The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art has announced “Whistler: Streetscapes, Urban Change,” an exhibition that casts new light on American painter James McNeill Whistler’s long-term engagement with social and economic change. The exhibition will include an array of over 100 works from the Freer Gallery of Art’s unparalleled Whistler collection, several on view for the first time. The museum has the nation’s largest collection of works by Whistler—more than 1,000 in total, including the famed Peacock Room. Guest curated by independent scholar David Park Curry, “Whistler: Streetscapes, Urban Change,” a project of the Lunder Consortium for Whistler Studies, will be displayed in the National Museum of Asian Art’s Freer Gallery of Art from Nov. 18 through May 4, 2024.
Alongside Whistler’s splendid interior, the Peacock Room, this exhibition offers a unique opportunity to see rare etchings, pastels and watercolors that tell the story of social and economic revolution in 19th-century European cities. Whistler’s shopfront images are often small-scale depictions of working-class residents performing trades that would soon disappear from urban landscapes thanks to the rise of department stores and large-scale commercial shopping areas. This exhibition illustrates how such images of small-scale production catered to a middle-class clientele eager to embrace nostalgic views at a moment of tremendous social upheaval.
Many of the changes Whistler observed—from the demise of small-scale businesses to the expulsion of poor and working-class communities from urban centers—are as present now in cities as they were in Whistler’s time.
“Whistler: Streetscapes, Urban Change” is part of the National Museum of Asian Art’s “Journeys,” a series of events and exhibitions produced during the museum’s centennial year. “Journeys” projects deepen and broaden the museum’s impact through global and local engagement. “Whistler: Streetscapes, Urban Change” adds to this effort through a programmatic partnership with several members of the nearby Anacostia neighborhood, including the 11th Street Bridge Park Project, an elevated public space that will connect neighborhoods in Washington separated by the Anacostia River.
“James McNeill Whistler is an integral part of our museum’s history,” said Chase F. Robinson, the museum’s director. “We’re pleased to showcase his artistry during our landmark centennial year and consider modern-day issues through the lens of his works. In our second century, we are transforming the National Museum of Asian Art into a space that welcomes a wide range of visitors to convene, learn and interact with Asian art and cultures and the art of the United States.”
Whistler had a profound influence on museum founder Charles Lang Freer, a Detroit businessman who began collecting works by living American artists in the 1880s. In 1890, he met Whistler, an influential artist who collected Chinese and Japanese works of art and adapted Asian aesthetics into his own artistic vocabulary. The two men established a long and fruitful friendship, and Freer came to share Whistler’s belief that the history of art was a “story of the beautiful” that transcended time and place. Following the artist’s advice, Freer began acquiring Asian art. Eventually, he amassed a stunning array of both American and Asian works that ultimately formed the Freer Gallery of Art.
In addition to works by Whistler, Freer also gathered significant holdings of U.S. artists Dwight Tryon, Thomas Dewing, Abbott Thayer as well as Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, Willard Metcalf and Childe Hassam among others. The National Museum of Asian Art’s collection includes over 1,700 works by artists from the United States.
“Our centennial is an opportune time to showcase beloved examples from our Whistler collection alongside some little-seen gems,” said Diana Greenwold, the National Museum of Asian Art’s Lunder Curator of American Art. “Curry’s intellectual rigor and our collaboration with local partners means this exhibition treads new scholarly and programmatic ground. We are grateful to our partners, including Curry, Mēlani Douglass, Tony Ford, John Johnson, Scott Kratz and Ronald Moten, for connecting Whistler’s work to issues facing Washington today.”
The exhibition’s first iteration will be at the Colby College Museum of Art in Waterville, Maine (June 3 to Oct. 22), home to more than 300 etchings and lithographs that make up the Lunder Collection of James McNeill Whistler. The catalog is co-published by Colby and the National Museum of Asian Art.
For a sneak peek into the exhibition’s themes, the National Museum of Asian Art and the Colby College Museum of Art will present an online panel and discussion:
“Whistler’s Cities, Our Cities”
Friday, Sept. 29; noon EDT on Zoom
David Park Curry, exhibition curator and independent scholar
Scott Kratz, senior vice president of Building Bridges Across the River and director of 11th Street Bridge Park Project
Ben Lisle, assistant professor of American studies, Colby College
Introduced by Elisa Germán, Lunder Curator of Works on Paper and Whistler Studies, Colby College Museum of Art, and moderated by Diana Greenwold, Lunder Curator of American Art, National Museum of Asian Art
“Whistler: Streetscapes, Urban Change” is a project of the Lunder Consortium for Whistler Studies and is made possible with support from the Lunder Foundation.
About the National Museum of Asian Art
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art is committed to preserving, exhibiting, researching and interpreting art in ways that deepen our collective understanding of Asia, the United States and the world. Home to more than 46,000 objects, the museum stewards one of North America’s largest and most comprehensive collections of Asian art, with works dating from antiquity to the present from China, Japan, Korea, South Asia, Southeast Asia and the Islamic world. Its rich holdings bring the arts of Asia into direct dialogue with an important collection of 19th- and early 20th-century art from the United States, providing an essential platform for creative collaboration and cultural exchange between the U.S., Asia and the Middle East.
Beginning with a 1906 gift that paved the way for the museum’s opening in 1923, the National Museum of Asian Art is a leading resource for visitors, students and scholars in the United States and internationally. Its galleries, laboratories, archives and library are located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and are part of the world’s largest museum complex, which typically reports more than 27 million visits each year. The museum is free and open to the public 364 days a year (closed Dec. 25), making its exhibitions, programs, learning opportunities and digital initiatives accessible to global audiences.
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