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Visiting Researcher Examines the Pastels of James McNeill Whistler

Written by Tess Visser, Research Assistant of the Whistler Pastel Project at the University of Glasgow, and Elisa Germàn, Lunder Curator of Works on Paper and Whistler Studies at the Colby College Museum of Art, Aug 2023

James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) was born in Lowell, Massachusetts and first went to France in 1855 to study art with the painter Charles Gleyre. Four years later, Whistler moved to London, where he would spend most of his life with significant periods living and working in Venice and Paris. While he achieved fame as a painter, executing such signature works as Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Artist’s Mother (1871), and his impressionistic, proto-abstract series of Nocturnes, he was also a dedicated and innovative printmaker and draftsman, executing hundreds of works on paper throughout his career, including numerous pastel drawings which are a less well-known aspect of his oeuvre.

In the summer of 2023, Tess Visser, research assistant of the Whistler Pastel Project at the University of Glasgow, spent a week at the Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC) in order to utilize specialized equipment for conducting research on a set of 13 Whistler pastels from the collection of the Colby College Museum of Art. Elisa Germán, the Lunder Curator of Works on Paper and Whistler Studies at the Colby Museum, who also oversees the Lunder Consortium for Whistler Studies, was on-site at NEDCC to work alongside Tess and support her research.

Founded in 2010, through the generous support of the Lunder Foundation, the Lunder Consortium for Whistler Studies was formed to foster and disseminate original scholarship and critical analysis of James McNeill Whistler and his international artistic circles through conservation studies, exhibitions, publications, and symposia. The consortium members are guardians of the world's largest and finest collections of works by Whistler and include the Art Institute of Chicago, the Colby College Museum of Art, the Freer Gallery of Art at the National Museum of Asian Art, Smithsonian Institution, and the University of Glasgow. 

Two consortium members, the Colby Museum and the University of Glasgow, were so pleased to work with NEDCC on a project that will increase awareness and public understanding of Whistler's work in pastel. Here's a short Q&A with Tess about her research:

- What makes Whistler's pastels unique?

Whistler is best known for his oil paintings and etchings. However, throughout his career he also used pastels to create small scale drawings. The fact that Whistler made use of pastel throughout his career allows for a thorough study of his technique, the materials he used, and the subject matter. I was interested in looking at the consistency of his technique and whether it changed in the course of his artistic career. If so, how did it change? Did he use the same pigments throughout his career? Were there changes in subject matter? Is there a reason for these changes?

Early in Whistler’s career, he used pastel to create sketches for oil paintings; there are many sketches for Leyland portraits (clients) and studies in which Whistler explores different positions for figures in larger works. After the infamous John Ruskin defamation trial of 1879 which caused Whistler bankruptcy, he travelled to Venice to make a set of 12 etchings upon request of the Fine Arts Society in London. Instead of staying the three months and making the set of etchings, Whistler stayed over a year in Venice and produced over a hundred pastels as well as approximately 50 etchings. It is in this period that Whistler truly makes pastel his own and uses it to create finished works.

Upon his return to London, Whistler continued working with pastel. From this time onwards, however, instead of creating sketches for oil paintings, he continued, as he had done in Venice, to create finished works in pastel. The pastels are unique because of their subject matter, which is often more intimate: nude drawings, drapery studies and scenes with a mother and child, which cannot be seen in his etchings or oil paintings on the same scale. Portrait drawings highlight the people he was in contact with in various periods in his life. Additionally, the strong and bright colour use, the relatively small sizes of his pastel works and the fact that they were not exhibited as often as the oils and etchings were, places them slightly apart.

- Why is this research important?

Besides a general interest in understanding more about this understudied area of Whistler’s oeuvre, this pastel research is important as it provides invaluable information about the condition of the works and how best to preserve them.

Works on paper in general are sensitive and fragile. Pastels are even more fragile because of the nature of the medium. The pigment is only very loosely bound together and the pastel is not adhered to the paper in any way other than it hanging on the tooth or roughness of the paper. Therefore, if a pastel drawing is moved, jostled or a sheet of paper used to cover the drawing is removed, pastel can be lost from the page. Add to this the fact that pigments and paper fade or change in colour due to exposure to light, moisture, and internal interactions between the paper, the pigment, and any mounting board the paper is adhered to, and it can be understood that the appearance of a pastel work can change drastically over time. Understanding the materials that were used in making these works, and any changes that may have already occurred in the works, can aid in preserving them for future generations and creating a better policy for storing and exhibiting them.

Because of the fragility of the works, handling the works can be tricky. To study them closely, as was done for this research, the works had to be unframed vertically by NEDCC’s preparator team. This had to be done because the pastel should not ever be in contact with the glass or ideally be placed upside down because this can result in loss of pastel. To reduce the number of times we had to touch the works to manoeuvre them underneath the stereo microscope, the works were placed on blue boards. Instead of having to directly touch the pastel works, we were able to touch the boards.

- What are you looking for?

As described earlier, understanding the materials of artworks can aid in conserving them and keeping them in a good state. Therefore, I studied the works with the naked eye, under magnification, and photographed the works in visible, raking and ultraviolet light. Three unmounted pastel drawings were also photographed in transmitted light. The different lighting conditions can reveal much information about the work.

Visible light images allow for the documentation of a work at the time it was studied, which is important for anyone looking at the results and trying to understand them at a later date. Also, this ensures that any changes that might occur in the paper or the colours of the pastel can be monitored and contrasted against these images. In raking light, the work is exposed to light at an oblique angle to the surface from one side. This clearly reveals the surface texture or relief of the work. This provides information about the pastel application, the condition of the paper, and the manufacturing of the paper.

Placing a light source behind the object and photographing the light that is transmitted through the object, highlights areas where the work is thin or where there may be losses in the support, such as pinholes. Additionally, in the case of paper, it is possible to understand more about the manufacturing process, whether the paper is laid or wove paper, and potentially identify watermarks. Lastly, the works were photographed in ultraviolet light. Some materials, such as pigments, give off a fluorescence when excited by ultraviolet light. The fluorescence observed is typical of a material and can therefore be used to identify the materials used in a work of art. In the case of the pastels, little fluorescence was observed. This also provides information, namely that fluorescent pigments were likely not used.

Looking this closely revealed Whistler's application technique, such as whether he layered different colours of pastel over each other or applied single layers. Moreover, questions regarding the quality of the paper were answered. In the case of the majority of Whistler’s pastels, the paper is of a low quality with fibres of different lengths and thicknesses, wood chips and even coloured fibres included. This indicates that it is almost like recycled paper, for which all kinds of leftover bits and pieces of paper were made into a pulp to form sheets. A higher quality paper would be more uniform in fibre size and spread, and generally does not include wood chips. For the application of pastel, however, the low quality rough paper that Whistler chose was ideal because the roughness of the surface allowed the pastel to grip to the tooth and therefore stick to the paper.

In conclusion, studying Whistler’s pastel works at NEDCC provided a comprehensive examination. The facility, preparator team, photograph studio, and stereo microscope helped us address questions related to the artist’s application process and choice of paper, as well as the current condition of the work. Consequently, we gained profound insights into how Whistler utilized the materials at his disposal to capture everyday scenes.