The American-born painter had moved to London in 1859 where he produced a series of works illustrating the essential lifestyles found on the Thames. He was drawn to the working life of the river and produced a series of etchings during this period known as the Thames set. He captured the bustle of mid 19th century river life as it happened, not recording it with an eye for future posterity. The Thames on Ice is a depiction of a river mooring with the image of a man in the foreground at a time when he was moving from realism and detail to something more impressionistic.
James Whistler took lodgings by the river whose life he wanted to chart. The Thames in Ice was composed from the vantage point of the Angel Inn in Bermondsey, looking out towards Wapping. Oil on canvas, it is 74.6cm by 55.3cm and is now housed in the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington DC. Without leaning toward sentimentality he wanted to capture the river at different times and periods across the day. The Thames in Ice is an example of his desire to capture the working life on the river and in the docks, achieving for this area of London what the impressionists in Paris were achieving for the middle classes of the French capital and their leisure time on the Seine.
Whistler was drawn to Paris like many artists of the era and was influenced by the realism of Gustave Courbet and Henri Fantin-Latour. His early inspirations were many, including Rembrandt and Velázquez, but he was to later become very influential himself. He was a leader in the Aesthetic Movement and would become a major influence on the artists Walter Sickert, John Singer Sargent and William Merritt Chase. James Whistler believed in the beauty of everyday life, of which The Thames in Ice is a good example. An everyday scene of working life at that particular moment in time on the river captured in an atmospheric, yet practical representation.