James McNeill Whistler reinvented himself as an artist in the 1880s and painted his way into posterity with the help of watercolor. Beginning in 1881, he created a profusion of small, marketable works over the next fifteen years. “I have done delightful things,” he confided, “and have a wonderful game to play.” For Whistler, the word “game” referred to the watercolors themselves and to his plans for selling them.
Museum founder Charles Lang Freer amassed the world’s largest collection of Whistler’s watercolors, with more than fifty seascapes, nocturnes, interior views, and street scenes. His vast collection also included prints, drawings, pastels, and oil paintings by the artist. Due to Freer’s will, these works have never left the museum, and the fragile watercolors have rarely been displayed. Recent research conducted by museum curators, scientists, and conservators now shines new light on Whistler’s materials, techniques, and artistic genius, as seen in this first major exhibition of his watercolors at the Freer Gallery since the 1930s.