Nature and Culture in River Works: Whistler and the Industrial Thames

In these short essays, Tilly Peck ’22 and Mae Sefransky ’20 reflect on the nature vs. culture debate vis-a-vis River Works: Whistler and the Industrial Thames. Both pieces are adapted from an assignment in the Colby College course Environmental Humanities: Stories of Crisis and Resilience, taught by Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Environmental Humanities Christopher Walker. 

Nature: Transformed   

Tilly Peck ’22  
James McNeill Whistler, Chelsea in Ice, 1864. Oil on canvas, 17 3/4 x 24 in. (45.1 x 61 cm). The Lunder Collection, 2013.293.

At first glance, Chelsea in Ice, painted in 1864 by James McNeill Whistler, struck me as serene. I saw people looking over the frozen River Thames on a foggy day in London, and I envied them somewhat. The scene’s soft edges evoked a sense of calm, and the horizontal swaths of gray land, water, and sky were largely uninterrupted. However, the longer I looked, the more unsettled I became. Two industrial intrusions—smokestacks and a steamship—which I had initially tried to ignore, grew increasingly oppressive. As my eyes flicked between the looming towers and the dark ship, the Thames changed from a peaceful river to an economic waterway. The painting dissolved from a misty landscape into a polluted disaster. Upset by this transformation, I turned away.

What truly disturbed me about Chelsea in Ice, I have come to realize, is that it does not fit into two common conceptions of nature: it shows a scene that is neither pristine nor completely destroyed by humans. Instead, the painting depicts the struggle between the environment and economic imperialism in nineteenth-century London, and the way these two things are related.

As Jenny Price points out in her Believer essay “Thirteen Ways of Seeing Nature in LA,” there are a number of cultural assumptions we make about nature. Most prominent is the belief that nature is either untouched by humans or destroyed by modern civilization. She describes the “disappearance” of the Los Angeles River, which became invisible to the public because “the channel no longer looked wild enough to be a river or to count as nature at all.” It was in this way that I lost sight of the Thames: I wanted to see a scenic river, and then I saw everything but the river. The sky and water were beautiful, until I realized they were hideously polluted.

Chelsea in Ice shows an economic, utilitarian, daily encounter with nature. In the painting, Whistler reveals nature where it was likely to be ignored: in the city. The Thames is the center of London’s commercial trade, but it is also the defining feature of London’s natural landscape. The ties between people and nature––surrounding the river––are exactly what sustains that nineteenth-century economy. After having some time to think about Price’s essay, I returned to Chelsea in Ice. Again, I felt dismayed by the industrial imperialism depicted, but something about the people watching gave me hope. I was especially drawn to the figure painted in yellow, who is set in contrast to the gray image. Perhaps they can see the river before them for what it is. Perhaps they are imagining ways to revive it.


Hathaway Shirts and Waterville Power & Light: Challenging the Notion that Nature and Culture Are Incompatible

Mae Sefransky ’20
Rackstraw Downes, Hathaway Shirts and Waterville Power & Light, 1974. Oil on canvas, 20 x 48 in. (50.8 x 121.9 cm). Museum purchase from the Jere Abbott Acquisitions Fund, 2003.055.

Raymond Williams, one of the most influential academics, novelists, and critics of the twentieth century, made significant contributions to Marxist theories on culture and art. His 1976 book Keywords is a compilation of essays on words that are critical to understanding the modern world. In his analyses of “nature” and “culture,” Williams highlights the complexity of representations of nature. He explains that because “nature” itself is an ill-defined concept, understandings of “nature” are inexplicit and subjective. The human tendency to categorize and label representations of space as either natural/wild/untamed or cultured/civilized/tamed demonstrates that we do not fully comprehend what these categories and labels are; nature as it is to one person may not be how it is for someone else.

Rackstraw Downes’s painting Hathaway Shirts and Waterville Power & Light from 1974, included in the exhibition River Works: Whistler and the Industrial Thames, shows that visual art is a possible tool through which we can transcend this linguistic conundrum. This vivid oil painting is surrounded by monochrome Whistler etchings and depicts a familiar scene of the Waterville riverfront. Upon examining it carefully, I discovered that the painting is more than just a realistic portrayal of a factory on the Kennebec River; it is a representation of the complex nature-versus-culture debate, and Downes appears to envision the two merging rather than being wholly incompatible systems.

The painting depicts the Kennebec River. With this simple description, the work sounds like an archetypal landscape painting. However, by including a dam and the Hathaway Shirt Factory on the right bank and a slew of houses in Winslow on the left bank, Downes prompts further questions: If human structures are represented, is this still a depiction of nature? Does the fact that nature is posited as a resource for human consumption lessen the naturalness of the scene? He muddies the waters between what is nature and what is culture by including common conceptions of both in one piece. Downes’s painting becomes a method to break down the all-too-quickly accepted notion that nature and humans exist in separate realms.

The work suggests that humans can reside in nature without decreasing the naturalness of the environment. It shows a space that is no less natural because of the occupancy of humans, and no less civilized because of the presence of a river. The portrayal of the two peacefully existing in concurrence challenges the idea that they are distinct entities.