Review: ‘Whistler and Nature’ at the Fitzwilliam

Helena Heaton 1 March 2019

The current featured exhibition at Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum is ‘Whistler and Nature’: a series of ninety works which curiously claims to express James McNeill Whistler’s fascination with ‘nature at the margins’. American-born, but having spent time living in London and Paris, Whistler is a fascinating figure who played a key role in the nineteenth-century Etching Revival. His appreciation for and analysis of Rembrandt’s famous etchings, along with his training as a military topographer, proposes an interesting question regarding the essence of Whistler’s relationship with nature. The attempt to explore this concept, however, is unsatisfactory and the presented material gradually dwindles in relevance.

Initially, it is interesting to see Whistler’s topographical work and its sterile attitude towards the natural world, to gain a sense of the artist’s background and his early reception of nature. It is unfortunate that only two examples of this work have been attained, but they nevertheless provide a logical and well-considered beginning to the exhibition. A pleasant progression begins as the visitor is presented with later etchings, where Whistler’s emotional investment in the landscape starts to become evident. The sketchy and textural lines in pieces such as Nursemaid and Child convey the wildness of nature, and it becomes clear that Whistler grew more intrigued by the atmosphere of the natural world, post-military.

Another concept presented is Whistler’s interest in the relationship between nature and mankind, and this section of the exhibition accurately relates to the idea of ‘nature at the margins’.  In his many London etchings, Whistler minimises the presence of nature, in contrast to the wildness identified in Nursemaid and Child. Instead, in cases such as Greenwich Bank, the image is largely occupied with bustling urban life and everyday depictions of working men, whilst the water of the Thames is left un-rendered and diminishing in the background. This series is cleverly set against the commissioned series of Venice scenes, where nature is presented as clawing its way into the man-made world, with branches crawling over buildings in The Traghetto: No. 2. There is a clear exploration of the power balance between Man and Nature in these works, and they leave the viewer considering which side wins.

The exhibition, however, completely loses its connection to the theme when Whistler’s fascination with Japanese ukiyo-e art is randomly introduced. Certainly, the interrelation between modern Western etching and traditional Japanese prints is a very interesting field to analyse, but this is the wrong place to do so. Classicised depictions of women modelling Japanese dress throws the visitor completely off-track, as the sense of Whistler’s attention to nature and its characteristics disappears. For some unexplained reason, we are presented with what can only be seen as an experimental phase of Whistler’s production in response to work by Albert Moore, and a temporary play with the concept of exoticism.

A range of female nudes presents a similar anomaly. The modelling of various women within domestic settings has no relation to nature or ‘the margins of nature’, unless one argues tenuously that the presentation of the naked body is close observation of nature. However, the sketchy quality and the rapid reworking of chalk in these pieces alternatively implies an interest in capturing transient moments of gracefully flowing fabric, which partially covers the bodies. An interrogation of material culture, rather than the natural world, is seemingly conveyed. Placed alongside Whistler’s series of energetic seascapes which brilliantly explore nature at the boundary of land and sea, the perplexity of the decision to include the nudes in the display is heightened.

No one can be to blame for exiting the exhibition ridden with confusion. Whilst it presents a beautiful insight into Whistler as an individual and artist, and I would recommend visiting to view some shamefully-overlooked gems within art history, I must admit that visitors will likely fall victim to a sad case of false advertising. Many of the works have no place in an exhibition entitled ‘Whistler and Nature’, for their pure failure to conform with the topic at question. The theme one is initially presented with, and becomes invested in, quickly loses tact, and nature’s presence diminishes.