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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) as Etcher

Among history’s most inventive and influential printmakers, Whistler made nearly 500 etchings over five decades. As a gifted young draftsman, he recognized the medium’s ability to record and reproduce sketches scratched quickly into the wax coating of copper plates; as a mature artist, he immersed himself in the complexities of etching, drypoint, and controlled inking to produce striking works of astounding subtlety.

Born in Lowell, Massachusetts, the artist’s teenage years were divided between Saint Petersburg in Russia, where his father worked as a railroad engineer, and London, where he lived with his half-sister Deborah and her husband Francis Seymour Haden, a surgeon, avid etcher, and collector of Rembrandt. After his father’s death, Whistler returned to the United States and entered West Point Military Academy in 1851, studying art but failing chemistry and accumulating enough demerits to be expelled. A brief stint followed at the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey in Washington, D.C., where he felt confined drawing maps but learned to etch and doodled figures reminiscent of the French caricaturist Paul Gavarni across the top of a topographic view.

Funds advanced by a family friend, Thomas Winans, enabled the crucial move to Paris in 1855. Whistler took drawing classes, entered the studio of Charles Gleyre, and, encouraged by Haden, began to make etchings by 1857. At this date, the technique was mostly used for reproductive prints, so Whistler broke new ground as he toured Alsace-Lorraine and the Rhineland in the summer of 1858 to develop a series titled Douze eaux-forts d’après nature (Twelve Etchings from Nature, or the “French Set”). Working out-of-doors, he drew onto copper plates, then bathed the exposed metal in acid in his room to etch printable lines. A forerunner of the etching revival, this first published set includes works from the northern tour, others created in Paris, and portraits of Haden’s children. Ancient buildings and humbly dressed workers demonstrate sympathy for French Realism as espoused by Gustave Courbet, and Auguste Delâtre, a master of “artistic printing,” was enlisted to create the first twenty sets. Whistler and Delâtre then took the plates to London and worked with Haden to print fifty more, sending examples to the Paris Salon and Royal Academy exhibition in 1859.

Seeking new inspiration and broader support, Whistler crossed the Channel in 1859 and found lodgings in a wharf district below Tower Bridge. Commercial activity along the Thames, whose banks were densely lined with warehouses and wharves, inspired many etchings in the early 1860s, a selection published in 1871 as A Series of Sixteen Etchings of Scenes on the Thames (the “Thames Set”). These focus on the Pool of London—the furthest point upstream that large ships could navigate—combined with elegiac views of a quiet stretch of river near Chelsea, the artist’s home from 1863. As he maintained a realist’s devotion to the unadorned, Whistler experimented with formal arrangements inspired by Japanese woodblock prints. Imitating Hokusai and Hiroshige, he established distinct vertical and horizontal formats, defined space in startling new ways, and cropped forms with margins. He also began to wipe his inks expressively and to work in drypoint, preferring softer lines scratched directly into the copper for figures and portraits. Charles Baudelaire praised Whistler’s prints of this decade, but English critics failed to appreciate the younger man’s progressive vision and gave precedence to Haden.

The “First and Second Venice Sets,” published in the 1880s, mark a highpoint of Whistler’s creative genius, the plates etched during a fourteen-month stay in Italy, beginning in September 1879. Evocative responses to the Venetian Lagoon, shadowy palaces on small canals, misty twilight, and reflections that dance off water into dark passageways balance plane and recession, decorative line and evanescent tone. These works move beyond obvious japonisme and place Whistler at the forefront of the emerging Aesthetic movement, with its celebration of visual beauty and comparisons between art and music. London’s Fine Art Society had sponsored the Venetian trip, expecting the artist to return in three months with twelve plates ready to publish. But the journey came on the heels of a sensational and financially disastrous legal suit for slander that Whistler brought against John Ruskin in 1877, reacting to published criticism of the painting Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (Detroit Institute of Arts) that famously concluded, “I . . . never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face” (The Works of John Ruskin [London: George Allen, 1903–12], vol. 29, pp. 146–69).

Whistler won his case but received only a farthing in damages, and was forced to declare bankruptcy in May 1879. The Venetian sojourn offered a welcome respite and, as the artist lingered abroad, he made fifty etchings and a hundred pastels. Late in 1880, the Fine Art Society published Venice, a Series of Twelve Etchings, with the ink expertly manipulated in a manner that approaches monotype. Whistler also devised a distinct new presentation, trimming the paper close to the plate line with a small tab left below to contain his emblematic butterfly signature. When the gallery exhibited all the Venetian etchings in 1883 in a show called An Arrangement in White and Yellow, the artist dictated wall colors, slender frames, and arrangement, all sympathetic to Aestheticism. A Set of Twenty-six Etchings (the “Second Venice Set”) was issued in 1886 by Dowdeswell and Thibaudeau with recent English subjects included. Initially, few collectors recognized the beauty and significance of these works.

The Venetian etchings mark a midpoint in Whistler’s prolific output and overshadow much of what followed. For the rest of his life, he continued printing these plates sporadically for the Fine Art Society to complete the editions. In his later decades, he found new subjects in London, Paris, and Brussels, and along the English and Belgian coasts. A late burst of creativity came in 1889, following his summer marriage to Beatrice Philip. The couple honeymooned in the Loire Valley, then settled into a hotel in Amsterdam for two months, where Whistler responded delightedly to old buildings on quiet canals and produced a set of elegiac etchings in which patterned surfaces interlace with subtle shifts of tone. Recognizing their emerging power, the artist wrote to the director of the Fine Art Society on September 3:

“I find myself doing far finer work than any that I have hitherto produced—and the subjects appeal to me most sympathetically . . . The beauty & importance of these plates, you can only estimate from your knowledge of my care for my own reputation . . . what I have begun is of far finer quality than all that has gone before—combining minuteness of detail . . . with greater freedom and more beauty of execution than even the Venice set . . .” (Glasgow University, Correspondence of James McNeill Whistler, #08803).

Etching offered Whistler the opportunity to sketch ideas quickly, then slowly refine and develop them through multiple states, creating variations with expressive inking. His rich, nuanced production sheds detailed light on his many influences and complex aesthetic. Far from restricting his creative vision, the medium’s technical demands and monochrome palette offered essential structure. However many variations he might create, the “butterfly” artist had the ongoing satisfaction of seeing each state completed in the printing.