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Whistler in Venice: Twenty Etchings from the Collection of C. Boyden Gray

by Eliza Rathbone, Chief Curator


Some of the most beautiful images of Venice, a city beloved by artists, were made by James Abbott McNeill Whistler between the fall of 1879 and the fall of 1880. A leader of the revival of etching in the late nineteenth century, Whistler came into his own with the work he did in Venice.

Already celebrated in paintings by Canaletto and Turner and in John Ruskin's recently published The Stones of Venice, the capital of the Veneto exerted a tremendous pull on artists in the 1870s. Whistler had announced his desire to go there in 1876, but was delayed by the controversy with his patron Sir Frederick Leyland over the Peacock Room, and by his subsequent bankruptcy. After Whistler exceeded the bounds of his commission, Leyland refused to pay him. The same year - 1877 - Ruskin issued his notorious insult to Whistler, accusing him of flinging a a pot of paint in the public's face. " Whistler's subsequent libel suit which coincided with the expensive undertaking of building himself "The White House" in Chelsea, combined to ruin him. Eager to escape London at this time of personal misfortune, the artist was delighted to accept a commission from the Fine Art Society in 1879 to produce a set of twelve etchings in Venice.

In September 1879,Whistler, who had made his first etchings in London twenty years before, departed for Venice with sixteen copper plates. Expected back in December of that year, he seems to have had no desire to return to London and to have been so mesmerized by the extraordinary beauty and unique artistic possibilities of Venice that he remained there not three months but more than a year. When he did return to London in November 1880 he brought back about fifty plates that convey an entirely original and fresh view of the extraordinary "floating" city of Venice.

Deliberately avoiding conventional views, Whistler explored, on foot and by gondola, known and unknown squares and canals, sometimes focusing on a crumbling facade, sometimes viewing the city as a distant horizon across an expanse of water. His Venice is as varied and rich in its subject matter as it is in composition. Here, his desire to experiment, as well as his developing interest in the Japanese aesthetic, could be applied to a subject that offered mystery as well as vitality, daily vicissitudes as well as layers of history, in short, modern life in the city of the Doges.

Although Whistler had studio assistants, he insisted on "biting" and printing his own plates. Otto Bacher, a fellow etcher who knew him in Venice, wrote about the sophistication and refinement of his technique. He described how Whistler, in order to evoke shadows or views through archways or doors, would do "intricate deeper bitings." At the same time, his "biting" of the plate could be extremely delicate. In some etchings, the lines are so shallow that only an artist with great knowledge and experience could ink them well. Of his printing technique, as Bacher described it, Whistler could "pull a proof so rich and full that it would surprise most etchers to see how much ink he got from these tiny web-like scratches." By the manner in which he wiped the plate,Whistler could vary the effect considerably. No two prints are alike. He chose to use paper of special quality, favoring an eighteenth century Dutch laid paper for his Venice etchings. Once back in London, where he printed from the Venetian plates over a period of years, Whistler began trimming the margins off his prints to the plate mark, leaving a projecting tab with his butterfly signature.

The "First Venice Set," published in 1881, consists of twelve etchings that were selected from the body of work that Whistler brought back to London from Venice. These prints were Whistler's first Venetian etchings to be exhibited at the Fine Art Society. They received a mixed critical reaction, and the "Second Venice Set" was published five years later. Nonetheless, we are told by Otto Bacher that Seymour Haden,Whistler's brother-in-law who encouraged him to etch early on, once remarked, "Were I to lose any of my collection of etchings, I would rather lose my Rembrandts than my Whistlers."

From top to bottom: Nocturne: Palaces, 1879-80, from the "Second Venice Set," 1881, etching and drypoint, vi/ix state; Two Doorways, 1879-80, from the "FirstVenice Set," 1881, etching and drypoint, vi/vi state; The Palaces, 1879-80, from the "FirstVenice Set," 1881, etching, ii/iii state; The Riva, No. 1, 1879-80, from the "FirstVenice Set," 1881, etching and drypoint, i/iii state.

rev. 11/22/10

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