A student post from Isabella Wagner, MA History of Art and English Literature student and Hunterian MuSE guide.
Welcome to the virtual Whistler and Glasgow School tour! My name is Isabella, and I will be your guide for today.
In this blog post, I am going to be making my own contribution to #MuseumFromHome. Museum closures, although unfortunate, have opened up a wonderful opportunity for museums and galleries to share their collections online. Our own online team of volunteers from the MuSE programme (Museum Student Educators) have been hard at work producing some fascinating content on social media showcasing some of the most captivating aspects of The Hunterian’s collections.
In my own virtual mini-tour, I want to show you a couple of my favourite pieces from the collections that illustrate the profound impact that the eminent artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler had on the Glasgow School of artists.
I’d like to start with Whistler’s Harmony in Red Lamplight, the portrait of his wife Beatrice. Although this was painted well before they were to be married, there might still be an element of romance in the eyes of the sitter! This portrait shows Whistler’s attention to the portrayal of artificial light – notice how the colours of her cloak, hat and the backdrop appear almost homogeneous, as the ‘harmony’ alludes to.
Whistler is known for his charming, yet fiery, character, and this eventually caught up with him. Around the time he painted this portrait, he found himself bankrupt with his reputation in England in tatters after a series of very public disputes, namely his legal battle with John Ruskin, and the disagreement with his loyal patron Frederick Leyland. His upper class patrons had abandoned him and so he was left to paint the portraits of those with essentially no status to lose. But, in this way, he was able to take risks that he might not have had the liberty to with his usual clientele. This manifests in his portraits in experimentation with costume, pose and dress, which you can see here in Beatrice’s confident pose, with her hands firmly on her hips. Whistler and Beatrice married in 1888 and spent five happy years together until Beatrice’s long illness and sad death in 1896, which Whistler is said to have never recovered from.
Next, we have Bessie MacNicol’s Lamplight. This is a gorgeous portrait, in my opinion, for the way MacNicol has ingeniously rendered the artificial light source to show off the costume of the sitter. She was an artist a few years younger than some of the most prominent Glasgow Boys, and she unfortunately passed at the age of 37, leaving much of the rest of her career unrealised. Yet, she still made her impact. She illuminates how the term Glasgow Boys, which is often solely used to refer to this group of painters, excluded these female artists who were very much working within the same realm as their male counterparts!
It is clear to see where MacNicol has taken inspiration from Whistler, in her focus on the effects of light and the aesthetic ruggedness, which emphasises the brushstrokes in the paint. This is simply one example of the countless ways in which Whistler was to affect the work of his contemporaries, and artists of following generations.
I hope the comparison between Whistler and Bessie MacNicol in this mini-tour has provided a little insight into this connection between Whistler and the Glasgow School. If you have been left longing for more online tour content, visit the #HunterianTour on Twitter where students like myself have posted some brilliant snippets of The Hunterian’s collections. In the words of Whistler himself, “Art is upon the Town!” Happy exploring!