David Park Curry on Whistler: An Interview by Nicholas Malkemus ’21

In the summer of 2020, Nicholas Malkemus ’21 held the Lunder Consortium for Whistler Studies internship, an opportunity that emerged following his participation in the Colby Museum’s internship program, for which, among other projects, he generated a data analysis of the Museum’s print collection. As the Lunder Consortium intern, Nick performed comparably detailed work, tracking down historical images and creating a database for Some Old Curiosity Shops: Whistler, Commerce, and the Art of Urban Change, an exhibition that is being curated by current Lunder Institute senior fellow David Park Curry and that will appear at the Colby Museum, the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, and other venues beginning in 2023. A printmaker and a Whistler enthusiast, Malkemus asked Curry about their shared fascination with an American artist whose career and life embodied the transnational experience that has shaped American art.

Tell me about Some Old Curiosity Shops. How did you conceive of the project, and how did it develop?

Whistler’s shadowboxing with social and economic change has fascinated me for years, but focused, workable narratives for books, exhibitions, and lectures leave many an alleyway unexplored. Research for one of my essays in Whistler at the Freer Gallery of Art (1984) led to Cremorne Gardens, at the far end of Chelsea, a picturesque old London neighborhood undergoing urban redevelopment. I got closer to shop fronts researching James McNeill Whistler: Uneasy Pieces (2004) and restaging his notorious 1883 etchings exhibition, Arrangement in White and Yellow, but in the installation at the Freer in 2003, we emphasized the artist’s canny packaging strategies and domestic decorations targeting potential shoppers, particularly women. When the Lunder Consortium invited me to give a paper for its “Whistler: Nature and Nation” symposium, in conjunction with the exhibition Whistler and the World (2015), it offered the chance to dig deeper. After the symposium, Lee Glazer, the Lunder Institute’s inaugural director, and I worked to develop the current multivenue exhibition and book proposal. In analyzing the various catalogues raisonné, aiming to knit Whistler’s shop-front treatments into a comprehensible whole, we were floored by the sheer numbers of works touching upon this topic. Dating from the late 1850s to the turn of the twentieth century, they are scattered across mediums and encompass an unexpectedly broad geographic range.

A visit to the restricted collections at the Fogg Art Museum confirmed the richness of this somewhat under-the-radar topic in Whistler studies. Two nocturnes there depict street scenes rather than more familiar riverside views. In Nocturne: Grey and Gold: Chelsea Snow (1876), the artist referenced Charles Dickens’s “Trotty Veck,” a professional message delivery boy, prompting a close rereading of Whistler’s artistic manifesto, The Red Rag, published in a London society newspaper in 1878. A few years after he declared in The Red Rag that art had been “relegated to the curiosity shop,” he painted Nocturne: Black and Gold—Rag Shop, Chelsea (1881–84), signaling his decision to temper the strict geometries, suppressed detail, flattened spaces, and close cropping of his aesthetically advanced shop fronts by depicting old-fashioned commercial venues and long-established trades.

Whistler drew and painted, but the majority of his works are prints. How did this focus on printmaking inform the way he created art and represented the world?

Numerically, etchings and lithographs might seem to dominate Whistler’s oeuvre—chiefly because they are multiples, many (but not all of them) widely circulated. However, the deep connectivity among images in various mediums makes this artist so fascinating. Throw in his unusual skill with the written word, and you have a complex, challenging, ultimately rewarding body of material. 

Whistler not only developed his innate skills as a printmaker but also got the timing right with the positive response to the etching revival in Europe and America. The monochromatic, tonal prints must have contributed to his skill with muted palettes. Print media cost the artist less than oil painting. Highly portable, small-scale copper plates and nearly weightless sheets of transfer lithograph paper encouraged on-site spontaneity that was absent from studio portraits in oil, which usually involved endless sittings and multiple reworkings with or without the presence of the actual sitter. Whistler’s development of a memory system for nocturnes also distanced those riverscapes from their ostensible subjects. His compositional experiments, recorded in various states for etchings and lithographs, are obscured when they blend together onto a single surface of an evolving oil on canvas, or when one pastel image is partially obliterated on the sheet by a second image drawn over it. The fact that almost all the etchings as well as lithographs drawn directly on stone reverse what Whistler observed contributed to his sense of purposeful obfuscation while adding to the challenge of later interpretation. 

Regarding the current project’s focus on shopping and collecting, we note Whistler’s grasp of prints as a significant avenue for reaching wider, if less affluent, art audiences. His stylistically advanced Thames etchings were well received, even though the art itself was somewhat provocative. Yet the practicing bohemian could not avoid being associated with the market. From the outset, journalists and critics perceived that Whistler moored his fragile aesthetic craft to a commercial dock. Comparing Whistler to Rembrandt at brother-in-law and fellow etcher Seymour Haden’s expense, a positive review of the Thames etchings in Punch began with the phrase “English Etching is up in the market just now,” linking Whistler not only to the etching revival’s worthy Rembrandtian legacy but also to the non-aristocracy of tradesmen. Just as clearly, the review associates Whistler’s subject matter with economically driven urban change while assuring readers that Whistler’s portfolio would surely prove a good investment. 

Prints help us interpret layers of meaning in various paintings. A proof of Black Lion Wharf, filled with unsavory low-life details, hangs on the wall over the saintly image of Anna Whistler in “The Mother” (Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1). The genteel sitter averts her eyes from the severely framed visage of a gritty dock worker, whose profile faces hers in a perfectly balanced graphic confrontation between high and low culture. That’s how we want to understand the shop fronts in the context of social and economic change.

What first drew you to Whistler and American and European art of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries?

My undergraduate degree is in American studies, and I got a master’s in that field as well before changing universities to take up the history of art. Contextual studies bringing in economics, social history, and literature—a rarity for art historians at the time—were something of a given for me by then. As I celebrated the United States Bicentennial by going east, much ink was being spilled anguishing over what is “American” in American art, but I soon learned that post–Civil War America took part in an international culture with powerful players too numerous to name in painting, prints, sculpture, architecture, and decorative arts. It was an area ripe for discovery, and at Yale, I was fortunate to study with leading thinkers in the field, including Robert Herbert and George Hersey. My first serious encounter with our Jimmie was “translating” about a dozen Whistler manuscript letters in the Beinecke Library at Yale. I could barely read his writing! Although my dissertation was in architectural theory, my first postdoc job was as curator of American art at the Freer. Like Whistler embracing the etching revival, my timing was good, coinciding with preparations for Whistler’s 150th birthday celebration with an exhibition and extensive catalogue. While at the Freer, I taught a couple of seminars in New Haven with terrific students that helped shape our reading of Whistler as an American expatriate steeped in the context of European modernism.

What do you see as the reason for the continued interest in and scholarship of Whistler and his contemporaries?

Self-limiting art historical hierarchies from the early and mid-twentieth century—old masters are more worthy than new; works on canvas are more important than those on paper; decorative arts are a “minor” form of expression, and so forth—have become increasingly irrelevant in the freewheeling, technologically fueled, sometimes politically charged arena of present-day curatorial scholarship. Even though Whistler is best classed as a French modernist, his nationality and his untiring assertions of independence (all too easily taken at face value) kept him on the sidelines during the Impressionism studies boom of the 1970s and 1980s. Moreover, the emergence of scholarly apparatus came later for Whistler than for some of his French contemporaries. But now it is there, much of it available online. With his multiple talents as an artist, a writer, a publicist, a performer, a model for high-profile artistic behavior, Whistler is a perfect subject for open-ended inquiries. As a host of new voices emerge, asking all kinds of questions at once refreshing and daunting, I hope it is understood that while one may not get an answer, there is no question that cannot be asked, and Whistler’s significance is far from sorted. I just hope young scholars keep looking at the actual works of art as well as the clouds of easily accessed verbiage that surrounds them. 

Do you have a favorite work by Whistler?

Reading by Lamplight from 1859. Whistler captured his nearsighted half-sister Deborah Hayden with her nose in a book. I can identify with that. And I always loved the streak of self-confident eccentricity revealed by the composition, with an oil lamp precariously perched like a crane on one leg atop what looks like an upside-down Chinese export porcelain punch bowl—as if this were a perfectly ordinary choice in home decor. Whistler wanted to bathe Deborah in a glowing arc, and he didn’t mind telling you how he got it—but Reading by Lamplight always reminds me that trying to illuminate the complexities of his paintings, drawings, and prints doesn’t come easily. I suppose my favorite work by Whistler would be the one I am struggling to come to terms with at any given time.

Images: (Top) Nicholas Malkemus ’21 working in the Colby College print studio; (Bottom) Reproduced here is the Lunder Collection’s impression of the print that Curry owns: James McNeill Whistler, Reading by Lamplight, 1859. Etching and drypoint in black ink on ivory laid paper; first state (of three). 12 15/16 x 8 7/16 in. (32.8 x 21.4 cm). The Lunder Collection; 2013.413.