In 1901, Charles Lang Freer, Whistler’s most important patron, wrote that the artist’s little street scenes were “superficially, the size of your hand, but, artistically, as large as a continent.”  Whistler was fascinated by the geometry of shopfronts and streetscapes, recording these...
In 1901, Charles Lang Freer, Whistler’s most important patron, wrote that the artist’s little street scenes were “superficially, the size of your hand, but, artistically, as large as a continent.”  Whistler was fascinated by the geometry of shopfronts and streetscapes, recording these architectural subjects in oil on small panels and also in watercolors and prints. Many of these scenes were painted in Chelsea, an artistic section of London with prosperous areas as well as working class neighborhoods, where Whistler lived for nearly forty years at various addresses. He often set up his easel on the Chelsea Embankment of the River Thames and rendered the industrial views on the opposite shore, or he turned around to record the row of shops on the western end of Cheyne Walk, opposite the Embankment. Whistler may have painted Street in Old Chelsea during the spring of 1884 when he was preparing for his exhibition “Arrangement in Flesh Colour and Grey” at Dowdeswell and Dowdeswell’s Gallery in London. In early May Whistler wrote to Charles William Dowdeswell that he should not look for him in the studio for “I shall be on the Embankment painting away for dear life.”  In Street in Old Chelsea, Whistler depicted Edward Knight’s Marine stores; Mrs. Maunder’s fish shop at 72 Cheyne Walk (the light-colored building with the peaked roof); and the shops of a tailor, a boot-maker, a chimney sweep, and a plumber. Mrs. Maunder’s fish shop was a favorite motif of Whistler’s; he included it in two etchings—The Fish-Shop, Busy Chelsea [50.238] (about 1886) and Little Maunders (1887)—and a lithograph—Maunder’s Fish Shop, Chelsea [59.820] (1890). The shop, long run by Mrs. Elizabeth Maunder, was razed in 1892; it was in the house built on that very site that Whistler died in 1903. Whistler used many shades of gray and brown, punctuated by reds, to render this London street scene, making Maunder’s fish market, with its facing gable and light color, a focal point. As in most of his images of building facades, he placed the shops fronts parallel to the picture plane. He painted the foreground thinly with smooth strokes, and he used tiny brushes to render an incredible amount of architectural detail in the upper half of the panel and to depict the figures in the foreground and on the sidewalk in front of the stores. Whistler scholars have suggested that Street in Old Chelsea may have been exhibited under the title Chelsea: Yellow and Grey in Whistler’s 1884 exhibition, itself entitled “Arrangement in Flesh Colour and Grey”. One reviewer of that show, apparently referring to the foreground figures of Street in Old Chelsea who seem to lack legs and feet, wrote: “I should think the marionettes are rather often in the streets of Chelsea from the figures that appear in (11) ‘Chelsea: yellow and grey.’”  The small size of this panel also connects it to this innovative exhibition, which challenged the contemporary idea that an important work of art had to be large. Almost all of the works in Whistler’s show were small, some measuring little more than three by five inches. By using wide frames, usually reserved for sizeable oil paintings, Whistler implied that his small works were as important as large ones, while his use of the same wide frames for watercolors and pastels suggested that works in those media were as significant as oil paintings. Whistler’s aim was to show that the value of a work of art should not be dependent on size or medium but on the harmony of the line and color and overall beauty. Whistler found aesthetic inspiration not only in well-to-do settings, but in the ordinary store fronts of Chelsea, especially those in the lower-class sections. While he believed that form and color took precedence over subject matter, Whistler nevertheless left a compelling record of London from the 1870s to the 1890s. As one of his followers, Walter Sickert, wrote in 1890, “Suppose a thousand years hence the pictures painted to-day are discovered hidden away . . . Whistler’s Chelsea shops will tell the discoverers exactly what London was like at the end of the nineteenth century.” Although the early history of Street in Old Chelsea is unknown, by 1902 it had been acquired by Denman Waldo Ross, a Cambridge, Massachusetts, artist, teacher, and collector with wide-ranging tastes. He entered the painting in the one hundredth annual exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1905, where a critic called it and Whistler’s eight other landscapes “the real gems of the centenary exhibition.”  Ross gave Street in Old Chelsea to the MFA in 1909, one of over 11,000 objects he would donate to the Museum. Notes 1. Linda Merrill et al., After Whistler: The Artist and His Influence on American Painting (New Haven: High Museum of Art and Yale University Press, 2003), 128. 2. Kenneth John Myers, Mr. Whistler’s Gallery: Pictures at an 1884 Exhibition (London: Freer Gallery of Art and Scala Publishers, 2003), 19. 3. Anna Gruetzner Robins, A Fragile Modernism: Whistler and his Impressionist Followers (New Haven and London: Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art and Yale University Press, 2007), 124–26. See also Fish-Shop, Chelsea, in James McNeill Whistler: The Etchings, a Catalogue Raisonné, by Margaret F. MacDonald, Grischka Petri, Meg Hausberg, and Joanna Meacock (Glasgow: University of Glasgow, 2011), no. 267, accessed January 6, 2012, http://etchings.arts.gla.ac.uk. 4. See Myers, Mr. Whistler’s Gallery, 86, and Andrew McLaren Young et al., The Paintings of James McNeill Whistler (New Haven and London: Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art and Yale University Press, 1980), 137. 5. Myers, Mr. Whistler’s Gallery, 86. 6. Sickert quoted in Robins, A Fragile Modernism, 123. 7. M. B., “Pennsylvania Academy Exhibition,” The Collector and Art Critic 3, no. 1 (February 15, 1905): 8. Janet L. Comey
About 1880-85, the artist. By 1902, Denman Waldo Ross (1853-1935), Cambridge, Mass.; 1909, gift of Denman Waldo Ross to the MFA. (Accession Date: August 26, 1909)
Denman Waldo Ross Collection