The present work was exhibited in New York in 1889 as part of the artist's first one-man show in America.
Note in Rose and Silver--Dordrecht epitomizes James McNeill Whistler's highly modern approach to painting, in which the artist exalts the aesthetic experience and emphasizes timelessness and beauty as the most important components of a work of art. Whistler is quoted widely as having written, "As music is the poetry of sound, so is painting the poetry of sight, and the subject matter has nothing to do with harmony of sound or of color." Note in Rose and Silver--Dordrecht exemplifies this aesthetic approach, allowing the viewer to luxuriate in the lovely harmonies of color and form.
In September 1879, Whistler traveled to Venice to begin work on a set of a dozen etchings depicting the fabled city. The etchings were commissioned by the Fine Art Society in London. He stayed for over a year, producing some fifty etchings, seven or eight paintings, and a hundred pastels. They were, as noted by one art historian, "some of the most innovative things he had ever done." (R. Dorment and M.F. MacDonald, James McNeill Whistler, London, England, 1984, p. 179)
For his subject matter, Whistler all but ignored the famous canal views and attractions of Venice, preferring instead to depict lesser-known corners of the city, such as the crumbling little houses and back canals. It was during this trip to Venice that Whistler redefined his style in his etchings and pastels. He simplified his works and focused on the shadows he saw within the city's structures. As a result, his work became more abstract and dependent upon a minimalist use of line and color, what Whistler termed "the Japanese method" of drawing. John Walker writes, "The system--scientific, as he said, like all his systems--required him to find the exact spot where the focus of interest in the etching, lithograph, or watercolor was to be. Having selected the point of interest, he drew and completed this part of the picture. It might be a bridge, a window of a house, a doorway, or the sitter's head. Then he drew whatever came next in importance. But the most significant step was the placing of the subject. The procedure seems simple, but he used to say, 'The secret is in doing it.'" (J. Walker, James McNeill Whistler, New York, 1987, p. 87) With this newfound minimalist aesthetic, Whistler applied his technique to all the mediums in which he created his masterpieces, including Note in Rose and Silver--Dordrecht.
Holland had not been a highly visited location by British and American artists until the 1860s. Whistler's first visit to Holland was in 1858, followed by various other trips in the spring and summer of 1863. Eighteen years later, in the winter of 1882, Whistler returned to Amsterdam resulting in several watercolors including Amsterdam in Winter (Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.) and Snow (Private Collection). Both works show a further refinement of Whistler's watercolor technique with a much abbreviated use of line to depict form. Rather, he insisted upon the use of color to depict form: buildings, landscape and bodies.
In 1884, Whistler further improved his technique when visiting Dordrecht with the Dutch artist C.N. Storm van's Gravesande. The two men stayed at the Hotel Bellevue, next to the Groothoofdspoort which provided beautiful views of the convergence of the Oude Maas, the Noord, and the Beneden Merwede. Whistler executed a number of watercolors on this trip, including the present work, Note in Rose and Silver--Dordrecht.
J.F. Heijbroek identifies the Dordrecht location in the present work as "an inland waterway, with a row of houses in the background. It is a view of the Wijnhaven, executed from near the Nieuwbrug. The buildings in the background are located on Boomstraat, while on the left we are given just a glimpse of a bridge, the Boombrug." (Whistler and Holland, p. 55) Margaret MacDonald notes, "The buildings are the centre of interest, painted in spiky detail with a fine-pointed brush. The butterfly echoes the colour of the roofs, and so does the girl's bright bonnet and bows. The paper has little tooth, and it is now slightly browned, which does not, in any way, detract from the picture." (M.F. MacDonald, James McNeill Whistler, Drawings Pastels and Watercolours: A Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven, Connecticut, 1995, p. 370)
In its simplicity and depiction of what was usually a busy thoroughfare in Dordrecht, Whistler's watercolor becomes an appreciation of the view and its tranquility. The calm water glistens across the paper, towards the young girl and her companion who stand by its side. The red roofs in the background effortlessly give verticality to the composition, only to give way to the voluminous, atmospheric clouds above. A critic for the Evening Sun noted, "the color easily takes the first place...They are color schemes, beautifully subtle and altogether lovely." (James McNeill Whistler, Drawings Pastels and Watercolours: A Catalogue Raisonné, p. 370)
Note in Rose and Silver--Dordrecht demonstrates Whistler's impressive degree of facility with watercolor. The washes are even and vibrant, the details wispy and evocative. The simplicity and economy with which the artist achieves his desired effects of timelessness and beauty became the hallmarks of his highly celebrated watercolor technique.