Portrait of James Abbott McNeill Whistler in front of the Thames.London: [c.1875] Stock Code: 75289
Whistler moved to 7 Lindsey Row, Chelsea, in March 1863. Among his neighbours were the Greaveses, a family of Thames watermen. Walter and Henry Greaves (1844-1904) became his guides on the river, pupils, and devoted assistants in the studio. Walter and Henry themselves had been painting from their earliest years, probably starting by doing heraldic work on boats in their father's yard. They found their subjects in the Chelsea streets and at local regattas, and would often work in tandem, signing their joint productions "H. & W. Greaves".
As river guides, it was Walter and Henry who first showed Whistler Cremorne pleasure gardens by night, a sight that was to inspire his painting Nocturne in Black and Gold: the Falling Rocket (Detroit Institute of Art), which, when exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877, aroused the ire of Ruskin and precipitated the most famous lawsuit in the history of British art.
In return for their services and as a mark of his friendship, Whistler taught the boys his own methods of painting. In homage to his hero Walter Greaves produced more than a hundred portraits of Whistler, most of them from memory. Some of the Greaveses' Whistler images are dated; those of the early 1860s to late 1870s are records of the period of their friendship.
Whistler is seen on the balcony at 7 Lindsey Row, sometime before February 1867, when he moved to a grander apartment in the same row, the Greaves brothers helping to transport his possessions and decorate the new apartments. The upper-floor balcony, known as a "widow's walk" because it served as a look-out for women watching anxiously for their returning seafaring men, resembles one that had featured in Whistler's own painting Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: the Balcony (Freer Gallery of Art, Washington), dating from 1864-5, which suggests that this image is painted from memory, perhaps even at the date indicated by the signature, although Walter was notoriously unreliable in dating his paintings.
Walter Greaves's greatest early work, perhaps his masterpiece, is Hammersmith Bridge on Boat-Race Day (Tate Gallery), a naive painting of the highest order, championed by Sickert among others. Walter himself claimed that it was painted in 1862, when he was sixteen, but Tom Pocock, in his definitive account of the relationship between Whistler and Greaves (Chelsea Reach, 1970), argues that in fact it was executed nearly a decade later.
This portrait was among those exhibited at the Greaves exhibition at the Goupil Gallery in 1911, where it was purchased by the art dealer Philip H. Rosenbach. In response to ludicrous claims made by others that Greaves had influenced Whistler, rather than the other way around, Whistler's friend and biographer Joseph Pennell attacked Greaves savagely, hugely damaging his contemporary reputation. The painting was not be sold by Rosenbach but retained in the Rosenbach Museum and Library, Philadelphia, and subsequently de-accessioned in January 2011.
Oil on board. 1060 x 882 mm. Signed and dated bottom left: "W. Greaves 1875". Framed.
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