The Long Island Museum of American Art, History and Carriages

formerly The Museums at Stony Brook

Stony Brook, NY



The Lithographs of James McNeill Whistler


American artist James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) was a flamboyant and unpredictable soul - an expatriate who lived most of his turbulent life in Europe, and who became a seer and aesthetic guide to fellow artists in the U.S. and abroad. The Lithographs of James McNeill Whistler, on view May 19 through July 8, 2001 at The Long Island Museum of American Art, History & Carriages, is drawn from the collection of Steven Block, the largest privately-owned collection of Whistler's lithographs. These "Songs on Stone," as the artist called them, reveal the understated and introspective side of the eccentric artist.

Whistler was a successful artist, lauded for the realism and delicacy of his portraits and landscapes, when he began to experiment in lithography with the respected London printer Thomas Way. But 1878 was not an auspicious time to explore the artistic potential of lithography. After its initial popularity, lithography had suffered a long decline, becoming merely a commercial enterprise for the production of advertising materials, inexpensive illustrations and machine-printed reproductions for the growing middle class.

Whistler, in collaboration with Way, was committed to experimenting in a new medium and extending the range of his work. His first 17 lithographs, completed between 1878 and 1879, depicted daily scenes and people close to him with a unique tenderness. Thinly disguised under the veil of his medium, half-hidden by shadow and firelight, are glimpses of a world in which Whistler delighted. Most evoke mood; many simultaneously suggest elegance and intimacy.

The public, however, was not initially receptive to this new subtlety. "The increasingly reductive, atmospheric aesthetic seemed puzzling and inconsequential," notes Nesta Spink in her introduction to the exhibition catalog. "The nuanced, poetic world of his 'nocturnes' and 'harmonies' was alien to Victorian sensibility which expected art to tell a story, be morally uplifting, and record the natural world in minute detail."

In 1887, encouraged by the revival of lithography in Paris, where the Societe des Artistes Lithographes had been established under the aegis of Jules Cheret, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and Pierre Bonnard, Whistler returned to the lithographic stones, producing shimmering two-dimensional patterns that open occasionally to reveal a dark doorway or distant courtyard.

The exhibition includes a number of very rare colored lithographs. Although critics and Whistler himself referred approvingly to the sense of "color" achieved in his black and white lithographic images, Whistler was not satisfied. He began to experiment with actual color around 1890, adding a delightful new dimension to his lithographic work.

One of the first to respond to the lithographs' unique qualities, Steven Block began assembling a collection in the late 1970s, and now possesses the largest private collection of Whistler's lithographs. With renewed interest from public and private collectors during the last two decades, Whistler's quiet, understated images are finally receiving the widespread acclaim they deserve.

The Lithographs of James McNeill Whistler from the Collection of Steven Block and the accompanying catalogue were organized by the Trust for Museum Exhibitions, Washington D.C.


Introduction by Nesta R. Spink to the exhibition catalogue titled "James McNeill Whistler Lithographs From the Collection of Stephen Block"


The last two decades have seen a resurgence of interest in James McNeill Whistler's lithographs. Steven Block, who was one of the first to see the logic of the revival, and to respond to the lithographs' unique qualities, began assembling an important collection in the late 1970s. His collection circulated in the early 1980s under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution and has grown since that time. Meanwhile the lithographs have attracted increased attention among public and private collectors. A long-awaited revision of T. R. Way's 1905 catalogue raisonné was published in 1998 by the Art Institute of Chicago -- an event heralded by a major exhibition of the lithographs and related works. Whistler often referred to his lithographs as "Songs on Stone." At last, these understated works are receiving the acclaim they deserve.

When Whistler began his work in lithography in 1878 with Thomas Way, the respected London printer and father of T. R. Way, both his finances and reputation were in serious disarray. He had quarreled with his patron, Frederick Leyland, over the Peacock Room decoration and had brought his infamous libel suit against John Ruskin, the leading art critic of the day. And it was not an auspicious moment to explore the artistic potential of lithography. Although the medium had attracted many artists in France and Britain soon after its late 18th-century invention in Germany, lithography had suffered a long decline, becoming merely a commercial enterprise for the production of advertising materials, inexpensive illustrations and ephemeral, cheap machine-printed reproductions and chromolithographs for the growing middle class.

By the 1850s and 1860s, it was disparaged and ignored by artists and critics alike. Thomas Way appears to have been the only printer in Britain in the 1870s with a commitment to promoting original work in lithography. Way was seriously interested in the fine arts and undoubtedly weary of much of his commercial printing business. Whistler, in turn, was at a low point in his career and happy to launch a new project in the hope or extending the range of his work and attracting a wider audience. Picturesque etchings in his "French Set" and his realistic topographical etchings produced in England in the late 1850s and early 1860s were popular, but the increasingly reductive, atmospheric aesthetic of his more recent prints and paintings seemed puzzling and inconsequential to his public. The nuanced, poetic world of his "nocturnes" and "harmonies" was completely alien to Victorian sensibility which expected art to tell a story, be morally uplifting, and record the natural world in minute detail.

Both Whistler and Thomas Way were aware of the revival of interest in original lithography stirring among artists across the channel. Corot, Manet, Fantin, Degas and Pisarro had been exploring the medium in Paris: the printer and the painter in London were optimistic about initiating a similar renascence in Britain.

More than two decades earlier, before he left America to study in Paris, Whistler had executed two lithographs; however, in 1878 he cannot have been familiar with technical aspects of the medium. Way's instruction must have been excellent; Whistler responded with his usual sensitivity to the inherent possibilities of working on stone with crayon and "tusche" washes. (T. R. Way describes how his father, in order to enable Whistler to work from nature, supplied "barges, barrows and porters" to get a stone to Limehouse and sat beside Whistler while he worked on his first Thames lithotint.) Whistler's success with the lithotint process was so complete that Way was forever afterwards trying to encourage him to return to the medium.

After making a few experimental images exploring various techniques, he soon created six lithotints that are among his finest works in any medium. Four of the lithotints were commissioned by the editor of a fledgling periodical, Piccadilly, in the vain hope that their inclusion would increase circulation. Then, Thomas Way attempted to launch a scheme to issue a number of Whistler's images on stone and transfer paper to be sold by subscription. That effort failed dismally as well. The small, understated prints were either overlooked or mistaken for reproductions. Whistler had hoped that his experimental lithotints rendered in ink washes on stone would encourage appreciation of his large oils that had been met with critical derision. However, the few figure studies and London views he drew on transfer paper were probably not seen beyond the Way offices after trial proofs were pulled. Bankrupt and discouraged after producing seventeen lithographs that received scant attention, Whistler set off for Venice in the autumn of 1879 with a commission from the Fine Art Society of London to execute a series of etchings of the legendary city. The trip resulted in a long hiatus in his work in lithography but there is reason to surmise that his experience using ink washes on stone may have provided the impetus for the evocative tonal wiping employed in his highly personal printing of the Venetian etchings.

Whistler did not resume work in lithography until 1887. By that time, the revival in France was in full swing and had begun to reawaken interest in Britain. In March 1887, an exhibition of his etchings at the Hogarth Club included one of his lithographs, which attracted favorable notice in the press. Later that year, six images he and Way had hoped to sell to subscribers in 1878 were issued in a portfolio, entitled Notes, by the London branch of Boussod, Valadon, and Co. They now found a more receptive audience. Thirty sets mounted on large sheets and signed in pencil sold quickly; seventy sets on smaller mounting sheets, unsigned, and missing the Limehouse were less popular. The moderate success of Notes, as well as critical evidence of increasing interest in original lithographs, encouraged Whistler to continue his work in the medium.

In the summer of 1888, he married Beatrix Philip Godwin, widow of his architect-friend, E.W. Godwin. Beatrix (or "Trixie") was an amateur artist who seems to have taken particular pleasure in his lithographs, perhaps because she was present when many of his drawings were made on the sheets of transfer paper he carried with him in their travels and while exploring the neighborhoods near their homes. Lithography became his major printmaking endeavor for almost eight years following his marriage -- the happy and productive years before Trixie's untimely death. Working in lithography and blessed by the extraordinarily obliging collaboration of Thomas Way and his son, T. R. Way, Whistler was freed from the labor of doing his own printing, a task that had become burdensome over the years as he struggled to complete his painstaking printing of the Venetian etchings. Drawing "quick notes in passing" on transfer paper allowed Whistler to seize the moment and spontaneously record the essence of his subject -- whether this was a shopfront in Chelsea, the seated figure of a friend or a young model moving about in his studio.

Whistler made a single experiment in color lithography with Thomas Way in 1890 but continued his work with a more experienced color printer, Henry Belfond, in Paris. Ultimately, he produced six additional color images with Belfond before their association came to an end. The finest of these rare color prints resemble drawings touched with pastel or watercolor; fortunately, three very fine color proofs are included in the Steven Block Collection.

During the early 1890s, Whistler began to spend increasing amounts of time in Paris, in part because he was crossing the channel to work on portrait commissions, in part because he found the Parisian world of art and letters far more stimulating and congenial than London's. He became an intimate in Mallarmé's literary circle, renewed old friendships and made new acquaintances in the French art world. Late in 1891, Whistler's portrait of his mother was purchased by the Musee du Luxembourg and in January 1892 the expatriate American was made an Officier of the Légion d'Honneur. Some months later, the Whistlers left London, and moved to a home in Paris near the Luxembourg Gardens. The years that followed were pleasant and creative. He worked on a variety of transfer papers making drawings of streets, shopfronts, public buildings, and his favorite pathways in the Luxembourg gardens. He made portraits of family and friends -- often in the sitting room or garden of the house on rue du Bac -- in sunlight or evening shadow -- and produced an occasional portrait on commission. When he and Trixie traveled through Brittany in the summer of 1893, Whistler made an important series of transfer drawings, and he continued to work with young models whom he hired to pose in the Paris studio. The majority of the transfer drawings were sent off to the Ways in London but a few were transferred by Parisian printers. He searched constantly for improved transfer papers and hunted for supplies of antique or "beautiful Japanese" papers to send the Ways for printing his finest proofs.

Sadly, this halcyon period came to an end when Beatrix Whistler became ill. On the advice of Whistler's brother, William, a physician who had settled in England, the couple returned to London. They remained in London for a time, then went to Lyme Regis in Dorset hoping that the sea air might prove beneficial. In the fall of 1895. Trixie's condition worsened, and they returned to London. As they moved about. Whistler -- though distracted -- continued his work in lithography and kept the Ways busy processing new drawings. The couple moved into the Savoy Hotel as Trixie's cancer continued its relentless course. During this final phase of her illness, Whistler stayed by her bedside and executed a series of memorable lithographs that surely brought her happiness. When the first proofs came back from Way's office, they must have given the Whistlers real moments of shared pleasure.

Whistler drew a series of images on transfer paper looking down and across the Thames from the windows of the hotel and also found time to execute another lithotint with inks and a stone prepared by the Ways. In spite of initial problems with the preparation of the stone, Whistler made repeated corrections and finally was able to achieve the effect he sought. Although he had not worked in wash on stone in almost two decades, The Thames is an unforgettably poetic print. He drew two tender transfer lithographs of Beatrix as she lay in her bed near the balcony of. the Savoy. These poignant images were created close to the end of Whistler's long collaboration with the Ways. Only weeks after Trixie's death in May 1896, their friendship was terminated acrimoniously. Although Whistler produced several more lithographs that were printed by Lemercier and Clot in Paris, none has the evocative nuance or the late works printed in London. After Whistler's death, a few additional images were printed for the first time, when Frederick Goulding's firm was commissioned by Rosalind Birnie-Philip, Whistler's sister-in-law and executrix, to pull posthumous editions of stones retrieved from the Ways.

The extraordinary correspondence between Whistler and the Ways spanned several decades. The artist's letters accompanied transfer drawings mailed to London from Paris, Brittany, or Dorset and contained questions, comments and instructions. The Ways' letters were included with the proofs they sent back. This long correspondence illustrated their mutual respect and admiration that lasted until the abrupt end of their friendship. The letters provide an exceptional opportunity to learn about Whistler's thinking, his attitudes toward dealers, the marketplace, contemporary critics and countless other topics. They bear witness to Whistler's expectation of fame from his lithographs and his bitter disappointment when the prints were overlooked. Above all, we recognize his incredible attention to detail. He was concerned about such matters as the color and texture of the papers on which the proofs were printed, about the size of the sheets and the location of impressions on the sheets, or about making small alterations in an image when he returned to London and could make changes in the stone himself. Constantly he warned the Ways to keep lithographs needing correction or those deemed unsuccessful hidden from view. In turn, the letters of Thomas Way and his son testify to their esteem for Whistler (near veneration) as well as their patience and willingness to go to amazing lengths to attend to the smallest details that meant so much to him. Finally, the letters bear witness to the mutual dependence, intensity and excitement that characterized their collaboration.

Whistler regarded his lithographs as an extension of the art of drawing. He wanted the quiet, understated images (generally printed in very limited editions) to be collected and cherished like "the most delicate drawings out of a Museum." When he learned that his lithographs would neither attract a mass audience nor relieve his financial insecurity, he determined instead to market them to connoisseurs as precious objects of enduring value. In reality, his small "Songs on Stone" have frequently been overlooked when surrounded by more brilliant or commanding prints. However, they are the most spontaneous and intimate expression of Whistler's art -- works of "happy inspiration" and reductive aesthetic vision. They demand that we adjust our eyes and minds to their scale and nuance. They are never made static by over-elaboration; rather, they suggest more than is recorded and thereby invite a perceptual dialogue between the viewer and the subject captured fleetingly by the artist. The appeal of Whistler's lithographs will be as strong today as it was a century ago for those who pause to study them with care, and experience their poetic revelations.


About the Author

Nesta R. Spink has devoted years of study of James McNeill Whistler's life and work. Spink co-authored The Lithographs of James McNeill Whistler: A Catalogue Raisonne (published by The Art Institute of Chicago,1998). She earned a B.A. in philosophy at Smith College, and a M.A., with a concentration on late 19th - Early 20th Century French Painting, from Harvard/Radcliffe. A former University of Michigan Museum of Art staff member, she served as Curator of Collections from 1974-79.

Reprinting of the above essay, written in 2000, is courtesy of Trust for Museum Exhibitions, Washington D.C.


Other articles from this magazine concerning James McNeill Whistler:

rev. 6/6/01

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