This picture, painted in the autumn of 1865 when Whistler worked alongside the artist Gustave Courbet at Trouville, marks an important moment in the development of Whistler’s art. In the late 1850s and early 1860s, Courbet’s defiantly unconventional paintings and persona had provided an important model for Whistler. Harmony in Blue and Silver is at once a tribute to Courbet’s influence and an assertion of the younger artist’s move toward more exclusively aesthetic concerns and an independent painting style. Titled by Whistler in 1866 as Courbet – on sea shore, the painting echoes the composition of Courbet’s Les bords de la mer à Palavas (1854). Yet, while it refers to that picture and represents the figure of Courbet within its composition, Harmony in Blue and Silver is a turning point in the emergence of what would come to be Whistler’s mature painting mode, a radical reduction of painting to thin veils of color brushed across canvas. Whistler’s growing commitment to the purely formal elements of painting is apparent in the way in which the calm expanses of sand, sea, and sky approach the abstraction of pure bands of color; yet at the same time, thin washes of a pale lavender color suggest shifting lights and depths in the water and the air.
In this painting, a dynamic tension between surface pattern and the evocation of expansive space is reinforced by the ambiguous direction of the gaze of Courbet’s small figure at the lower left. If the figure’s head is turned toward the right, then he gazes diagonally across the sands, with his “Assyrian” beard visible in profile, though wearing his hat at an oddly precarious angle. Alternatively, the figure might be looking straight out to sea, as the hat’s placement tends to suggest. The ambiguous direction of the figure’s gaze may be taken to relate to the picture’s suspension between flat immediacy and expansive depth: in one reading, the figure directly confronts the flat bands of color; in the other reading, the figure gazes across a sea that recedes toward a vanishing point defined by a sailboat in the middle distance and a second boat on the far horizon.
Whistler remained attached to this painting, and after he sold it, bought it back a few years later. He was loathe to part with it once it had been returned to his studio in 1892. One version of the story of Mrs. Gardner’s acquisition of the painting goes as follows: She fell in love with the picture when she saw it in Whistler’s Paris studio. The artist reluctantly agreed that she could have it, but showed no signs of relinquishing it to her. Impatient, Mrs. Gardner returned with a friend whom she had coached in advance. She told the artist: “That’s my picture… you’ve said many times I could have it, Mr. Whistler, and now I’m going to take it.” Her companion took the painting and started out, followed by Mrs. Gardner, who blocked the way as Whistler followed, complaining that the picture was not finished because he had not signed it. Mrs. Gardner refused to listen, inviting the artist to lunch at her hotel, where he could then sign the picture.
Source: Aileen Tsui, "Harmony in Blue and Silver: Trouville," in Eye of the Beholder, edited by Alan Chong et al. (Boston: ISGM and Beacon Press, 2003): 198-199.