’s own record tells us his intended order for the initial ten scenes of the series: “Tilbury. / Landing Stage, Cowes. / The Fleet, Troop Ship. / Visitors Boat. / Dipping the Flag / Bunting. / The Monitors. / The Turret Ship. / Evening / Return to Tilbury.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly but still intriguingly, this order follows the course of Whistler’s travel on the day of the Naval Review. He would have embarked on the Thames from and returned the next day to Tilbury, on the east side of London. To reach the location of the Naval Review he traveled around the southeast corner of England and through the Solent Strait to the Isle of Wight, transferring to one of the official celebration yachts at Cowes and embarking again into the waters of the Solent. In the Solent, several boats filled with officially invited guests, including Whistler, floated among the Navy boats that were subject to the review.
In earlier eras, monarchs had conducted naval reviews to ensure the fleet’s readiness for battle, but by Victoria’s time the event was purely ceremonial and spectacular. Twenty-one-gun salutes were made throughout Queen Victoria’s procession among her fleet, a kind of aquatic parade in which Victoria’s yacht was preceded by other dignitaries. Periodic stops were made for officers of the various vessels to meet the queen aboard H.M.Y. Victoria and Albert. While certainly not strictly documentary, Whistler’s Naval Review etchings do give some sense of what the event must have been like. Stationary ships clad with bunting punctuated a huge body of water as spectators in surrounding boats, on the shoreline, and on the docks looked on. A smoky haze from repeatedly fired guns filled the air.
Once complete, a set of the initial ten etchings was bound in a custom album and presented to Queen Victoria in commemoration of the event. Another set was displayed in an exhibition at the Royal Society of British Artists. This second set added two additional scenes, Children, Portsmouth and Dry Docks, Southampton, the major sites for unofficial, onshore spectatorship, which were done in the studio rather than en plain air.
Tilbury, like many of the scenes, shows the busyness of empire. Beyond a watery foreground in which a few boats move, the focus is on a distant shore. It begins at back left with an arched bridge that opens into a neighborhood of rowhouses along the water’s edge. The house nearest the water is topped with a steeple-like structure, echoing the vertical masts of the ships that proliferate along the horizon line. Smokestacks also rise, including in the right middle ground from two small tugboats. Wispy smoke floats into the air, intermingling with the clouds. Nearer the viewer, two small boats with quickly sketched figures enter the scene of the otherwise largely empty foreground of water. Along the horizon line, the boats blend more subtly into the background, invoking a forest of ship masts. In front of the rowhouses, an area of quick and close lines delineates the shallow rise of the shore. At the beginning of Whistler’s Naval Review day journey, outside the tightly controlled and celebratory waters of the Solent, Tilbury portrays the more quotidian aspects of empire.
The viewer is positioned roughly even with the shore and the horizon line, significantly above the other travelers—would-be spectators—in the small boats. These spectators in the bows of each of these two boats appear to be holding binoculars or opera glasses. Thus, the viewer and the artist are both observed and observer, subject and monarch, surveyed and surveyor. Whistler put his own vantage point in the framework of the monarch’s view, establishing a kind of literal hierarchy in this first scene that is continued throughout the series, putting the would-be viewer, Queen Victoria, and the artist in the position of power.
The Landing Stage, Cowes depicts review attendees waiting under an awning to board their spectator boats while ships in the background sit in their stations as yet undecorated. In scenes three through nine, the bunting is shown unfurled from the various types of naval boats, the water less chaotic in the more expansive area of the Solent and the sky less polluted than in the more industrial setting of Tilbury.
While created in the context of empire, the Naval Review etchings created in 1887 also reflect Whistler’s aesthetics and personal economic motivations. Whistler’s moves toward abstraction in painting were met with piercing criticism, the fallout from which ultimately led to his robust exploration of print media. “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.” Such was John Ruskin’s most stinging note on Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket. Much has been made of this bit of criticism as the event that led to the infamous Whistler v. Ruskin court case, a case Whistler won. The case, it could be argued, helped to set a precedent for artistic liberty, and the work was among those to set a course toward abstraction in modern art. However, Whistler was only awarded a single farthing in damages (about sixteen cents in today’s U.S. currency), and his legal costs were significant. In the immediate aftermath of the Ruskin trial, Whistler was bankrupted. His creditors seized and sold off nearly everything, including Whistler’s beloved collection of East Asian art.
Driven as ever by his desire for status, throughout the next decade Whistler turned to etching as a way to regain the wealth he had lost (or perhaps never really had). The nominal cost of etchings made them easier to sell than paintings. Their production methods also allowed Whistler to be more prolific. The etching project was not, however, the extent of his efforts to remake himself. The decade following the Ruskin trial and Whistler’s bankruptcy was accompanied by nothing less than a full-fledged campaign in which the artist attacked opponents and gave public speeches espousing philosophical views on art, thus forming and elevating the reputations of his alliances. These efforts were parallel to and tandem with his etching projects and form an important part of the context for Whistler’s Naval Review etchings set.
As part of this campaign, in 1884 Whistler got himself nominated as a new member to the Society of British Artists, an organization that had been founded in 1823 in opposition to the commission monopoly of Britain’s Royal Academy. The members quickly accepted him, recognizing that Whistler’s fame might help lift their struggling organization. Armed with this new alliance, on February 20, 1885, Whistler delivered his first “Ten O’Clock” lecture in Prince’s Hall, Piccadilly, London. The lecture, a succinct instruction of his views on art, lambasted conservatism and solidified for the public Whistler’s view that art should be created for art’s sake. Art, he said, is not about fulfilling the “duty of the painter.” Whistler broke significantly with many American landscapists, among them Asher B. Durand who had said one should work from nature and portray it with “scrupulous fidelity.” Durand’s ideas were inspired by John Ruskin, so Whistler’s professions really served a dual purpose of reflecting his sincere thoughts and countering those of his critical British foe.
In the lecture, Whistler evoked his interest in East Asian art but in a rather reductive and racist passage, Whistler reveals his sentiments toward East Asian cultures, Chinese culture in particular. The tendency to degrade other cultures was and is an imperial impulse. A nineteenth-century British audience, aware of their country’s own (imperialist) claims in East Asia, would have met these biases with nods. Indeed the lecture received transatlantic acclaim, both for what was said and for the sheer spectacle of the event. Whistler found his own reputation and that of the Society of British Artists considerably elevated. He was rewarded by being elected as president of the society in 1886 and went on to repeat the lecture at Cambridge and Oxford Universities. An American tour was also planned and advertised, but never realized. Whistler had become increasingly popular in America throughout the 1880s and references to his work had become commonplace in American art criticism. “Whistlerian” and “Whistlerish” were particularly pervasive ways to describe artists who shared his stylistic qualities.
The popularity of the lecture also increased demand for Whistler’s work; Whistler’s dealers, in fact, commissioned him to write a treatise to follow the “Ten O’Clock,” limited in scope to etching. Through his etching projects, Whistler further refined his art idiom and deployed prints as both a commodity and a political device. The Naval Review etchings must have mostly functioned as the latter as they were limited in their number of impressions, one set of which was given away. Still, they reveal a diverse set of influences that reflect Whistler’s ongoing process of refining his working methods.
Aside from the philosophical principles that guided his work, Whistler also drew his aesthetics and approach to the Naval Review images from other influences. Some of these, like his time at West Point and on the U.S. Coastal Survey, were innately imperialistic in their own contexts and aims, while for others Whistler’s use of them was imperialistic. The latter was particularly true for Whistler’s references to the art of East Asia. The geographical emphasis in the titles and scenic order of the Naval Review set recalls Whistler’s training with the U.S. Coastal Survey, a federal effort to map and document the U.S. coastline in detail. From 1851 to 1854, Whistler was a cadet at West Point Military Academy where he received artistic training from Robert Walter Weir (1803-1889). (That name may sound familiar to you. The Mariners’ Museum has an extensive collection of work by the elder Weir’s son, also named Robert.) Weir brought the curriculum at West Point more in line with that of European and American fine arts academies of the period. 
Weir had also made Seth Eastman’s Treatise on Topographical Drawing (1837) required reading. Just before Whistler’s time at West Point, the United States had launched “the Great Reconnaissance,” a massive surveying effort led by the new Army Corps of Topographical Engineers. The U.S. Coastal Survey (1807–1867) was a related oceanographic enterprise, and Eastman’s book was an effort to standardize the results of these various projects by “establishing universal symbols, shapes, and shadings” for use in topographical drafting. This effort to record a huge area of land and coasts was imperial in scope and aims. Certainly, Whistler’s time at West Point informed and developed his imperialist vision.
After being expelled from West Point for flunking chemistry and earning 218 demerits for, among other things, sketching during his non-art classes, he joined the U.S. Coastal Survey for a brief stint (1854–55), during which he learned to etch. The Coastal Survey, like many land surveys of the nineteenth century, relied on a complex system involving the establishment of a baseline and triangulation, from which many subsequent measurements were made. Whistler’s job on the Coastal Survey was to visually portray the surface appearance of the coast. Two works from Whistler’s time on the coast survey survive.
The Coast Survey Plate demonstrates the surveying process. In the bottom right are two aerial topographic sketches of the areas, the rise and appearance of which are depicted above. In these, we see hardscapes—houses and even smokestacks—the atmospheric effects of which Whistler would later emphasize in the Naval Review series among other work. Remarkably, Whistler also added several sketches unrelated to the survey process, including a portrait of Mrs. Partington and Ike, characters from B.P. Shillaber’s Life and Sayings of Mrs. Partington (1854) and a self-portrait as a minor Spanish nobleman in the upper right. The second surviving work from this period is Sketch of Anacapa Island, apparently a sketch by T.H. Stevens engraved by Whistler, J. Young, and C.A. Knight. Whistler contributed the birds, a minor but beautifying detail that, along with the whimsical Shillaber characters on the Coast Survey Plate, demonstrates the lack of discipline that got Whistler fired from this job.
The process of viewing and working (from a boat) and the visual result, as seen in the water and topography in these scenes very much parallels that of the Naval Review series, as does the very act of the boat’s movement from scene to scene. Even Whistler’s addition of extraneous details—the sketches of human figures and fictional characters (left) and birds (right) parallels his working process for the Naval Review set, much of which was done on site with the finishing touches added in studio. Most significantly, the Coast Survey and the West Point art practice were imperialist enterprises, no less than was Britain’s Naval Review. Each was a national response to acquisition of territories and Whistler’s participation in their visual documentation should be regarded as revealing evidence of their connections, and his ongoing involvement in the art of imperial vision.
The album format of the Naval Review set had parallels in Chinese and Japanese art, particularly in the form of albums of prints, and the experience of viewing was much like that of viewing East Asian scroll painting. Handscrolls would have been available in the same shops where Whistler had obtained many of the East Asian objects he owned. (Such shops thrived largely because U.S. naval pressure, under Commodore Matthew Perry had forced Japan to lift its export embargo in 1854.) Handscrolls are unrolled one section at a time, displaying only one part of the full scroll, much like a single scene from a series of etchings hung on a wall or displayed on a single page in an album format. While this practice was well understood by custom in East Asia, any handler of a long scroll would have been exposed to this custom by necessity as the scrolls become unwieldy if trying to hold and view more than arms’ width at one time.
Like Queen Victoria who never visited India, despite it being part of her empire, Whistler never visited Asia. His understanding of Chinese and Japanese aesthetics came only from his own interpretations of Asian objects and from his experiences in Chinoiserie shops in Paris and London. Nevertheless, he considered the aesthetics of East Asian art part of his domain. He had collected art from this area of the world prior to his bankruptcy, and he was either able to keep or reacquired at least one album of Japanese prints by the time of creation of the Naval Review series.
These images, called ukiyo-e, are images depicting fleeting moments of everyday life. Compositional devices and visual effects like asymmetrical composition, truncation of objects, and carrying the end of objects into the center of the composition in many of Whistler’s works reveal his continued interest in the Japanese medium.
The seventh scene in the Naval Review series, The Fleet: Monitors is a prime example of this Japanese influence, although it is found throughout the series. The composition is asymmetrical. The truncation of the boat in the bottom left is implied by the positioning of the figures. Whistler’s position can be assumed to be in this truncated boat, his seat likely demarcated by the butterfly signature (his monogram). He has portrayed the scene as if standing, however, positioning himself (and the viewer) not only above aspects of the seascape—well above the water line and at the same level as other boats in the distance—but above other figures as well.
Katharine Lochnan, in her work on Whistler’s etchings, calls the lines of the Naval Review etchings “calligraphic,” another nod to the East Asian influence in Whistler’s work. This is problematic, however, since East Asian calligraphic line is understood to extend beyond character making and into painting. In both, calligraphy is done with brushes, necessarily leaving a much thicker line than those in the Naval Review set. As Lochnan points out, the delicacy of Whistler’s etching lines was achieved with dental tools. Likewise, the quality of the line extends to the overall effect of the scenes, which are sparse and even sketchy. In other words, they are not at all like the richly saturated calligraphic elements of Chinese and Japanese paintings.
Furthermore, and quite significantly for the purposes of understanding the influence of ukiyo-e in the Naval Review set, unlike the prints by Hokusai and Hiroshige to which Whistler’s works have commonly been compared, the album of Edo views by Okada Shuntosai that Whistler owned until his death contained blackline-only prints. This source was highly relevant to the aesthetics of Whistler’s preferred and most prolific print medium, etching. Okada’s prints (1857) depict the bustling commerce and activity of Japan’s capital, Edo, opened for trade only three years prior.
Whistler took visual influences from various sources and adapted them as it suited him, happy to be ignorant of the larger contexts of objects whose aesthetics and formats he borrowed. Though he was unaware of their broader meanings, the aesthetics and forms of Whistler’s Naval Review Etchings look to Asia in both their visual qualities and in their celebration of Britain’s imperial claims on that part of the world. By adopting its aesthetics and forms, Whistler demonstrated his own mastery of East Asia, an imperialist performance of its own.
From its beginnings at West Point and in the U.S. Coastal Survey Whistler’s art was grounded within the context of empire, both in subject and technique as he learned the art of etching to portray topography of interest to the U.S. government. Later he would use that art form to capture his impressions of the Naval Review of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. Part of Whistler’s efforts to remake himself following the Ruskin trial, the Naval Review etchings set documents an empire whose industries have positioned it as a major world power.
In a more personal way, but no less global, Whistler’s practice and performance of empire in the Naval Review etchings set is closely connected to his interest in East Asian art, especially in regard to how he appropriated compositional details to imperialist ends. Especially through the truncated portrayal of objects and asymmetrical compositions Whistler reveals his loose engagement with Chinese and Japanese aesthetics, and the contained, scene-by-scene viewing cues his understanding formats of these cultures and his appropriation of them—an imperial impulse.
Just as he employed his etchings to rebuild his wealth, Whistler rebuilt his reputation with shrewd political alliances, including the Royal Society of British Artists and his visual appeals to Queen Victoria. Ultimately, however, these maneuverings led to his downfall in the Royal Society and with it, his further alienation. His imperialist inclinations were thus both successful and failures. Even as his own status faltered, his appropriation of East Asian aesthetics that was part of a process of broad generalizations and colonizing of East Asian cultures was highly influential in modern art. Broad in scope but limited in detail, Whistler’s Naval Review series is almost a microcosm of global imperialism at the end of the nineteenth century.
1. “List of Contents of Her Majesty’s Fleet at Spithead (The Naval Review),” Internet Museum System, The Hunterian, University of Glasgow, accessed November 2019, collections.gla.ac.uk/#details=ecatalogue.41963. Italics added.
4. This album was sold by Victoria’s son and successor Edward VII to American industrialist Charles Lang Freer (then sold to Whistler’s sister-in-law Rosalind Birnie Philip who subsequently gave it to the University of Glasgow in 1935).
7. Upon Whistler’s bankruptcy following the Ruskin trial, creditors seized most of his possessions suggesting he did not actually own them or, at least, had leveraged them as collateral to help pay his legal expenses in the libel suit.
10. Asher B. Durand, “Letters on Landscape Painting”; Cited in Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr. with Charles Brock, “Whistler and America,” in James McNeill Whistler, ed. Margaret F. MacDonald and Richard Dorment (New York: H.N. Abrams, 1995), 32. Durand was not the first to make the assertion that artists should paint from nature. John Ruskin had made similar claims and even Leonardo Da Vinci had asserted in his Treatise on Painting that the duty of the painter is to paint as if from nature. Whistler was suggesting a major break with artistic tradition and convention.
11. Whistler, “Ten O’Clock,” 93. Whistler evoked his interest in East Asian art by saying in reference to “Art” (now personified as a woman), that she “hies her off to the East—to find, among the opium eaters of Nankin, a favorite with whom she lingers fondly—caressing his blue porcelain, and painting his coy maidens—and marking his plates with her six marks of choice…”Nankin is a now antiquated Romanization of Nanjing. “Six marks…” is probably a misunderstanding of the various traditions of seal marking in East Asian cultures. On painting, marks would have been made by the artist, collectors, and occasionally notable viewers of a work. With porcelain, the mark ostensibly indicated the emperor during whose reign the object was created.
12. Sino-British relations have long been complex, and British interest in China in the nineteenth century was fueled by British demand for opium. As a result of the First Opium War, Hong Kong was administered as a colony of Britain from 1842 until 1997.
17. David Reel, “The Drawing Curriculum at the U.S. Military Academy During the 19th Century,” in “West Points, Points West.” Special issue, Western Passages (Denver: Institute of Western Art, Denver Art Museum, 2002), 56.
20. By the early 1850s, sectionalist tensions over slavery were also rising, but the Civil War was not yet considered a foregone conclusion. It must be acknowledged, though, that the Civil War had its own imperialist implications—for the Union, the imperialist desire to preserve the nation in its transcontinental state and for the Confederacy, the imperialist urge to maintain the horrible, unjust, wealth-producing system of slavery. Whistler’s West Point classmates were involved on both sides. Whistler himself sympathized with and supported the Confederacy, a fact that further complicates not only the understandings of the eccentricities of Whistler’s personality but serves as a reminder that though avant-garde in his ideas about art, Whistler was quick to take the side of the status quo politically. Whistler’s support of the Confederacy is discussed in some detail in Cikovsky with Brock, “Whistler and America.”
22. Captain Albert E. Theberge, The Coast Survey 1807-1867: Volume I of the History of the Commissioned Corps of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Silver Spring, MD: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Central Library, 186-9, https://library.noaa.gov/About/Mission/Coast-Geo-Survey/Coast-Survey-1807-1867-TOC.
23. “Sketches on the Coast Survey Plate, 1854-55, James McNeill Whistler, American,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, accessed October 30, 2019, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/372473; “Shillaber’s Ike,” Mark Twain in His Times, University of Virginia Library, accessed March 26, 2020, https://twain.lib.virginia.edu/tomsawye/shillaber.html; “Illustrating Tom Sawyer,” Mark Twain in His Times, University of Virginia Library, accessed March 26, 2020, https://twain.lib.virginia.edu/tomsawye/tomillhp.html#i. The Met webpage misattributes the characters to an unspecified Mark Twain story, probably The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. The characters of Aunt Polly and Tom were based on those of Mrs. Partington and her nephew Ike (Isaac) in B.P. Shillaber’s story. Shillaber was a fellow humorist and friend of Twain’s whose story had been published by the time of Whistler’s undertaking of the Coast Survey Plate; Tom Sawyer was not published until 1876. Mrs. Partington is recognizable by her strong nose, bonnet, and round glasses also shown in the original illustrations for Shillaber’s story; the young boy in the scene must be Ike.
24. For more on the opening of Japan and the subsequent period see Junji Banno, Japan’s Modern History, 1857-1937: A New Political Narrative, trans. J. A. A. Stockwin (London: Routledge, 2014). For more on Japonisme in Britain see Bowen Pearse, Companion to Japanese Britain and Ireland (Brighton, UK: Japan Society of London, 1991).
25. Amy Huang, conversation with the author, January 28, 2020. Huang assessed that even without direct knowledge of viewing customs, the handling experience would have required scene-by-scene viewing. This assessment is critical to the author’s interpretation.
26. Whistler Collection. The Hunterian, GLAHA 18792. Cited in Margaret F. MacDonald, “Whistler and the Thames,” 24. Despite having been forced to sell most of his collection, Whistler apparently owned a book of etchings of Edo by Okada Shuntosai until his death. Though Whistler’s collection of East Asian art had been mostly sold by the time of the Naval Review set’s creation in 1887, that he still owned this particular item directly supports that it continued to influence his work.
31. Beyond the scope of this post, the environmental degradation Whistler shows in the scenes is very much another imperialist impulse, a related issue that needs fuller consideration elsewhere. A closer examination of his time in the Royal Society of British Artists could also suggest that that organization’s motivations were more empire-oriented than currently understood.