This year, museums on both sides of the Atlantic are taking a look at the printmaking work of James Abott McNeill Whistler. The Frick Collection in New York City presents “Whistler as Printmaker: Highlights From The Gertrude Kosovsky Collection” while the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England is presenting two exhibitions of Whistler prints “The Gentle Art” and “Palaces in the Night.”
While Whistler is best known today for his paintings, which can be seen as forerunners of the Modern Art movement in the 20th century, he was also a well-known printmaker during his lifetime. His etchings, drypoints and litographs refect the evolution of the artist.
Whistler was born in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1834. However, his family soon moved to St. Petersburg, Russia, the result of a commission given to his father to construct a railroad between St. Petersburg and Moscow. It was there that Whistler received his first instruction in art, beginning with private lessons and then classes at the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts. This was a very traditional education with much copying of plaster casts of classical statues.
While in Russia, the family took two trips to England. On one of these, Whistler's sister Deborah married the English surgeon Francis Seymour Haden, who had learned etching techniques in order to make anatomical drawings and who later would become prominent in the Etching Revival movement. This was probably Whistler's first exposure to printmaking.
Following the death of Whistler's father in 1849, his widow and children returned to the United States. Whistler was admitted to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point but the flamboyant young man did not graduate due to his poor grades, lack of discipline and insubordinate manner.
Following West Point, he obtained positions in the U.S. Geodetic and Coastal Survey offices in Washington. He found this work generally boring until he was transferred to the etching department which made maps and charts. Whistler would embellish his work with drawings in the margins of sea creatures and various other characters. These additions did not please his employers.
In 1855, Whistler moved to Paris in order to study art. He adopted a Bohemian lifestyle and became friends with the artists who were rebelling against the traditional ways of the art establishment. A few years later, he shifted his base to London. Although he frequently returned to Paris, London would be his home for the next 40 years.
Printmaking had reached its artistic zenith with Rembrandt but subsequently fell out of favor. During the mid-19th century, artists began to rediscover etching as a means of self-expression. Inasmuch as Whistler was well-versed in this medium, he was in a good position to take advantage of its revival. And indeed, his first important artistic success was a set of 12 etchings he made of genre and landscape subjects. Although not all the subjects involved to France, it is known as the “French Set.” It was followed a few years later by another set of etchings called the “Thames Set” because the subjects are scenes of docks and warehouses along the river in East London.
Perhaps reflecting the influence of Gustave Courbet, who was friends with Whistler at this time, Whistler's style was very realistic with considerable detail on these small pieces of paper. It was not the loosely drawn vague images that he produced in his mature paintings.
For much of the next decade, Whistler abandoned printmakinng. His style and ideas about art were changing, moving from realism towards an emphasis on tonal harmonies. He did not believe that art needed to reproduce reality or have a social message. Rather, he believed in art for art's sake.
In London, Whistler became a successful artist but he did not adhere to the ways of the art establishment. At the same time, he saw his work as distinct from that of other rebel artists. For example, although he was friends with Claude Monet, he declined Edgar Degas' invitation to exhibit with the Impressionists. He objected to their vibrant colors, often using an almost monochromatic pallet in his paintings.
In 1879, Whistler returned to printmaking when the Fine Art Society of London commissioned him to make 12 etchings of Venice. During his 14-month stay in Venice, Whistler made more than 50 etchings plus numerous pastels of the hidden plazas, crumbling buildings and lonely back canals. Although some of these images of the “Venice within Venice” are quite detailed, others have an economy of line and vagueness consistent with his paintings and drawings.
Whistler learned how to do lithographs in 1878. However, he all but abandoned that medium until 1887. Discovering that this medium enabled him to produce images like his drawings, Whistler made numerous sketch-like images of friends, relations and other people he encountered.
“The Gentle Art” - - the title derived from the title of Whister's book “The Gentle Art of Making Enemies” - - focuses on images of people. It includes all but one of the etchings from the French Set as well as several lithographs of his wife and her sister. The contrast between the detailed realism of the etchings of the 1850s and the loose lithograph sketches of the 1890s almost appear to be the work of two different artists.
In contrast, “Palaces of the Night” focuses on cityscapes. The artist's evolution from realism to atmospheric impressionism is reflected in these works. Like “The Gentle Art” the works are from the Fitzwilliam's collection.
The Frick's exhibition consists of 15 prints and one pastel that are part of a promised gift of 42 works by Whistler collected by Ms. Gertrude Kosevsky. They span the length of Whistler's career and thus also reflect the evolution of his style. Especially interesting are his etching “Nocturne 1879/80” and his pastel “Sunrise Venice.” Both convey the look and atmosphere of Venice with a combination of just a few lines and subtle gradations of tones.
The Frick, of course, is the home of the art collection built by Henry Clay Frick. Whistler was the only American artist collected by Mr. Frick and he collected more works by Whistler than any other artist. It is instructive to compare the works in the print exhibition with the Whistler paintings in the permanent collection to get a more complete understanding of Whistler's artistic vision.
Above: "The Gentle Art" exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum.
Above: "Fumette" (1858), an etching from the French Set.
Below: "The Red Dress, a lithograph from 1894.
Art review - Three exhibitions of prints by James McNeill Whistler