Mr Whistler's Galleries: Avant-Garde in Victorian London
"Now my rooms are pictures in themselves." -- James McNeill Whistler
James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) is most often remembered as a painter and printmaker but he was also an important designer of both private and public interiors. "Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room" (1876-77) is Whistler's best-known interior. Originally designed as the dining room in the London home of a wealthy shipping magnate, it is now permanently installed in this museum. But few of Whistler's contemporaries would have had access to "The Peacock Room" or any of his other private interiors. Whistler's designs for temporary public exhibitions, on the other hand, were both accessible and influential.
When Whistler arrived in Paris to study art in 1855, public and private art installations were usually hung "salon style." Paintings were displayed close together, frame to frame, wall to wall, and floor to ceiling. Beginning in the 1870's, Whistler organized a series of innovative and provocative installations that presented his own work as he wished it to be seen. Drawing public attention to his art, these installations also promoted his ideas about interior decoration, playing a crucial role in the transformation of exhibition practice. Many elements of Whistler's installations are now commonplace, including his use of indirect lighting, color-coordinated walls, uniform framing, elegant spacing, special seating, and neutral floor coverings. While Whistler did not invent any of these features, his ability to asestheticize them was unequalled. His highly publicized installations challenged contemporary exhibition practice, hastening the decline of the salon-style hang and paving the way for the sparer installations found in most galleries and museums today.
In the early 1880's, Whistler began to title his installations, suggesting that he had come to think of them as independent works of art. The first two installations to be given titles were the "Arrangements in White and Yellow," created for an exhibition of etchings in 1883, and the "Arrangement in Flesh Colour and Grey," designed for an exhibition of oil paintings, watercolors, and pastels in 1884. "Mr . Whistler's Galleries" highlights Whistler's contribution to this history of exhibition design by displaying new versions of those groundbreaking installations.