In a London courthouse in 1878, Attorney General John Holker asked the artist James McNeill Whistler how much time it took to complete one of his paintings. The work in question was Nocturne in Black and Gold—The Falling Rocket, a diffuse rendering in jade greens and raven blacks, depicting London’s Cremorne Gardens.

The art critic John Ruskin had equated the making of the work to the “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.” The prickly Whistler responded by suing Ruskin for libel. In the courthouse, the artist explained that it took him a day to paint and another to add a few finishing touches. Holker responded: “The labor of two days, then, is that for which you ask 200 guineas?”

“No,” said Whistler of his fee, which today would amount to nearly $40,000. “I ask it for the knowledge of a lifetime.”

James McNeill Whistler, c. 1870
James McNeill Whistler, c. 1870 NPG, gift of Jem Hom

The learned artist had “a very complicated mind,” says David Park Curry, the guest curator of the new exhibition “Whistler: Streetscapes, Urban Change,” on view at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art in Washington, D.C.

“A great artist is coherent over time,” Curry says. “Whistler is always sending us around corners, to pull you in, to look further.”

The artist was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1834 and spent part of his childhood in Russia, where his father was employed as a civil engineer building the country’s first railroad. He eventually enrolled at West Point, where he was known to draw pictures on tent flaps, chairs and anything else he could get his hands on. By the end of his life, the highly influential artist would develop a distinctive style across his many hundreds of paintings, lithographs, drawings, watercolors, pastels and etchings; he would be remembered, perhaps best, for his masterpiece Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room, a triumph of decorative mural art and one of the Smithsonian’s must-see treasures at the Freer Gallery of Art.

The new show, also at the Freer, offers more than 100 works—several on view for the first time—and advances new scholarship on the artist’s lifelong interest in urban streetscapes. His renderings of old neighborhoods, new homes for the nouveau riche, parks and city thoroughfares document what the show’s organizers note were the “drastic transformations” taking place in city spaces at the end of the 19th century.

Nocturne: Black and Red–Back Canal, Holland, James McNeill Whistler, 1882
Nocturne: Black and Red–Back Canal, Holland by James McNeill Whistler, 1882 Freer Collection, gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1902.159a-b

Curry insists that the great artist has something to say to people now. “Whistler is madly modern,” he says. His work is an invitation to look and think. “That’s why it still lives.”

The exhibition features commentary from local Washington, D.C. residents living in Anacostia and on Capitol Hill about the transformations taking place today in their urban neighborhoods.

What makes the artist James McNeil Whistler so mercurial is his ability to hint at rather than insist on the realities of urban life. In Nocturne: Black and Red-Back Canal, Holland, a watercolor Whistler began in 1882, the light from a wall of buildings is reflected in the still water, incandescent crimsons and pearl whites echoing throughout. Two figures, one in black, the other in white, recall a similarly clad couple in Chelsea’s west edge in the painting Nocturne: Cremorne Gardens, No. 3, which Whistler completed in 1877. In the earlier work, the couple leaves a theater or restaurant at a pleasure resort, where sex work flourished. Nothing sinister is shown, but it is suggested in the cherry-red brushstrokes lining the street’s edge, peeking out from the darkened scene. As in so many of Whistler’s pictures, there’s more than meets the eye.

An Orange Note: Sweet Shop,  James McNeill Whistler, 1883 or 1884
An Orange Note: Sweet Shop by James McNeill Whistler, 1883 or 1884 Freer Collection, gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1904.315a-c

In An Orange Note: Sweet Shop, an oil from the early 1880s, a half-lit storefront shadows a woman holding a child in a coral frock before another figure in a muddied white dress. The three are indistinct, as are so many of the people in Whistler’s scenes of urban life. Like the window display alongside them, overflowing with oranges and neatly arranged bottles of powder-pink and white, the figures are unknowable, out of reach.

Critics raved about the piece. “The most perfect little thing of its kind,” wrote Frederick Wedmore for the London Evening Standard, in 1884.

Indeed, Whistler’s delicate flourishes and daubs of color are uniformly lustrous, from his intricate etchings of market-lined streets to his gauzy oils of waterfront buildings. He was virtuosic in almost every medium he touched, asserts Diana Greenwold, the exhibition’s in-house curator. The aesthetic was his polestar.

Variations in Flesh Color and Green—The Balcony, James McNeill Whistler
Variations in Flesh Color and Green—The Balcony by James McNeill Whistler, 1864-1870, additions 1870-1879 Freer Collection, gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1892.23a-b

In Variations in Flesh Color and Green—The Balcony, an oil painting Whistler began in 1864, four women clad in luscious kimonos—of ballet pinks, slate grays and pistachio greens—are perched on a teal floor, one looking out on the River Thames. The factories on the opposite riverbank are obscured by the haze, a mere backdrop to the lush foreground, which bursts with blush-pink and white blossoms.

In Boutique de Boucher—Saverne, an 1858 watercolor on blue paper, Whistler turns his attention to a butcher’s shop, where a boy in a sage coat and black cap peers in, the fleshy meats echoing the storefront’s muted-pink and brick-red façade. The otherwise forgettable scene is magnetic in Whistler’s hands. He is a kind of magician, drawing the viewer in.

Whistler was decidedly eccentric both in character and in appearance. “His eyebrows are unusually bushy,” reported McClure’s magazine, “and his glistening brown eyes peer out from underneath them like snakes in the grass.” When he walked the streets of London, passers-by would turn to look at him and smile.

Chelsea Children, James McNeill Whistler, ca. 1897
Chelsea Children by James McNeill Whistler, c. 1897 Freer Collection, gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1902.116a-c

It’s that attentive charm that gives Whistler’s work its finesse. He was a proponent of the credo of the day: “art for art’s sake.” The painter was not interested in telling stories. He wanted his pictures to speak for themselves. “Art should be independent of all claptrap—should stand alone, and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear,” he wrote in 1878, “without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it, as devotion, pity, love, patriotism and the like.”

Whistler skirted a tenuous line, Greenwold says. He depicted the downtrodden but never to exacerbate a sense of poverty. His cities are forever at a distance.

During a recent visit to the exhibition, a couple bristled at this reading. The pair insisted that Whistler, far from detached, spoke for the working class. “He is a man of the people,” one of them pronounced. While Whistler might disagree, it’s fascinating that he has become, to some, a kind of unwilling saint.

Marbles, James McNeill Whistler, c. 1886-1888
Marbles by James McNeill Whistler, c. 1886-1888 Freer Collection, gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1903.31

For all their opacity, Whistler’s street scenes are alive, peopled with crowds at a bazaar or peering in windows. In Flower Market: Dieppe, a watercolor Whistler completed in the 1880s, a bustling scene of fruit vendors and masses huddle under awnings. A woman in a powder-blue and white-striped dress wheels a cart piled high with tangerines and cranberry-colored apples; a woman in a blue-gray coat with black ruffles stands before her, perhaps negotiating a price. Dashes of navy, auburn and fire-engine red invite the viewer into the buzzing thoroughfare. Whistler gave just enough, and never too much.

The artist’s Savoy Pigeons, an 1896 lithograph, pictures two birds, perched on a balcony overlooking the Thames. The work, published a month after Whistler’s wife, Beatrice, died, recalls her view from London’s Savoy Hotel, with Westminster Bridge and the Houses of Parliament in the near distance. For an artist who disliked narrative, the scene is rich with pathos: the balcony rendered in stark cross hatches, the sky brushstrokes of shadow. The small work, just shy of six inches in width, captures something essential about grief: The loss of a loved one dulls the senses, until their memory returns, sparkling like a pigeon’s wing.

Rag Shop, Milman’s Row, Chelsea, James McNeill Whistler, c. 1886-1888
Rag Shop, Milman’s Row, Chelsea by James McNeill Whistler, c. 1886-1888 Freer Collection, gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1903.160

Whistler’s titles, too, are enigmatic. “Nocturnes” and “Harmonies” are common, a nod to the silent music pulsing through his work. Indeed, if one looks long enough at Whistler’s pearl-inflected, dreamy streetscapes, they have a kind of rhythm: some soft, others spritely, each marvelously timed.

One, in particular, strikes just the right note. In Chelsea Children, an 1897 watercolor, Whistler focuses on a storefront, arrayed with works of art, one a wash of pale blue, another of green grays. A group of passers-by, attired in dull browns and muted pinks, huddle around a single work. One child, in a beige hat and auburn overcoat, looks in a nearby window under a sign that reads “Stewed Eels,” a dish associated with London’s poor. But the scene is far from somber. The candy-colored storefront, drenched in light, gives the work a buoyant air. If there were music playing, it would be a cheery staccato.

In Ruskin’s libel trial, the attorney general asked Whistler a follow-up question: “You have made the study of art your study of a lifetime. What is the peculiar beauty of that picture?”

“It is as impossible for me to explain to you the beauty of that picture as it would be for a musician to explain to you the beauty of harmony in a particular piece of music if you had no ear for music,” the artist responded.

“Whistler: Streetscapes, Urban Change” is on view through May 4, 2024, in the Freer Gallery of Art at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art in Washington, D.C.

Get the latest on what's happening At the Smithsonian in your inbox.