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Vauxhall Bridge

Impression: Freer Gallery of Art
Freer Gallery of Art
Number: 75
Date: 1861
Medium: etching and drypoint
Size: 69 x 114 mm
Signed: 'Whistler.' at lower right
Inscribed: '1861' at lower right (G.2)
Set/Publication: no
No. of States: 2
Known impressions: 36
Catalogues: K.70; M.70; T.46; W.66
Impressions taken from this plate  (36)


barge, bridge, Japonisme, man standing, river, sailing boat, tide.


Whistler's original title was accepted by all later cataloguers, as for example:

'Vauxhall bridge' (1870s, Whistler). 2
'Vauxhall Bridge' (1874, Ralph Thomas, Jr (1840-1876)). 3

2: Written on ().

3: Thomas 1874[more], (cat. no. 46).


In the foreground are four Thames barges, one with sails furled. On the nearest barge a man is standing, facing right, leaning against a timber pier. A rope, fastened to the pier at top left, runs diagonally across the plate in the direction of a barge at far right. In the middle distance, under a stormy sky, seven arches of Vauxhall Bridge are seen, with factories, warehouses and chimneys on the far bank visible through the arches. People, carts and carriages crowd the bridge. Low sailing barges are passing down river under two of the arches.


Vauxhall was the site of the earliest bridge across the marshy area that is now the Thames river, in the middle Bronze Age, between 1750-1285 BC.
In 1809 an Act authorised The Vauxhall Bridge Company to build a bridge over the Thames in London. After several false starts James Walker was appointed to build a bridge with nine cast-iron arches, the first iron bridge over the Thames. 809' long and 36' wide, it was opened as a toll bridge on 4 June 1816. It was altered in 1882 and replaced by a steel bridge between 1898 and 1906.


The composition of Whistler's etching is very striking, with the plate bisected by the diagonals of the barge's rigging and the mooring rope. It is strongly reminiscent of the woodcut The Minato-Jinja Shrine and Inaribashi Bridge at Teppozu (1857) from 100 views of Edo by Ando Hiroshige (1797-1858). 4

There is no actual proof that Whistler was familiar with the work of Hiroshige at this date. Spencer suggested that a reference to 'a Japanese book of painting' in Whistler's possession in 1864 could refer to Hiroshige's woodcuts. 5 However, although Whistler did own a number of Japanese books, paintings and prints, his earliest acquisitions were sold at the time of his bankruptcy and are impossible to identify.

Etching: c_K070_03
Hiroshige, Clearing weather at Shibaura (Shibaura no seiran), ca 1837-1838, coloured woodcut.
Whistler Collection, The Hunterian, University of Glasgow.

At a later date - after 1880 - Whistler certainly owned a relevant print by Hiroshige, Clearing weather at Shibaura (Shibaura no seiran) from the series Eight Views of the Edo Environs (Edo Kinko Hakkei no uchi) but it is not known when that was acquired. 6

4: i.e. British Museum 1906,1220,0.696. Laurence Binyon, A Catalogue of Japanese & Chinese Woodcuts ... in the British Museum, London, 1916 (no. 464). (acc. 2012).

5: A.M. Whistler to J.H. Gamble, 10-11 February 1864, GUW #06522. Spencer 1989[more], p. 72.

6: GLAHA 54221.

The dramatic cutting and framing of the scene as well as the contrasts between areas of detail and bolder, broadly indicated masses, could also have been influenced by recent theories concerning photography. Lochnan writes:
'It is possible that Whistler's more summary approach to nature was influenced by ideas then circulating on the subject of artistic photography. In 1853, Sir William Newton, in his celebrated address to the newly formed Photographic Society, said that those who wished to capture artistic effects in photography should not try "to represent or aim at, the attainment of every minute detail, but to endeavour at producing a broad and general effect." Regarding focus he said, "I do not consider that the whole of the subject should be what is called in focus; on the contrary, I have found in many instances that the object is better obtained by the whole subject being a little out of focus."' 7