Walter Greaves (1846-1930)
One cannot think of Greaves without thinking of James Whistler. Greaves’s master is the story of his artistic life. Whistler approached young Greaves who was drawing by the Thames river and invited him to his studio. From that day on, Greaves served as his assistant and pupil and became increasingly captivated by Whistler’s artistic style and way of life...
Greaves painted a whole series of Whistler, and this portrait is one of the later paintings within it. Whistler on the Thames is of documentary as well as artistic interest...
Greaves has gently caricatured Whistler within a subtle colour scheme. Whistler is glancing away in a haughty manor and wears a monocle in his right eye. There is a clear “reflection of two personalities, that which gazes out so arrogantly behind its glass and the other youthful impressionable talent which set it down.” Whistler is seated but maintains an image of flaneur, the impartial, non-judgemental observer of contemporary life.
Additionally, Greaves was interested in lights, textures and colours. The way in which Greaves has handled details such as the texture of Whistler’s beard and the hair that protrudes out of his hat have been intently studied. He has also focused on anatomical areas such as the shading of Whistler’s ‘Adams Apple’. These details all combine to make this an eccentric Victorian portrait.
Walter Greaves and his brother, Henry, were Thames boatmen. That is, they built boats, ferried people around, scavenged from the tides and ran watery errands. So, it is not surprising that the
background of the Thames and Chelsea embankment is painted by one who has known and grown up with the river and to whom it is more than pattern and decorative device. The colour scheme in the background heavily differs from that of the foreground. The overlaying pink tones create a dandy atmosphere which Greaves also uses in his River Scene, and almost romanticises the view.
One cannot think of Greaves without thinking of James Whistler. Greaves’s master is the story of his artistic life. Whistler approached young Greaves who was drawing by the Thames river and invited him to his studio. From that day on, Greaves served as his assistant and pupil and became increasingly captivated by Whistler’s artistic style and way of life. Walter said; “He taught us to paint, and we taught him the waterman’s jerk”. Their close association lasted well into the 1890s, Whistler favouring Walter as he was the more gifted of the two brothers. Two of his most successful images were Regatta at Hammersmith Bridge and Chelsea under Snow, like Whistler he concentrated on areas around the Thames.
Greaves created many detailed and naturalistic street, river and cityscapes of England.
During the late 1870s Whistler began to gather a more sophisticated group of friends about himself, including Walter Sickert and Mortimer Menpes. Excluded from this distinguished circle, Greaves suffered years of neglect, misfortune and poverty before his discovery by William Marchant, proprietor of the Goupil Galleries, who exhibited Greaves's work in his London gallery in 1911. There has been some confusion regarding the actuality of artist regarding who painted what between Whistler and Greaves. When a catalogue of Whistler’s paintings was published in 1995 (James McNeil Whistler, Dorment and MacDonald), at last a degree of rigorous scholarship was applied to this difficult area, and many paintings previously attributed to Whistler were quite rightly ruled out. A proportion of these were actually painted by Walter Greaves, who had benefited during his lifetime from his association with the master but had destroyed his own legacy by presuming too much. Greaves, the lesser artist, has become Whistler’s dustbin, but at his best his pictures are arguably better than Whistler’s at their worst.
Unfortunately, after Whistler’s death Greaves fell into the hands of one or two obscure dealers who commissioned him to turn out paintings and drawings of Whistler in an unceasing stream.
 F. “A Portrait of Whistler by Walter Greaves.” Bulletin of the Art Institute of Chicago (1907-1951), vol. 20, no. 5, 1926, pp. 65–65. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4114128.